Tom Byelick looked for motivation to get back in shape.
The 1978 Hammond High grad received a shot in the arm during a Tuesday morning phone call from David Kerr, the Gary SouthShore RailCats' director of marketing and promotions.
Byelick is the Day 11 winner of the 12 Days of RailCats Baseball promotion. His prize is the opportunity to throw a pitch during a game during the 2019 season. Byelick had to purchase $50 worth of tickets or gift cards that can only be used at the U.S. Steel Yard to become eligible for the prize drawing.
Kerr said the idea for the overall promotion came from first-year general manager Brian Flenner.
"We've been thinking about the idea of doing a real pitch for a few years," Kerr said. "We were just waiting for the right time to do it. This idea worked seamlessly with the promotion."
The promotion caught the attention of former ESPN personality Darren Rovell, who tweeted about it to his 2 million followers Tuesday.
Byelick, 58, is no stranger to the diamond. He played for the Hammond Edison Little League's squad that advanced to the 1972 Little World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Taiwan defeated Edison 6-0 in the championship game.
Byelick said he was a part-time player on the team and batted in the tournament. He then spent time as a pitcher for the Wildcats. After returning to the game as an adult, he played baseball in his 40s in the Chicago suburbs of Bensenville and Libertyville. He currently is the public address announcer for the Hammond Lakers Baseball Club.
Byelick spoke with The Times about his baseball background and his unique opportunity.
Q: What drew you to the promotion?
A: I go to RailCats games each season. I always wanted to get back on the mound and do this one more time. I was just looking (recently) on Facebook, and I happened to see this post from the RailCats. (The pitch promotion) was the only one I wanted. I thought it would be a great experience. You really get to go out there and throw a real pitch to a batter. I seemed like it would be a cool thing to do.
Q: How did you feel about winning the promotion?
A: I'm definitely on cloud nine since I got the news. (Before being given the news), I was on my way to Omni to try to get back into shape. I needed to get motivation to get back in the best shape of my life. I was listening to the "Rocky" soundtrack during my workout. I thought about the movie "Rocky Balboa," where Rocky wasn't thinking about boxing as just an exhibition. He was serious about it, and so am I about my opportunity.
Q: Do you know when you will pitch?"
A: The team is home (from May 21 to 26), and I was told to keep a couple of dates in mind. I'd like to pick the first day. You don't know if it's going to rain on a certain night, so I don't want to lose my opportunity.
Q: Why is this experience important to you?
A: My little league coach, Peter Vargulich, passed away about two months ago. I delivered the eulogy at his funeral, and he got me thinking again about baseball. I kind of feel like I didn't give baseball my full effort, and I feel bad about that. Peter was so great as a coach that nobody else seemed to measure up. Nobody else seemed to have the same commitment, so my thoughts about baseball sort of faded away. When I played in my 40s, I would feel like a truck had run over me after I would wake up the next morning. ... I would sit in the booth (during Lakers games) at Riverside Park and think about loving to be back on the field, lacing up the shoes and trying this again. ... (With this opportunity), I just want to look halfway decent in uniform. I don't want to embarrass myself when I throw the pitch. ... My goal is that the first pitch is a strike, and I don't want the batter to hit it. I don't want to be taken out. I thought about telling the manager (Greg Tagert) to give me another pitch and see how it goes.