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Today in Sports History: April 17th

Kiteman slides off the chute on Opening Day at the Vet.
Kiteman slides off the chute on Opening Day at the Vet.

4/17/1972 - Kiteman flops at the Vet

In 1971, the Philadelphia Phillies ringed in the new season by having their backup catcher catch a ball thrown from a helicopter. In 1972, in an ambitious attempt to outdo themselves, the Phillies booked a man who skydived off cliffs with a kite on his back to deliver the first pitch at Veterans Stadium. But the players went on strike and delayed the start of the season by a full week. "Kiteman," as the Phillies had advertised him as, had prior arrangements when the season began and was unable to deliver the pitch on opening day.

Desperate for someone to fill his place, the team hired Richard Johnson -- a hardware store owner who occasionally flew kites in shows -- to be the new Kiteman.

And so it was on opening day that Kiteman stood atop the center field stands, more than 38,000 people watching anxiously. The plan was for Johnson to hop on the giant 140-foot ramp that had been set up, ski down it, become airborn, and deliver the ceremonial game ball to Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, who was waiting at home plate. But as Johnson surveyed the scene, which had become complicated with a surge of wind, he started to have second doubts.

The P.A. announcer announced Kiteman several times, but the man simply stood at the top of the ramp, absolutely petrified. The Phillies fans started to boo. Finally, coaxed by the now dissatisfied crowd, he slowly began his descent. Johnson made it halfway down the upper deck when a gust of wind blew him off the chute and into the seats, where tumbled for several rows before he reached the railing. Kiteman was unharmed, though the Phillies fans hardly cared about his safety. They were now booing louder than ever.

Johnson untangled himself from the kite outfit and stood at the foot of the 600 level, the game ball still in his hand. Feeling the need to fulfill his obligation, he attempted to hurl the ball to home plate. Instead, he threw it into the Phillies' bullpen -- 400 feet from the diamond. Again, the fans booed.

Team chairman Bill Giles, who later remarked that "a dead body is not a good omen for the start of a baseball season," was relieved that Johnson hadn't died. However, he wasn't nearly as receptive when he was asked about it after the game. "He never even practiced," Giles said of the performer. "He had the opportunity for a test run the day before in an empty stadium. But he said, 'If I'm going to kill myself, I want more people to witness it.'"

The Phillies, not deterred by the fiasco of 1972, attempted the stunt multiple times in later years, with similar results. It wasn't until 1990, according to the book Veterans Stadium: Field of Memories, that Pete Bonifay -- the fourth man to don the Kiteman moniker -- actually delivered the ball from the bleachers to home plate. He repeated the stunt in 1995, 1999 and 2003.

4/17/1987 - Bill Murray fills in for Harry Caray

In February 1987, Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray suffered a stroke that kept him from calling games for a whole month. With no backup available, WGN filled Caray's spot with Chicago personalities George Wendt, Jim Belushi, and Tom Bosley, columnists Mike Royko and George Will, and veteran commentators Pat Summerall and Brent Musberger, while color commentator Steve Stone made the temporary transition to play-by-play man.

The most notable celebrity to sub for Caray was Saturday Night Live alumnus Bill Murray, who called a game that was teeming with comedy gold before a pitch was even thrown. The umpires had somehow lost their uniforms at the airport, causing a lengthy delay to begin the game. Eventually, the umps came out wearing Chicago Cubs t-shirts and pants -- a site that was made all the more humorous by Murray's commentary.

"I caught every one of the Cubs broadcasts since the season started, and they're all doing an excellent job," Caray told the Wilmington Morning Star in May, "but I thought Murray was the funniest."

4/17/2001 - Bonds hits his 500th home run

In the eighth inning of a game in San Francisco, Barry Bonds slaps a pitch from Dodgers receiver Terry Adams over the right field wall and into McCovey Cove. For Bonds, it was the 500th home run of his career, and the sixth he had hit since the start of the season. Bonds would hit another 67 homers that year, finishing with a record 73 and winning the MVP award almost unanimously.

Because Bonds eventually became the home run king, and because his record-setting 2001 campaign happened in the same year he hit No. 500, replays of his 500th homer were shown repeatedly on sports highlight shows. In fact, because of how frequently it was aired as a part of his memorable-home-runs montage, Bonds' eighth inning dinger off Terry Adams might be the most relevant 500th home run of all time.

4/17/2007 - Nats wear Virginia Tech caps

A day after the Virginia Tech Massacre, in which a Virginia Tech student killed more than 30 fellow classmates in the deadliest school shooting to occur inside the United States, the Washington Nationals payed their respects. In an email to Nationals president Stan Kasten, a fan named Dave Lanham suggested that the Nats wear Virginia Tech caps to show their support.

"I read it, and I thought it was really nice," Kasten said. "I thanked [Lanham] and I sent it to the staff. The staff jumped on it in a flash. Finding those hats was a bit of a problem, but they did it. It's the very least we could do on short notice."

After getting permission from the commissioner's office, the Nats placed a team-sized order for Virginia Tech baseball caps at a local retail store. There was a rush to get the hats to RFK Stadium, as Kasten had only seen the email 90 minutes before the start of their game with the Altanta Braves. The caps made it in time for the Nats to put them on in the second inning.

"It's special to wear the hats, especially for me," said Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who had gone to the University of Virginia. "It was always the school you wanted to beat, but the tragedy shows you how little sports actually means in the big circle. Life is so much more. It makes you realize how lucky we have it and not take any days for granted."

"It's very cool," said Paul Schneider, the department manager who delivered the hats to the ballpark. "It was a real tragedy that happened yesterday, a really awful thing to see on the TV. This is an excellent tribute, very timely and it's very cool to see them with the hats on."

At least one hat made its way to the Hall of Fame while the others were autographed and donated to Virginia Tech.

 (Zimmerman and Dunn, shown on TV with misspelled uniforms. Screengrab courtesy of D.C. Sports Blog/Comcast Sports Net)

4/17/2009 - Washington wears "Natinals" jerseys

Two years after wearing Virginia Tech caps, for which they were universally praised, several Washington Nationals players wore misspelled jerseys, garnering them universal ridicule.

In a game against the Florida Marlins, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn wore uniforms missing the 'o' in the team's scripture, thus making it read "Natinals." It was a humiliating moment for the D.C. ball team, who were one year removed from a 102-loss season. The fact that it was not one, but two people who wore the uniforms, and that those two players happened to be the Nats' best batters made it all the more embarrassing.

Had the team been at all competitive, the incident may have been forgotten as a one-time miscue. But because the Nationals, since moving from Montreal, had been one of the most dysfunctional teams in all of sports, the faux pas wound up sticking with them, since not being able to spell their own name summed up beautifully how terrible they were.

 (Gary Sheffield celebrates his first home run in Mets uniform -- the 500th of his career. Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

4/17/2009 - Sheffield slams No. 500

With a seventh inning blast off Mitch Stetter of the Milwaukee Brewers, Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield collects the 500th home run of his career, becoming the 25th player to achieve the milestone. Sheffield, who began his career as a shortstop, hit his 500th home run as a pinch-hitter, which was a first, and did it having played for eight different teams, which was the most by anyone to join the 500-club. Sheffield nonetheless received a rousing ovation from the fans at Shea Stadium, even though it was only the sixth game he had played in a Mets uniform.

"I never thought it was going to happen like this," Sheffield said afterward. "That was a great reception (by the fans). When they asked me to come out (for a curtain call), I don't even really know what I was feeling. I was just so numb at that time. I think it just relaxed me just to get it out of the way and do it in front of our home fans."

Of the paths taken to reach the 500 mark, Sheffield's was by far the least glamorous. After a terrible 2008 season with the Detroit Tigers, in which he batted .225 and belted only 19 homers, Sheffield came into 2009 stuck at 499 home runs. But he batted a disastrous .179 in spring training, and the Tigers -- feeling he was past his prime -- bought out the remaining two years and $28 million on his contract, leaving him in no man's land. The Mets picked him up shortly thereafter and, in part to injuries to many of their outfielders, wound up using him in 100 games.

2009 was Sheffield's last season in the major leagues. He finished with 509 home runs.

Also on this day:

1957: The NBA grants the Pistons permission to move from Fort Wayne to Detroit. [See: February 14th]

Further reading: