Accompanied by Barry Zito and Willie Mays, Marine corporal Nicholas Kimmel throws out the ceremonial first pitch
SAN FRANCISCO — Nick Kimmel has been a baseball fan his entire life, but he never could have imagined four years ago that the game he loves would play such an important role in helping him get through recent events that were both tragic and challenging.
In 2008, Kimmel decided to forego a partial scholarship offer to play baseball at Arizona State University, and instead enlisted in the Marines. Today, he’s piecing his life back together after losing both legs and an arm in an explosion while on his second tour of duty last year in Afghanistan.
Several Major League Baseball players, offering their time, resources and, most importantly, their friendship, have helped with the healing process. Giants pitcher Barry Zito is at the top of that list.
Kimmel threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night, escorted by Zito, with whom he struck up a friendship during Spring Training earlier this year. Kimmel was one of 25 wounded Marines invited to Arizona to participate in Zito’s Strikeouts for Troops Foundation event, and since then, the two have stayed in close contact as Kimmel works to move on with his life as a triple amputee.
This wasn’t the first time Kimmel had thrown out a first pitch at a baseball game, but it was the first time he walked out to the mound on his own, without needing a wheelchair for assistance. In addition to Zito, Kimmel was also escorted by Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Just before he threw a strike to Giants closer Sergio Romo, Kimmel received a long standing ovation from the sellout crowd at AT&T Park and from almost everyone in uniform in both dugouts.
“I’m just so excited for him to be going out there, and I’m just honored to be a part of it,” Zito said.
When Kimmel met Zito at Spring Training, he was only a few months removed from the Dec. 2 explosion that severed three of his limbs. Initially quiet and timid, Kimmel eventually warmed up to Zito and several other Major Leaguers recruited by the pitcher to participate in the Strikeouts For Troops spring event, including Mark Kotsay, Brad Ziegler and Jake Peavy.
“He was really down,” Zito said. “He was really quiet at first, but we established a relationship over the last eight months. Kotsay, Peavy, a lot of the other boys … we text with him. He’d send little videos on the progress of his prosthetics, to all of us, in a group text. We were all supportive.”
And they were diligent about keeping in touch.
“Growing up, [seeing] baseball players, you’re just awestruck,” Kimmel said. “They don’t even seem human. Now, they’re just my friends.”
Kimmel lives in San Diego, and thanks to the Padres — who gave him season tickets at no cost — he attended all but 10 home games. For someone who says he “grew up living baseball,” having that kind of access to his home team — he also has an open invitation to attend batting practice whenever he wants — was a treat.
Kimmel garnered a ton of attention before the game Thursday, beginning with a news conference with Commissioner Bud Selig and four World War II-era baseball veterans who served the United States: Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda and legendary broadcasters Bob Wolff and Jerry Coleman.
Kimmel, sitting in the front row next to his father, Rick, received a standing ovation in a jam-packed news conference room filled with several recognizable baseball dignitaries, including Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, retired slugger Frank Thomas, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and former Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.
All of the men on the panel extended kind words to the Purple Heart Award winner.
“I’ve had heroes in my life — Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth,” Lasorda said. “But I look at this Marine here … this is my hero.”
Said Coleman: “When I [talk] to young groups, I ask them, ‘What’s your greatest weapon?’ ‘My arm, my leg.’ ‘No, it’s your brain.’ That’s what you want to do, Nick, get that going. It’ll work for you just fine.”
As Kimmel stood on the field preparing to throw out the pitch, he felt neither anxious nor nervous. Understandably, given what he’s been through, throwing a baseball in front of 40,000 people is, really, no big deal.
“The Marine Corps kind of numbs you to this kind of stuff,” Kimmel said. “It hadn’t really hit me a little bit until I got off the plane this morning. From all the missions that I’ve been trained to do, over and over and over, I’m not saying this is monotonous to me, but the nerves aren’t really there. The stress isn’t really there.
“I’ve done so much high-stress stuff all the time, it’s kind of another day of walking into the park, really. Other than it’s a world-wide scene and it’s the World Series.”
The visit may have been just another day at the park, but it’s likely one few who witnessed in person will forget