Leo Ullman walked onto the grass at Citi Field Thursday, taking in the spectacle before tossing a one-hopper that landed in front of Mets designated hitter Mark Vientos. More than 38,000 fans in attendance to watch the Amazins battle the Philadelphia Phillies roared in appreciation.
One of the youngest Holocaust survivors, Ullman, 83, of Sands Point, was just a toddler when the Nazis invaded his native Netherlands, forcing his Jewish parents to place him in hiding for the next 2 1/2 years. In the years since, Ullman served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Harvard, had a successful legal career, opened a private real estate company and competed in 145 triathlons.
But for a longtime Mets fan — who possessed the world's largest collection of Nolan Ryan memorabilia, valued at $1.2 million, before donating it to Stockton University in New Jersey — it's hard to match the excitement of throwing out the first pitch at Citi.
"It wasn't a perfect strike, but at least it got to the catcher," joked Ullman, who's been practicing the toss for weeks while studying videos of disastrous first pitches, learning what not to do.
After delivering the pitch, which was thrown from the grass in front of the pitcher's mound, the octogenarian was greeted by Mets manager Buck Showalter.
A fan of the team since its 1962 inception, Ullman looked the part Thursday, dressed in the Mets uniform he first donned in 1989 during a team fantasy camp — a 50th birthday present he gave to himself.
"It's very thrilling to be out there at this beautiful stadium with all the people," Ullman said as he was surrounded by his family and staff from the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, which organized the event.
Dana Arschin, the first-ever storyteller at the Glen Cove-based center, recently chronicled Ullman's story for an online documentary.
"The youngest survivors are in their mid-80s and the oldest survivors are reaching 100. And soon there'll be no more survivors left to tell their stories," said Arschin, herself the granddaughter of an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor. "It's more important now than ever that we hear these firsthand witnesses while we still have the opportunity."
Ullman's story began in 1940, after Hitler's army invaded the Netherlands. His family thought they could escape, but the ports were chaos and the border was shuttered.
"My parents decided that the only way they could survive was to go into hiding and to give me up," Ullman recalled.
He was eventually placed with the family of a retired police officer in western Amsterdam, not far from where Anne Frank was hiding. The policeman's family, part of the Nazi resistance, took care of Ullman, providing him hiding places, false identity papers and keeping him indoors for the next 796 days — a figure that would become the title for his first-person story about the war.
Ullman's parents survived the war and were reunited with their son after Amsterdam was liberated.
The family moved to the United States in 1947, settling in Port Washington, where his grandmother had purchased a home.
Ullman, who served for two decades as director of Manhattan's Anne Frank Center, educating people about the dangers of intolerance, said he's concerned about the recent rise of antisemitism.
"We have to fight hatred every way we can," Ullman said. "It's very important to not be a bystander but to confront it."