(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Getting Autographs, Meeting Players

Several weeks ago on one of the many rainy weekend days we've experienced in the Mid-Atlantic region, my kids and I were walking around our local mall and noticed a sign in the sports memorabilia store that a Phillie would be showing up to sign autographs on July 8. As the kids have become staunch Phillies' fans, I promised them that I'd take them and pay the fee (it was small, as the player isn't a regular -- one of their other stores was featuring Ryan Howard at $30 a pop). Right now, my older child has three autographs, and my younger one has one.

The autograph they have in common is that of Greg Luzinski, the one-time Phillies' slugger, who operates the barbecue concession in the concourse beyond center field at Citizens Bank Park. The Bull, as he was called, sits near the stand and signs autographs for free, and about a month ago he autographed the kids' tickets. He smiled at them because they were young and wearing Phillies' t-shirts, no one else was in line, and it was a pleasant experience.

It's hard to expect what you'll experience with players -- they're human like everyone else. Some are extroverts, some are conversationalists, some are shy, some are totally introverted, some are socially awkward, and some are mistrustful. It's a mixed bag, and some are just more comfortable than others with the public.

I grew up revering Willie Mays, partly because he was my father's favorite player and partly because his numbers were great (he was at the end of his career when I started to follow the game seriously), and I had the occasion to meet him one on one when I was doing my independent work when I was in college. The meeting took place at Bally's in Atlantic City (he was working as a greeter, and Bally's arranged the meeting), and I approached the meeting with a combination of glee and apprehension. I was somewhat gleeful because I was going to meet one of the greatest players of all time. I was somewhat anxious because I didn't want to get let down. I mean, what if he were nasty? What if he were dismissive?

What I found was a tired human being who wasn't that open or helpful. Look, I was writing a thesis, and probably instead of viewing me as a kid working on a college project he viewed me as a writer, and my guess is that Mays never was that comfortable with writers. He was courteous but not warm, responsive but not talkative, not offering up more than short answers (Monte Irvin, in contrast, was just wonderful). He was another man, albeit one with great gifts, but the "Say Hey" kid who was one of the most articulate displayer of the baseball arts on the field didn't dazzle me off the field the way I had hoped he would because of the way he played. He was in his fifties, probably somewhat wistful of what was and probably figuring out what to do with the rest of his life -- that's the way it seemed. I came away disappointed to a degree, but I had measured my expectations in advance and didn't come away totally deflated.

Afterwards, a friend of mine said, "that's why you never want to meet your heroes. You'll only come away disappointed. They'll never be what you imagine them to be." He had a point.

But, retrospectively, meeting your heroes, if you're a person who's accomplished some things but doesn't necessarily give yourself credit because they don't achieve the adoration that society gives a ballplayer, can have some self-ratifying aspects to it. You can figure out that your life is pretty good if you hadn't already, you can give yourself some credit that you hadn't given yourself before, and you can realize that you really shouldn't say you want someone else's life, because in fact you have no idea what that life really is all about. That's not to say you wouldn't have wanted to be the center fielder for the New York and San Francisco Giants, but it is to say that perhaps there are aspects of that existence that you wouldn't want at all.

Such as what to do with your life after the cheering stops, after you can't play anymore.

About ten years later, my wife and I were at Miami Airport, returning from the beautiful wedding of a loyal reader of this blog. It was 1993, the Phillies were hot that season, and we were waiting to fly back to Philadelphia. That afternoon was, perhaps, my most interesting day at an airport in my life.

We were standing in line at a kiosk buying a newspaper when I pointed out an older gentleman who was wearing a suit. Somewhat Seinfeld like, I said to my wife, "Do you know who that is?"

My wife shook her head. Silly me, asking someone to identify a senior citizen in Miami Airport is like trying to find a certain fan at a home football game for the University of Nebraska.

"No, I don't," she said.

I smiled.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"That," I said to my wife, "is Joe DiMaggio."

Her eyes went big.

My wife knows a bunch about baseball, having grown up in Baltimore, having gone to the now-torn down Memorial Stadium. She can tell you about the great teams, Earl Weaver, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and the game where reliever Tippy Martinez, pitching to infielder Lenn Sakata (who caught some in high school) because one catcher was hurt and one catcher (I believe it was Rick Dempsey) got ejected, picked three consecutive batters off first in the top of the tenth to save a game during the glory years of the home team. Of course, she knew of Joe DiMaggio.

"Why don't you go get his autograph?"

I shook my head.

"No," I said. "I don't think so."

I had my reasons. A good friend from college ran autograph shows and had become close to DiMaggio. While fond of the Yankee Clipper, he had told me that DiMaggio was a complicated personality like many of the ballplayers and former players he dealt with, and that he just didn't sign for anybody. As the Yankee Clipper was getting on in years, I didn't want my one interaction with the Hall of Famer to end up having been told to buzz off.

"Let me ask him then," she offered.

My wife is cuter than I am and has a nice smile, so I figured what the heck.

"Yes," I responded with some enthusiasm, "Go, go."

So she pulled a small pad from her pocketbook (which sometimes can host about 2/3 of the items that George Costanza used to keep in his wallet on "Seinfeld") walked over to him and said, "Mr. DiMaggio, may I have your autograph?"

I was far enough away not to hear the interaction, a few passersby blocked my view, but my wife walked back to where I was standing with a smile on her face.

"Got it," she said, happy at her accomplishment and ribbing me at the same time for my reticence.

Thereupon, when we got to the gate, the ticket agents asked us if we minded being upgraded to first class because they needed our seats to accommodate a cruise ship group that had needed coach seats on the plane.

No, we didn't mind at all. The complimentary chocolate chip cookies were excellent.

Then, with the Phillies in the playoffs (this was October), we got stuck on I-95 in a traffic jam in Philadelphia on the way home from the airport, only to be mollified because the game was on the radio. The hometown nine was trailing, but Darren Daulton hit a clutch home run to put the Phillies ahead for good while we were sitting in traffic.

A great ending to a great weekend.

Okay, so fast forward to yesterday. We go to the mall and pay $10 apiece for two tickets to get the autographs of Shane Victorino, the Eckstein-like reserve outfielder for the Phillies who can hit pretty well and who can run the bases faster than just about anyone in the majors. The session was called for 11:30 to 1 p.m., and I doubted there would be a serious line because going into last night's game, the Phillies were 6-20 in their last 26 games. Victorino got their 5 minutes late, the line had about 75 people in it (which meant, probably, that the place was losing money on the venture because you would think he was getting at least $1000 for the appearance), and it moved rather quickly.

One child was nervous -- he didn't know what he would say, and the other was eager, because she would see a Phillies up close and personal. I had cautioned them about a few facts of life -- one, the autograph signing business was such that the store made money by getting as many things signed as quickly as possible -- read, there's little if any time for chit-chat. The college friend who had run the autograph shows told me that he loved having Pete Rose at a show, because a) he was very popular, b) he signed very quickly (having two one-syllable names helped), and c) he was a master of combining quick signatures with interacting positively with the fans. That said, not all players can perform at signings the way Rose did -- he is unique in many ways, and that was one. I told the kids that players are young men, sometimes they can't talk about much other than baseball, that they might be shy, and that they shouldn't expect a whole lot more than an autograph.

So, about 20 minutes later, it was our turn. The kids took with them 5x7 action photo cards of Victorino that we had purchased in a set of Phillies' cards at Citizens Bank Park for $5 a piece (these sets are a relative bargain). They stood in line, and Victorino was concentrating on signing and talking with a couple of people at the store. The kids handed him their cards, and he looked down most of the time. There was no "hi, how are ya doin'?" or anything like that. He picked up a blue Sharpie and signed both cards, and one of the store helpers at the table handed them to me.

I said, "Good luck tonight."

He said, "Thanks, I appreciate that."

And that was it.

An autograph assembly line.

Nothing less than we expected.

That's good in a way, bad in another.

Good because I had told the kids what this could be like. Bad because, well, it should have been something more. A "hey guys," or something like that, an acknowledgment of the kids, wasn't too hard to say, was it?

(Heck, if I were on a team that had won only 6 of its last 26, I'd be thanking each and every fan for coming out, but that's just me).

We checked out a few items in the store, being careful to let the cards dry so as not to smudge the signatures. Then we checked out a baseball hat store, and then it was off to the food court to McDonald's for lunch, and then home.

The kids were happy to see a Phillie in person, sort of, I think, and happy to get something to put in their plastic storage container that holds their programs and baseball cards, another memory of the national pastime.

But, I think, they realized that baseball and baseball autographs are a business, that it's hard to meet players, that they're human, and that when you do it's for a fleeting moment that gives you very little sense of them and that, as a kid, doesn't make you feel special. At least, that's what I gleaned from the experience.

More importantly, though, I think that they better appreciate the time that we spend together at the games. At the suggestion of a friend, I bought a Spalding scorebook, which I'll take to each game that we go to as a family (whether it's in Philadelphia or elsewhere, majors or minors) and record the score. He's done that with his kids, both of whom are grown, and the book is a nice memory of where they've been and what they've seen.

To us, Shane Victorino remains an exciting player who has some great days ahead of him. We'll still believe that, even though in a t-shirt and jeans signing autographs he was just another guy.

It was fun for the kids to see a ballplayer up close and in person, but perhaps it was also important to see that they're not superheroes composed of matter unknown to man.

Better yet, the home team won the game last night, and we watched the end together, all four of us.

That's probably the most important thing about baseball, when it brings families and cities together.

Those are the memories we all cherish.

My father has been dead for 20 years now, and we went to many games when I was a kid. I don't remember the details of many of them, but I remember how we used to go on Sundays, how Steve Carlton pitched a lot on Sundays, and how much fun we had going to the games.

The key thing was that I went with my dad, and it was fun, and that baseball is a refuge for me when I need to get away from it all. I look back on those times with great fondness.

If I can pass those sentiments along to my kids, I'll have done well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I just stumbled along your post, and just wanted to say thanks for writing that -- it put a smile on my face and your point is so true -- being a fan is so great because it gives you an arena to bond with others in. Great piece of writing, thanks again, and take care.

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Blogger Rob Sillito said...

Great post. I can relate with your Joe Dimaggio autograph encounter, as you just never know how they will respond (especially if you have heard they can be aloof). Willie Mays is a tough one too, even at autograph shows. Lesson learned is have the woman approach them, ha!

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