Every pitcher and catcher in the Atlanta bullpen had his own personal "no trespassing" space determined by Major League service time. Obviously, the veterans were all closer to the left-field line -- because that's where Hank Aaron pulled most of his home runs.
My zone was in left-center under a Bank of America "Think of it as Money" billboard. Buzz Capra was the only reliever out there who had less big-league time than I did, so he was on my left, almost in dead center.
Al Downing threw a fastball mid-thigh away -- I think the count was 3-1 -- and Aaron hit his 715th right at me! It wasn't any great catch. In fact, if I'd just stood there it would have hit me in the forehead! I remember some fan above me had a fish net on a pole that swished by my head right after I caught the ball, and I saw Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner climbing the fence out of the corner of my eye as I took off running to give the ball back to Aaron.
I honestly have no recollection of anything until I got to home plate where a whole lot of players, coaches and miscellaneous people were surrounding Aaron, his mom, and his bodyguard, Calvin Wardlaw. I pushed my way through the crowd and as I got to Aaron, who was hugging is mother, I reached out with the ball and said, "Here it is Hammer." He took it from me and said, "Thanks, kid."
What stunned me were the tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.
In my Minor and Major League years with the Braves, I hadn't seen emotion in Aaron other than a quick smile and chuckle and/or the occasional snap of anger after a personal strikeout or a team loss. It was more of a quiet competence on and off the field, through death threats, bodyguards, media hype, cabs instead of team buses, back entrances to hotels and stadiums, as well as, bench jockeying and airplane and clubhouse camaraderie.
As I was pushed out of the way, I remember thinking this guy really cares. It was a pure baseball, mom, team, for-the-love-of-the-game moment.
In retrospect, catching the ball got me in the Hall of Fame, in a third-grade reader, in the board game Trivial Pursuit, and made me the ice-breaking answer to a trivia question at every baseball gathering I have been to since.
Catching No. 715 on April 8, 1974, was the highlight of my baseball career. It allowed me to be a part of baseball history. I would never have achieved anything like it on my own as a pitcher.
Tom House pitched for eight seasons in the Majors, going 29-23 with 33 saves and a 3.79 ERA. Since then, he's been a pitching coach, most notably working with Nolan Ryan with the Texas Rangers, a researcher on pitching and an author and motivational speaker. He most recently has co-founded The National Pitching Association, dedicated to continuing research on pitching and the sharing of that information to parents, coaches and athletes so that all can learn to pitch longer, more effectively and in better health. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.