Celebrities risk reputation with first pitch

Race car drivers are superb athletes, and Brad Keselowski, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, is a superb race car driver. But in between finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 and finishing fourth in the Subway Fit Fresh 500 in Phoenix, he did something more foolhardy than trading paint at 170 mph.

He threw out a first ball.

I was at the Salt River Fields ballpark in Scottsdale the last day of February for a split-squad game between the Cincinnati Reds and the host Colorado Rockies. To promote the upcoming Phoenix race, Keselowski drove the demo version of his No. 2 car through the center-field gate, around the warning track and down the dirt along the first-base side, stopping at home plate. Then he climbed out of the driver’s side, took the ball, walked to the foot of the mound and threw a pitch to some guy in shorts while Dinger, the Rockies’ purple triceratops mascot, pretended to be the umpire.

Actually, “threw” is too powerful a word. “Tossed” is closer, but still stronger than Keselowski’s wan delivery deserved. It was as if he was channeling the father in the Volkswagen commercial. The ball sailed to the third-base side of the batter’s box. Dinger called it a ball.

Let’s call it for what it really was. A mistake. As John Fay, the Cincinnati Enquirer writer who recorded this video says, “He drives a lot better than he throws.”

Why? Why do celebrities, and especially athletes, keep risking their reputations by agreeing to throw out the first pitch at baseball games? It happens all the time.

Look, it’s one thing if Mariah Carey bounces the ball, or Justin Bieber looks like the last kid picked in gym class. But it’s always a crushing disappointment when a famous jock tries to throw a baseball from the mound to home plate and utterly flails. The YouTube list is endless: John Wall, Troy Polamalu, Carl Lewis, Bones Jones, Lavar Arrington, Kevin Garnett, Caron Butler, Warren Moon … Dirk Nowitzki at least had the excuse of being German. And he had fun doing it!

Not everybody can be Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson or Brian Jordan, who by the way was in uniform for the Rockies. But you would think that an athlete who has reached the highest level of a sport could simulate the most basic skill.

This wasn’t even Keselowski’s first first pitch: he also did the honors before a Tigers-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium three years ago and he got similar reviews. Brad, who just turned 29, is from a famous Michigan racing family, and he grew up a Tigers fan.

But apparently car racing is such an all-consuming sport that drivers don’t have time to stand in front of a mirror and mimic Jack Morris. Jeff Gordon was once accused of using the wrong hand on a first pitch at Wrigley.

There should be a baseline test to qualify for a first pitch -- if you can’t top 30 mph on a speed gun, or if you’re surprised the baseball is stuffed and not inflated, please, don’t step over the baseline.

The teams bear some responsibility, as well. Would they let someone who’s tone-deaf sing the national anthem? (Actually, yes, if it’s 1993, when the Bulls let Carl Lewis do that, too). Why not have a pitching coach on call if it’s revealed at the last minute that a celebrity shook off T-ball? Who knows, maybe one of the Rockies’ pitching coaches could have done for Keselowski what Julianne Hough did for Apolo Anton Ono and Helio Castroneves on “Dancing With The Stars.”

It’s very shallow, I know, but I do judge a man by the way he throws. I remember being devastated when I saw Bruce Springsteen pitch in the “Glory Days” music video. In “War of the Worlds,” I suspended my disbelief at giant Martian machines coming out of the ground, but not at Tom Cruise playing catch in the backyard. I’m still willing to give Charlie Sheen a break based on his excellent pitching performance in “Major League” 24 years ago.

No, it’s probably not fair of me to condemn Keselowski for what was really a sincere effort to promote an upcoming race. But I do ask him, and all of the other first-pitch celebrities whose images are based on shared standards of athleticism, to consider the implications of what they’re about to do: stand naked on the mound for all to see. If you’re going to do it, PLEASE practice.

Or do what George “The Animal” Steele did last year when the Rochester Red Wings asked the old wrestler to throw out the first pitch. Steele, who was famous for gnawing on turnbuckles, chewed on the ball until it came apart. In a way, he did what every self-respecting ballplayer does when there’s no reason to throw.

He ate it.