"The Associated Press" October 2, 2003
By Barry Wilner

NEW YORK - On a cold, blustery day at Camden Yards, the world-class athlete took the ball, walked to the mound and shuddered.

Evgeni Plushenko, who completes quadruple jumps as if they were warmup pitches, was out of his element.

"Now that was new for me," he said with a sly smile. "I never have watched this game in my life. Then I am in this huge stadium, with all this great grass around me, and the uniforms of the players - this is all so new to me. I watch hockey, soccer, tennis, but never baseball."

But, as the world figure skating champion, the Russian was invited by the Orioles to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. He was so nervous it could have been the Olympics.

"When I came out to the - how do you call it? - the mound, everyone approached me and they gave me the ball.

"I tried throwing a little bit, maybe from 5 meters, in practice, but then they tell me to go out there and it is very far to throw it. A lady had told me, `You know, it is far away, more than you are throwing it?' But she also said to just throw it hard and he (the catcher) will catch it."

Plushenko stared from the mound at the catcher behind home plate, squinted his eyes, then moved closer. And a little closer.

But his first pitch reached the plate, and he had nothing to be embarrassed about.

"I'm happy they invite me for this tradition," he said. "I want to go to more baseball games. But only in good weather."

Plushenko and many of the other top skaters begin their season Friday night at another famous U.S. sports venue, Madison Square Garden. Coming off a memorable season in which he won his second world crown, Plushenko will be favored whenever he takes the ice this year.

Also entered in the International Figure Skating Classic are top American men Michael Weiss, the three-time national champion, and Tim Goebel, the 2002 Olympics bronze medalist. But Plushenko's biggest rival, countryman Alexei Yagudin, withdrew earlier this month, a setback in his attempted comeback from a severe hip injury.

Plushenko would like to see Yagudin on the ice this season.

"Why not? When we skated before and competed, he would make a quad or a triple axel and I know I should try to jump more than him," Plushenko said. "So he pushes me and I push him to do more.

"A champion has to try to move figure skating up, take the level of skating up. I think we both have tried to do that."

That's been true of Russian men for more than a decade. Plushenko's hero, Victor Petrenko, won the 1992 gold medal at the Albertville Games, the first skater from the former Soviet Union to become Olympic champion. Since then, the winners have all been Russians: Alexei Urmanov, Ilia Kulik and Yagudin.

Plushenko, who also has been bothered by some knee and hip pain - he stopped practicing quad lutzes and salchows and quad-triple-triple combinations after worlds - hopes to be the next Russian winner at the Olympics.

"I am very proud of that and of them," he said, "and I will try to be the next one. I need this title, but it does not change your life. If I do not win the Olympics, it is not the end of the world. I can still skate. I can still be with my parents and my friends and skate for the audience.

"Olympics is the top of the titles. I have won my national championship, Europeans, worlds, other titles. I do not have this title."

Another accomplished skater with no Olympic gold, Michelle Kwan, is entered in the women's competition, along with fellow American Sasha Cohen and world championships runner-up Elena Sokolova. Kwan, winner of five world and seven national titles, has not yet entered any other events this year.



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