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Comedian Crystal has a blast in at-bat vs. Bucs

| Friday, March 14, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. - The most ballyhooed at-bat of spring training ended with Billy Crystal waving his bat over two speed-limit fastballs from Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm.

"We're forever linked now," Crystal told Maholm later, after the Pirates beat the New York Yankees, 5-3. "Like Joe Louis and Max Schmeling."

Well, maybe ... but this wasn't exactly a heavyweight bout.

Serendipity made Maholm the foil Thursday for a publicity stunt by Crystal and the Yankees. On the day before his 60th birthday, the comedian signed a one-day minor league contract and played against the Pirates.

Maholm found out shortly before the game that Crystal would be the designated hitter and lead off the first inning. Crystal got one at-bat and struck out on six pitches.

"I was just trying to give him some strikes to hit," Maholm said. "I was just hoping he'd put it in play. Fortunately, he was swinging, and I didn't have to walk him. It was definitely a little nerve-wracking, but it also was fun."

After the game, Maholm and Crystal were introduced in the Yankees' dugout.

"You're like 9 years old," Crystal blurted as the baby-faced Maholm sat down next to him. "I was hoping you were going to throw under-handed."

They exchanged autographed baseballs. The message on the one Maholm received said, "Thanks for a great moment." Maholm wrote, "You looked mahvelous!" on Crystal's ball.

Crystal, a longtime Yankees fan, was given permission to play in the game as a favor by owner George Steinbrenner and Major League Baseball. It was not Crystal's first athletic dream come true; he once played in an NBA summer league game with Magic Johnson and scored a basket.

"But this ... I don't know what to say," Crystal said. "It was just perfect. But I was worried that Mr. Steinbrenner was going to trade me for Jerry Seinfeld."

During pregame batting practice, an usually large -- even by Yankees standards -- gaggle of media hovered around home plate and both dugouts.

Nervously chewing a wad of gum, Crystal mingled around the batting cage. He posed for photos with Yogi Berra. He dropped one-liners about being used as the DH -- "I'm the designated Hebrew," Crystal cracked.

When the Yankee Quipper disappeared into the clubhouse, nearly all of the onlookers on the field followed. The Pirates ran through their pregame batting drills in relative peace.

Mike Mussina set down the Pirates on 11 pitches in the top of the first inning. As the Yankees jogged into their dugout, Crystal popped out to a ripple of cheers and went to the on-deck circle.

The applause grew louder when Crystal's name was announced. Comedian Robin Williams good-naturedly heckled Crystal from a box seat behind the Yankees dugout. Before stepping into the batter's box, Crystal raised his right hand in a salute.

The last thing Maholm wanted to do was walk Crystal.

"I hadn't walked a batter all spring," Maholm said. "He would've been the first."

Rather than upstage the celeb with a mix of breaking pitches, Maholm decided he would feed Crystal nothing but fastballs.

"I wasn't trying to blow it by him," Maholm said. "But I wasn't throwing lollipops in there, either."

The first pitch was a ball. Crystal jumped on Maholm's second offering and made contact. The ball snaked down the first base line, foul by about three feet.

"If it would've bounced over the bag for an extra-base hit, I definitely would've never lived that one down," Maholm said.

Maholm's next two pitches were balls, one in tight and the other high. The count went to 3-1.

"After that, I was just trying to lay it in there," Maholm. "For some reason, the ball kept cutting in."

Maholm chucked two more fastballs, and Crystal swung over them both.

"I was mad at myself for swinging at it," Crystal said. "I was hitting so well the past two days in (batting practice)."

No matter, it earned another standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 10,705.

"It would've been fun if he had put it in play and gotten to run the bases," Maholm said, grinning. "Oh well, that's just how it goes."

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez motioned for Maholm to toss him the baseball then gave it to Crystal.

"I can always say I led off for the New York Yankees," Crystal said. "That's an amazing feeling."

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