OAKLAND – Not often does the professional baseball player catching the ceremonial first pitch before a game say he anticipates that pitch coming in at "terminal velocity." Not often is that pitch being "thrown" from 1,800 miles away.
Both occurred before the A's played the New York Yankees on Wednesday night, with relief pitcher Ryan Cook at the heart of the action. In what was believed to be a major-league first, the pitch was thrown by a 13-year-old boy in Kansas City, Mo., and caught at O.co Coliseum by Cook – by way of remote technology and a robotic pitching machine.
The A's had earlier in the day announced the plan for Nick LeGrande, a baseball fan and former Little Leaguer diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia. The rare blood disorder, in which a body's bone marrow produces fewer of the blood cells needed to carry oxygen and fight infections, restricts LeGrande from playing in or attending games.
Cook said he learned of Le-Grande in April through his girlfriend's sister, who works for a San Francisco advertising agency connected to Google. She passed along the idea of LeGrande delivering a first pitch remotely with the help of Google technology.
"I went right to (equipment manager Steve Vucinich) with it in the clubhouse, because we were on the road," Cook said. "We took it up the ranks."
Cook said this on Wednesday afternoon while standing a few feet from a squat white box fixed with wheels and a robotic arm. At 6:50 p.m., that machine was wheeled onto the mound while the A's played a video about Le-Grande on the scoreboards.
By that time, LeGrande had been taken to a miniature replica baseball stadium built inside the Google Fiber offices in Kansas City, near Le-Grande's home and the hospital where he receives treatment. A Google website about the venture said "real stadium sod and clay" had been used for the diamond.
The robotic pitching machine in Oakland was fitted with a camera that would stream a live view of the Coliseum backstop to LeGrande. Motion sensors in the replica stadium would pick up Le-Grande's release point when he threw a ball, triggering the machine's arm to come forward.
"Unbelievable," A's manager Bob Melvin said during his pregame media session. "Hopefully, it makes his day a good day. We're all for it. It should be interesting."
As Cook took his place behind the plate, the Coliseum video monitors cut to a live feed of LeGrande, wearing a white A's jersey and shorts, a glove on his left hand and baseball in his right. Cook addressed the Coliseum crowd over the public address system.
"We all know in this dugout what kind of fans you guys are, the best fans in baseball," he said. "So let's make Nick feel what we feel every time we take the mound. Let's get it real loud for Nick LeGrande."
Cook also urged fans to consider becoming bone marrow donors. He then crouched behind the plate as the video monitors showed LeGrande rock into a smooth windup and deliver his pitch. On cue, the machine delivered a one-hopper to Cook. A's players and coaches watching from the top step of the dugout applauded along with the crowd.
"That-a-boy, Nick," Cook said. "Pretty good arm there, bud."
Cook approached the mound and spoke directly into the camera, telling Le-Grande he would have the A's sign the ball and he hopes to arrange a visit when the team travels to Kansas City in July. LeGrande, shown kneeling before the camera on his end, appeared to lean forward and announce: "Let's play ball!"
"I was jokingly saying in the clubhouse, this thing's probably going to be coming at terminal velocity by the time it gets to me from 1,800 miles away," Cook said hours earlier. "But it's extremely meaningful to me. It's something that's going to be awesome for Nick, and something that I'll remember being a part of my whole life."