If there was a Hall of Fame for the City of Hope Celebrity Softball Game, Vince Gill would be the first inductee.
Saturday morning’s game in Nashville was the 25th annual, and Gill’s 20th appearance, all on Team Opry. “It’s job security,” the Grand Ole Opry member joked. “I don’t want to get fired from the Opry. But I don’t want to run, I don’t want to catch, I don’t want to field and I don’t want to bat. I’ll pitch. With all these young kids, they have to let an old guy in and they might as well let him pitch.”
Though JT Hodges was making his debut, Coach and Opry GM Pete Fisher placed him at the key second base position.
“I was second base in high school and I just spoke to Coach Fisher and convinced him to put me there,” Hodges told PEOPLE. “I haven’t really prepared so I’m just going to have to rely on my supreme athletic ability. And be glad we have a solid lineup on Team Opry.”
His teammates in the royal blue jerseys included Charles Esten from Nashville, Deana Carter, Chuck Wicks, veteran Phil Vassar playing through the pain with matching knee braces and Love and Theft’s Eric Gunderson.
Gunderson’s band mate Stephen Baker Liles was wearing Team iHeart green.
“This has never happened,” said Liles. “We have always played on the same team. It will be weird sitting in the opposite dugout.”
“Maybe they thought it would make the rivalry friendlier but they don’t know how competitive we are,” said Gunderson. “Stephen is pitching because anything else would require running and he’s not doing that. If I get the chance to hit against him, I’m going to try to drill the ball back at him, just to see how fast his reflexes are. I’m just that kind of friend.”
Chuck Wicks, making his 8th appearance on Team Opry, brought his mother with him.
“When we checking in someone asked her if she’d like to go down on the field and watch the press line and warm-ups and she turned into a 12-year-old she was so excited. Vince Gill walked by and she’s like ‘Oh Vince! Can I get a selfie with you?’ My mom asking for a selfie was a moment. Now she’s in the dugout drinking Gatorade and we can’t get her out.”
Mama Wicks might want to heed the advice of fourth year player Lauren Alaina.
“I’ve had pretty good years every year but last year I got injured, not on the field but in the dugout,” she confessed. “Fans were leaning over the top of our dugout asking for autographs and I was signing for them. I was walking down the bench and it ended and I didn’t know it. I fell off onto the bat rack and a bat bruised my ribs. My strategy this year is to avoid the bat rack.”
Lindsay Ell was back on Team iHeart for the second year.
“Last year, we putup a good fight but lost to Team Opry. This year is the rematch and I don’t think we’re going to let the opportunity slide by us. We’re not going to leave anything on the table.”
It was a low-scoring nail biter this year, but with the score tied at 5-5 in the bottom of the final inning, Bret Michaels came to the plate, drilled a hit through a hole in the infield and brought home Jonas Baade with the winning run.
Baade – who lives in Germany – had received a standing ovation before the game even started when he was introduced as the stem cell donor whose perfect match helped save Nashville native Stephen Bess’s life two years ago at the City of Hope.
Bess, – grandson of the late Tootsie Bess, namesake of Lower Broad honkytonk Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge – met Baade for the first time on the field of the brand new First Tennessee Park.
The big winners of the day were the patients of City of Hope, with more than $200,000 raised Saturday for cancer research.
Though Gill’s Team Opry lost for the first time in several years, he took it in stride.
“Old guys usually go from pitching to coaching, and I have experience, I’ve coached my daughter’s team. I remember vividly when she was really little after a game one of the kids turned around to me and said, ‘Who won?’ and I said ‘Who cares?’ As long as you have fun and love what you’re doing. That’s my life philosophy.”
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