Jackson Zortman wanted to sting the Omaha Storm Chasers catcher’s hand with his fastball.
The 8-year-old had been practicing for a couple of weeks in his backyard with his older brother, Montgomery, while his usual partner, his dad, was away for military training.
As he reached the mound at Werner Park on Sunday to throw the first pitch before Omaha’s game against Round Rock, Jackson was nervous. His 10-year-old sister, Isabella, who had done it before, “told him to stay focused and throw straight.”
The blond third-grader released his pitch. It went straight, took a short hop before home plate and bounced toward the catcher.
Jackson relaxed, and the catcher removed his protective mask.
Jackson paused. Then he and his siblings ran to home plate.
The man donning a glove and Storm Chasers jersey No. 43 was Jackson’s dad, Staff Sgt. Rik Zortman with the Iowa Air National Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing out of Des Moines. He was home a few days early after 10 weeks of training in Biloxi, Miss.
Before the game, Zortman had said, “I’m hoping not to cry when I’m about to catch the ball.”
By the time his kids wrapped around him, there were tears on the field and in the stands.
“Seeing a dad down there with his kids, it’s just emotional,” said Teresa Baker of the Millard area, a former service member. Baker, who hadn’t met Zortman before Sunday, has a nephew serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
“There should always be a crowd there saying, ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re home,’ ” she said.
Zortman, of Avoca, Iowa, orchestrated the surprise with the Storm Chasers a couple of weeks ago, when he found out that his training graduation had been moved from June 11 to June 7. He knew the children, members of the Huerter Orthodontics Lil’ Chasers Club, would be at Sunday’s game, along with his wife of 13 years, Lindsay.
So Zortman, a baseball fan himself, reached out to the ballclub, and they hatched a plan.
Zortman, 39, summed up his stealthy strategy with an appropriate sports analogy: “I was trying to throw them off with a curveball.”
The team told Jackson he would toss the first pitch because he was the Lil’ Chasers “Member of the Month” — such a distinction doesn’t really exist.
Zortman returned to Iowa on Friday. He visited his parents in Sioux City and then took back roads around Avoca to reach Omaha so that he wouldn’t have a chance run-in with his wife or kids.
He posted on Facebook and Twitter about the bad weather in the South and told his family that storms in the area might make it hard to get in touch over the weekend. He repeated to his wife that she needed to take pictures of Sunday’s event so he could witness his kid’s moment on the mound.
After the jig was up Sunday, Jackson had this to say about his dad: “I really missed him.”
He missed his dad’s help with baseball and on his spelling tests at school.
In his 13 years in the Air National Guard, Zortman has been deployed to Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Qatar, for varying lengths of time.
He missed Christmases and birthdays along the way.
While he was on a 16-month assignment in Qatar from 2007 to 2008, his youngest son, Armstrong, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Five months after Zortman returned to Iowa, his son died.
Zortman’s first day of training this year in Biloxi was April 9, the three-year anniversary of Armstrong’s death.
He bought balloons and released them at the beach.
Zortman leaves this morning for three weeks of additional training in Des Moines, an hour away from his family. He’ll make it back to Avoca on weekends.
In July, he is scheduled to return to work as an assistant manager at Hy-Vee in Harlan.
Zortman isn’t sure when he’ll be deployed next.
For now, he’s enjoying the time he has.
Before the real first pitch of Sunday’s game, Jackson asked his dad, “Can you sit right next to me?”
So he did.