When Josh Williams throws out the first pitch tonight at Progressive Field before the Cleveland Indians take on the Detroit Tigers, his mind will not be burdened with any advice from Crew SC teammate Justin Meram, who threw out the first pitch at a Tigers game earlier this year.
“He’s a natural,” Meram said of Williams. “He was a star in high school, so he won’t be needing my expertise.”
Williams may be in the midst of his eighth season as a professional soccer player, but baseball was actually his best sport growing up. A power-hitting shortstop for Copley High near Akron, Williams found himself recruited by not only Ohio colleges, but SEC and Big East programs as well. There was just one tiny problem. Despite being a fan of the game, Williams found it boring to play. Even at the most engaging position on the infield, there was just too much standing around for Williams’ taste.
“I need to be moving and I loved soccer,” he said.
He spurned the baseball recruiting pitches and eventually walked on as a soccer player at Cleveland State, the only college soccer program that showed him even that tiniest bit of interest. After graduating from CSU in 2010, he went undrafted in MLS, but nevertheless persevered to fill a last-second, late-season Columbus roster spot in unlikely fashion later that fall. And now, thanks to his longshot professional soccer career that has lasted eight seasons and counting, the ex-ballplayer Williams is going to find himself in a Big League clubhouse and then throwing off a Big League mound in a Big League park.
But it won’t be the first time he has stepped on the field at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
In the spring of 2006, Williams, the hard-hitting shortstop from Copley, was part of a Summit County all-star team that got to play a game at Progressive Field. It’s a story that Josh had never shared with me, but his father, Stephen, noted that his son is a humble kid, so he would be happy to brag on his behalf.
“I remember that game well,” Stephen wrote in an email. “He went 3-for-3 with two doubles, a couple RBI, and his team won.”
One of Josh’s doubles short-hopped the 19-foot wall in left field. The blast easily would have cleared the fence at his high school stadium, but playing in a Major League ballpark was a different experience.
“I had no idea how big it would be until we got out there,” Josh said. “I laid into that ball too. I was probably 40-50 pounds lighter than I am now, so I didn’t have much weight into it. It was just quick hands and I pulled it. When I hit it, I was thinking, ‘That could go out! [Laughs.] I really got into that!’ Then it short-hopped the wall. So close. It was definitely something I will never forget.”
Despite Josh’s scrawny high school physique, Stephen noted that his son had very quick hands and didn’t get cheated at the plate. As Copley’s lead-off hitter, he led the team with nine homeruns, which was also good for second in the area.
Josh said that despite his power, he was less than ideal as a leadoff hitter.
“I wasn’t really worried about the team seeing much of the pitcher,” he recalled with a laugh. “I was just up there, and if it was there on the first pitch, I was swinging. Not a typical leadoff hitter, right? You normally want to see a few pitches as the leadoff hitter, but I was up there swinging.”
Although he had a big day at the plate during his Progressive Field appearance 11 years ago, he didn’t put in a Gold Glove performance in the field. Since it was an all-star team with multiple shortstops, Williams volunteered to play third base. He only fielded one grounder, but his long throw across the diamond pulled the first baseman off the bag for a throwing error.
“Who needs defense anyway?” joked the guy who now makes his living on that side of the ball in a completely different sport.
When Crew SC Vice-President of Marketing and Communications Arica Kress called Williams and asked if he would be interested in throwing out the first pitch at an Indians game, he couldn’t believe it was even a question.
“I was like, ‘WOULD I? Are you KIDDING me?’” Williams recalled.
Another fun phone moment was when Williams called his parents, Stephen and Kathy, to tell them about his first pitch opportunity.
“After we hung up, my mom said, ‘Really? That’s something they let famous people do!’ My dad told me that the next day and I was dying. She was so excited.”
His parents, as well as many longtime friends, will be in attendance for the big pitch, which will make it even more special.
Williams was a die-hard Tribe fan from an early age. When Jose Mesa blew the save in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series and then the Tribe lost to the Florida Marlins in the 11th inning, nine-year-old Williams sat in his basement with his family and cried his eyes out.
The Tribe suffered another extra-innings Game 7 heartbreak in the 2016 World Series. This time, Williams watched from his apartment in Ontario, as he was playing for Toronto FC at the time.
“I felt like I was a million miles away from anyone who cared,” Williams said. “I had to call my dad and talk to someone I knew cared a lot. When Rajai Davis hit that [game-tying 8th inning] home run, I was screaming and running around my apartment like a maniac. Unfortunately, it was a very lonely feeling when they lost.”
2017 is a new year, and the Indians have now won 19 games in a row and currently have the best record in the American League. Now back home in Ohio, Williams holds out hope that this could finally be the year that the World Series crown returns to Cleveland, with the Tribe making the leap from runner-up to champion.
“Chicago finally got to celebrate last year, so I believe that we are next on the baseball gods’ list of teams that deserve one,” he said. “Also, this team has that special energy to them. Every win looks like it was more fun than the last. It’s contagious and makes you want to be a part of it.”
In his own small way, Williams will get to be a part of it tonight. He’s looking forward to spending a little bit of time in the clubhouse and on the field with the hottest team in baseball.
“I’m a big fan of everybody,” he said. “I think one of the things that makes that team so special is that everybody plays a role. Jose Ramirez has been unbelievable. It seems like every game that guy is doing something. Obviously, Frankie Lindor because he’s a shortstop and I love the way he plays the game. Everybody is always so happy on that team. Everyone is always in a great mood. I’m honestly looking forward to everyone. It’s a dream come true and I’m truly a fan of all of those guys.”
As for the first pitch itself, Williams has a modicum of long-ago pitching experience to fall back on.
“I pitched a little bit, but it stopped when I got to varsity,” he said. “At that age, it’s just a one or two. You throw what you think is a curveball, but mostly it was just fastballs. Throw it over the plate and let them hit it.”
He’s going to need to rely on that childhood experience of getting the ball over the plate because he hasn’t done any practicing to shake off the rust. He said that’s not ideal, but he’s still confident.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get it in there, huh? I actually told my friends I’m just going to throw it as hard as I can and see where it goes.”
Questions? Comments? With that closing quote, think Josh’s first pitch has the potential to go all Rick Vaughn? Feel free to write at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @stevesirk