NEW YORK -- "Ladies and gentlemen," Bob Sheppard, the voice of big-time American sport, intoned, directing attention to the pitcher's mound where Lance Armstrong stood nervously with baseball in hand.
"A man whose determination and courage are an inspiration to all of us," Sheppard continued as if in validation, "refusing to give up his dream." The crowd rose in acknowledgment.
Sterling Hitchcock, the Yankees starting pitcher, clapped his hands and Armstrong threw the ceremonial first pitch on the fly to catcher Todd Greene. The Yankees like to share the aura of a champion, an astronaut, a hero, and it's not a one-way proposition. Armstrong clapped his own hands in appreciation of what he had done.
It had been a long time since he threw a baseball. It's not easy for a man who lives much of his life in France to keep up on baseball. He made a few tosses in front of his Manhattan hotel Wednesday and the results did not reassure him. He recalled that he once had a chance to win $1 million for the Jimmy V. Cancer Fund by getting a hole in one "and I hit the ball 10 feet, I was so nervous," he said.
He is one of the greatest bicycle racers of all time. Three times in succession, he has won the Tour de France. He was diagnosed with advanced cancer and recovered before he won his first Tour in 1999. "Our World Series," he called it. He, Yankees Manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre have a common bond of cancer. Like Torre, Armstrong said, he goes to his doctors twice a year. They say he's fine.
In Paris, he felt pride for America as he stood on the victory stand. "Win the Tour," he said, "finish in Paris, take a victory lap on the Champs-Elysees. They play your anthem. It's a really good feeling."
He is a prophet without honor in his own land. Bicycle racers laud him. His greatest advantage is in the awful climbs in the French mountains, all the more remarkable considering the illness doctors said was so severe. In Paris or Normandy or Brittany, places they take bicycle racing seriously, he is recognized in the street. "But you can't compare it to these guys," he said, nodding toward the Yankees.
Armstrong is one of the world's great athletes but he had to leave his own country and compete in some other country's sport in order to reach his goals.
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