First Pitches And Dropped Pucks
Olympians drop the ceremonial first puck at the Boston Bruins' game on March 3, 2014.
Boston Red Sox
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Matt Antoine, a first-time Olympian in skeleton at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, had a dream. Actually, he had two of them.
Win a medal.
Throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game.
Imagine his delight after winning the bronze medal in men’s skeleton in Sochi.
“One of the first things I said after medaling is I hope I get to throw out a first pitch at the Brewers, because it’s always been a little bit of a hope and dream of mine,” said Antoine, who is from Prairie du Chien, Wis. “A few days after I got back from Sochi, there was a message on my mom’s answering machine, and it was the Brewers looking for me.”
On March 31 at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Antoine’s second dream was realized. Wearing a custom-made Brewers jersey with his name on the back, he threw out the first pitch before the Brewers’ Opening Day win over the Atlanta Braves. And he wasn’t alone. Jessie Vetter and Brianna Decker, both Olympic silver medalists as members of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team, also threw out first pitches as the Brewers crowd cheered.
“It was low and slow,” Antoine said of his pitch. “But it made it to the catcher without it touching the ground.”
More than 1,000 miles to the south, two-time Paralympic sled hockey gold medalist Taylor Lipsett was hearing a familiar, heart-warming cheer. As he made his way to center ice one night at American Airlines Center in Dallas, “USA, USA, USA!” chants from a sellout crowd echoed around the building.
“It was just awesome to have all the fans there cheering,” Lipsett said of the ceremony honoring him prior to a Dallas Stars NHL game. “It was a pretty cool experience, for sure.”
Lipsett, Antoine, Vetter and Decker are among a large group of 2014 Olympians and Paralympians whose homecomings following Sochi have included recognition ceremonies at professional sports events.
Some of the ceremonies have come one at a time, and some of them in star-studded groupings.
Before the Boston Red Sox’s game against the Texas Rangers on April 7 at Fenway Park, five Olympians threw out ceremonial first pitches at the same time: bobsled bronze medalist Steve Langton, snowboarding bronze medalist Alex Deibold, figure skating bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, and freestyle skiing bronze medalist Hannah Kearney.
"It was absolutely incredible. We're all big Red Sox fans. I've been a fan of the Sox since I was a kid," said Shnapir, who grew up in Sudbury, Mass., a western suburb of Boston, and trains with Castelli in Brighton. "To be able to be honored in that way, just arriving at this stadium at the park at Fenway. We all got Red Sox jerseys with our last name on the back and the number 14, for the 2014 Olympics. That was kind of neat."
When they were brought onto the historic field before the game, the camera phones came out quickly.
"That was really kind of a surreal experience," Shnapir said. "We were all taking selfies with our medals and the green monster behind us. So many fans in the seats were clapping and cheering us on and wanted pictures and just to shake our hand. That was special to have that."
|Sled hockey gold medalist Taylor Lipsett throws out the
ceremonial first pitch for the Texas Rangers on April 18, 2014.
|Olympic medalists (L-R) Jessie Vetter, Matt Antoine and Brianna
Decker pose for a photo before throwing out the first pitch for the Milwaukee Brewers on March 31, 2014.
|Olympic medalists (L-R) Simon Shnapir, Marissa Castelli, Steve
Langton, Alex Deibold and Hannah Kearney threw out the
ceremonial first pitch for the Boston Red Sox on April 7, 2014.
And then it was time for all five Olympians to throw out the ceremonial pitches at the same time.
"I was a little nervous, to be honest," said Shnapir, who also participated in a ceremonial first puck drop in March with several other Olympians at a Boston Bruins game. "I wanted to make sure I threw a good pitch. I think we all felt that way. We all did a really good job with that.
"It was cool. It was so cool. It's hard to describe that feeling."
The Olympic and Paralympic celebrations have gone nationwide.
Aja Evans, a bronze medalist in women’s bobsled, threw out the first pitch at the opening game for the Chicago White Sox. Nick Goepper, a bronze medalist in slopestyle skiing, threw out a first pitch for the Cincinnati Reds. Women’s hockey silver medalists like Kacey Bellamy and Meghan Duggan were among a group honored by the Boston Bruins, and they will also throw out a first pitch prior to the Red Sox vs. Yankees game on April 24 at Fenway Park.
Lipsett’s sled hockey teammates have been all over the place. Three-time Paralympian Steve Cash and two-time Paralympic teammate Josh Pauls dropped the first puck March 27 at a St. Louis Blues game. Declan Farmer, a first-time Paralympic sled hockey player in 2014, was honored at a Tampa Bay Lightning game. Brody Roybal, a sled hockey gold medalist from Northlake, Ill., will throw out a first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game on May 7.
Honoring the Olympians and Paralympians is something that many pro sports teams have approached enthusiastically.
“The White Sox regularly honor the men and women who represent our country in the Olympic Games,” said Brooks Boyer, White Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Allowing them to throw a ceremonial first pitch is a small gesture showing them how proud we are of their accomplishments.”
For the Olympians, it is a special feeling.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Antoine, a native of Wisconsin who is a big Brewers fan. “You get into the ballpark and there’s tons of people in there and everyone is clapping and cheering for you, just kind of congratulating us on our accomplishments. It’s a huge honor just to see the (baseball) players themselves recognizing our accomplishments. Quite a few of them came up to us while we were out on the field and shook our hands.”
“For the general public to be so supportive, to acknowledge our success, has been amazing,” Lipsett said. “I know just from speaking to all the guys that everyone has really enjoyed it.”
|Sled hockey gold medalists Josh Pauls (center) and Steve Cash
(far right) shake hands with Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild
and David Backes of the St. Louis Blues before dropping the
ceremonial first puck for the Blues on March 27, 2014.
Like Bellamy and Duggan in Boston, Lipsett pulled double duty. After being honored at a Stars game, he also threw out the first pitch at a recent Texas Rangers game.
“It’s been really amazing after Sochi,” Lipsett said. “Winning any gold medal is an amazing experience. It was really cool in 2010, being my first gold medal, the way we won it and everything was really special.
“But this time around the media exposure for the Paralympics was so much greater than it had ever been. Social media exposure. The media all around. There was way more attention being paid to the Paralympics on a national level.”
Lipsett, who won his first Paralympic medal in sled hockey at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games, lives in Plano, a Dallas suburb, and participates in the Dallas Stars Foundation with Stars player Tyler Seguin. The organization invites disabled individuals and their families to Stars games, where they meet Seguin and other players for photos and autographs after home games.
“It’s been an amazing experience this season to get to see all the kids and all the people’s faces reacting,” Lipsett said.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.