Stars and Ceremonial First Balls at PPBA Opening Day Ceremonies
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
In years past this Saturday would have been the time for local kids and their families to gather at the Palisades Recreation Center for one of the community’s most fun annual traditions: the Pancake Breakfast to signify the start of the Pacific Palisades Baseball Association season.
A voice from the 1989 baseball movie “Field of Dreams” whispers “If you build it, he will come” and for decades now many famous athletes, movie stars and public figures have come to the Palisades’ own Field of Dreams to toss the ceremonial first pitch to highlight Opening Day festivities.
Last year’s Pancake Breakfast was called off days before because of the coronavirus outbreak and the 2020 PPBA season was subsequently canceled. Though Opening Day ceremonies will be suspended again this year, the 2021 season will begin a little later than normal, there will be youth baseball at the park this spring thanks to the tireless efforts of PPBA board members, coaches and maintenance staff. The local Pony League has been instructing youth from Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Santa Monica since 1954 and when Bob Benton took over as PPBA Commissioner over 30 years ago one of his goals was to attract a who’s who of talent in sports, entertainment and local government to start the season off right—most of the people being Palisadians themselves. Here is a look back at some of the notable names to do the honors in the new millenium:
2019 Antonio Gates
The Los Angeles Chargers tight end who made a career of catching the ball received a standing ovation from a jam packed crowd at the park on Alma Real Drive for his strike over the heart of the plate to officially begin the 2019 season. LA City Councilmember Mike Bonin showed up bright and early to make pancakes.
Gates, a 16-year NFL veteran who would announce his retirement the following January, made the Pro Bowl eight times and was a five-time All-Pro. Gates caught 955 passes for 11,841 yards, is seventh in career touchdown receptions with 116 (most by a tight end in league history) and is likely to end up in the Hall of Fame.
“Our generation, you did everything growing up—baseball, basketball, track, football, whatever was in season,” Gates said. “Staying inside was boring to me. Everything now is about the look and the brand. Back then it was more about comfort and support. Kids now are into so many things and I enjoy talking to them about sports because it’s been such a big part of my life.”
2015 Bill Hader
Best known for his work on “Saturday Night Live” and in the movie “Tropic Thunder,” the comedian lobbed a sinker and joked: “I purposely haven’t been practicing my pitching so you can see how awful I am at throwing.”
2017 Keanu Reeves
“The Matrix” star showed up with a beard, a glove and a cap for his moment in the sun. The actor played goalie for his high school hockey team in Canada and said of baseball: “The catching, the throwing, the opportunity to make the play and the gamesmanship… it’s a great sport. To the kids, have fun, be safe, play hard and fair!”
The then 52-year-old actor and renaissance man delivered a strike to Mustang Cardinals player Kate St. John.
2008 Tom Hanks
Oscar winner Tom Hanks threw to his son Truman, shouting “Let that be the first of many great pitches!” as he pumped his fist, danced a jig and soaked in cheers. If he hadn’t chosen acting, a career path that led him to the Palisades over 30 years ago with his wife, actress Rita Wilson, Hanks might have found fame as a manager like Jimmy Dugan, whom he portrayed in the movie “A League of Their Own.” Hanks said he didn’t need to warm up because: “I’ve been throwing stuff at kids for a long time.”
2016 Luc Robitaille
The Los Angeles Kings Hall-of-Famer, whose No. 20 jersey hangs in the rafters at Staples Center, was serenaded with “Luuuc” by the Rec Center crowd as fand did during his pro career in which he notched 1,000 points after being drafted in the ninth round.
“Most of you probably don’t know that I was a baseball player too—pitcher and a shortstop,” said Robitaille, who retired as the highest scoring left winger in NHL history. “My advice to all the kids is to have fun and cherish the friends that you make here because they’ll stick with you the rest of your lives. Parents, remember that it’s just a game.” Serving as President of Business Operations for the Kings, Robitaille was no stranger to the Palisades thanks to his friend and local resident Joe Cohen, a pioneer in sports television and arena development.
2011 Dirk Robinson
Luckily, the big secret didn’t get out for the day marked the 60th year of the Pancake Breakfast. First pitch duties were kept hush-hush until Bob Benton summoned longtime umpire Dirk Robinson to take the ball. Even Robinson did not know. He had only expected to take a moment to thank everyone in the community for their support following his diabetes attack the summer before, when $8,000 was raised in an hour and Palisadian Dr. Richard Johnson was enlisted to help treat him. After showing a big ‘Get Well Dirk’ poster and a note from PPBA players he received while in the hospital, Robinson got the chance to express his appreciation.
“You kids gave me the strength to do what I needed to do to get back here,” he said. “I’m truly blessed. Thank you for making me feel like family.”
Benton said: ‘There were a few teary cheeks. We’ve had some neat people throw the first pitch, but this was a first for us. It’s probably the most touching opening ceremony I’ve ever been a part of.”
2009 Richard Reardon
Upon being introduced as honorary “first pitcher,” former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, also owner of Village Pantry on Swarthmore, asked “What’s the name of the greatest community in the world?” before beginning the PPBA’s 55th season. That year Village Pantry sponsored the Pinto Red Sox and Riordan gave the team a pep talk before its game against the Orioles, jokingly telling the players: “Winning is not everything, it’s the only thing.”
2018 Billy Crystal
Cubs Hall of Fame infielder Ernie Banks used to say “Hey, let’s play two!” The theme this time was “Let’s pitch two!” Co-honorary mayors Janice Goldfinger and Billy Crystal thre the first pitches.
“We’ve been here 39 years and what makes the Palisades great is the fact that you cheered umpires this morning… that never happens anyplace,” Crystal said. “From the time my father rolled the ball to me and I rolled it back I’ve loved this game. I’ve played it since I was a kid.”
2007 Wes Parker
The former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman threw to California First Lady Maria Shriver, who was captain of her high school softball team. “Dad took me with him all the time,” she said. “He taught me how to keep score and once I got to go to the locker room where I saw Jim Palmer in his underwear–one of the great highlights of my life.”
Parker wore his No. 28 jersey and blue Dodgers cap. “The last time I was here was 1954 so this is the first time I’ve seen these new fields and this place is spectacular,” he beamed. “You kids won’t have to worry about a lot of bad hops.”
That summer, Parker, who retired in 1973, was voted to the all-time Rawlings Gold Glove team as one of MLB’s best nine fielders of the last 50 years.
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