Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fin to Win

I was five years old when they played the all-star game in Angel Stadium. Both my parents went and were witness to the spectacle, were gifted with the story of Bo Jackson’s legendary MVP performance. At a family friend’s, I didn’t even get to watch the game. Like my left-handed hero, Chuck Finley, I was missing it; the difference being, he was in a bullpen watching what he could see of the game through a sliver of gate in right field, while I settled for Young Guns II and getting babysat.
Every game Dad did take me to, though, I always kept score in a game-day program. Back in ‘89, Angel Stadium didn’t have that fancy centerfield waterfall or, behind that, a player’s lot with ivy-woven fencing. After the games, players would have to walk what fans called “the gauntlet,” a stretch of pathway protected on either side by a tall chain-link fence. There’s still a gauntlet today, but it runs in the reverse of the original: players are first tucked into the safety of their cars and then exit the new lot on a path lined on either side by k-rails.
That All-Star year was the first season after Finley became a starter, and the same one Dad started bringing me to games more often. “Fin-to-Win,” they called him, because that was the one game, of every five, which fans thought the team might win. For almost four straight years he put up Hall of Fame numbers in the prime of his career and the golden years of my childhood. Both of us were in a magical point in our lives. Both of us walked that gauntlet to the lot after every game we were at. Both of us kept the score, me in my program, and him with his twenty-four complete games.
Could have been, I’d seen him a dozen times before—there’s no predicting who gets picked out of a crowd. I didn’t have a ball that day, or even a pen, just a rolled up program, inside out and folded backwards at the scorecard stapled to the middle, with a souvenir pencil tucked inside. Not quite the ideal setup for collecting an autograph, but perfect for trapping a piece of time, tucked away in some synapse for posterity. I slid the program through a link in the fence, calling out to Finley through the chatter of at least three dozen boys and their fathers.
“Mr. Finley, would you sign my program, please?”
At the feet of legends, I’ve learned a little respect goes a long way in this world. His head turned at my polite request, feet moved by the word please amid the catcalls. He took my program through the chain-link and signed it.
“You’re my favorite pitcher,” I said.
“Thanks.” He smiled and passed my program back.
“I’m a lefty, too.”
When I got strong enough, old enough, I’d start throwing balls over that gauntlet fence for autographs and enjoy a quick catch with a ballplayer by extension. My little brown Mizuno, or even my black SSK I still use today, are my own pieces of Cooperstown, artifacts of once-off catches with hall-of-famers, all-stars, backups, and bench players alike.
Today, there isn’t even the chatter, just a sea of bodies with hands floating red laces up toward a buoy in a ball cap. Words drown there, sucked up by the grotesque manhandling of people lusting for their next Ebay auction piece. The innocence fades from the game by decades, players and fans alike contributing to the inescapable smell of tailored suits, ink and toner on minted contracts, and business above all else. Pete Rose once said, “Playing baseball for a living is like having a license to steal.” Two generations later, Pedro Martinez saw, “the ugly face of baseball . . . is the business part of baseball.”
I still have the California Angels pencil I scored all those games with; it sits in a jar of pens and pencils on my desk, the eraser hardened with time. Somewhere, in the many remodels of my childhood room, the program and signature were lost. As an adult, when the All-Star game returned to Anaheim again, I would get to rectify that loss at the All-Star Fan Fest, where Fin-to-Win signed at an official table for all his fans.
Some things change, but the right guys, the real heroes, will always have class.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Barely Zito

Once the idyllic era of innocence passed, as it does in all things, getting autographs became a trickier process. While the number of signings and collector shows increased, aside from a brief lull coinciding with the baseball players’ strike, an underbelly formed. Shops like Craig’s would sponsor signings and inform of collector shows, but a great deal of our best autographs were the result of catching a player in transition from that magical world under the lights to the dim parking lot, black and caked with grime, lines painted not chalked. At some point, men began to realize the profit potential; they shattered the innocence.

Players still sign for kids, even today, for the most part. It gets a little more difficult when the fan is a grown man. Once men’s eyes started reflecting dollar signs back at them, players grew a little more reserved around the blank balls and pens. It seemed more pure when I was one of those children, when it was a program I scored the game in and the Angels pencil Dad bought to do it with. Sometimes, as an adult, the ball and pen are just replacement vehicles for a memory penciled somewhere in the pages of time.

Angel Stadium: the Rams still played there then, and if they didn’t they should have. Because of them, it would still be years before center-field would open to the Anaheim skyline again: the 57 freeway and a view of the brown rolling hills which all our Los Angeles suburbs nestle against. Lose or win, baseball was always fun; lose or win, I always wanted to try and meet my favorite players after the game.

I couldn’t tell you today if we won the game or not, could just as easily have been Chuck Finley or Jim Abbot pitching. What names these men had, especially JT Snow. He finished that year batting under two-fifty; must have hit a homer during that game, because from that point on, he was my favorite.

Some kids swear their dads are Superman, able to pull off amazing physical feats. Mine just had this sense about him, something that made him talk to everyone and anyone about anything and everything; he had this way of knowing how to find something out, get something done. Collecting autographs and meeting players will probably never become old hat; in fact, the desire for more only grows with each addition. Dad knew I wanted JT’s autograph, knew he should ask around about this one.

“Drives a dark blue Suburban,” the usher said. “You can’t miss it.”

We must have driven around the parking lot a half dozen times after the game, circling around like buzzards trying to pick off any remnants from the carcass after the lid dropped on the box score.

“I don’t know, son,” Dad said, “doesn’t look like we’re going to find it.”

“I know we will,” I said.

A kid’s got to believe, because, really, what else is there? Just disappointment. The big A was looming a short distance ahead, toward the edge of the parking lot, the exit just beyond that.


He must have seen it, too: the dark blue Suburban. There wasn’t another car left in the lot. It had to be.

“You remember what to say?” Dad asked.

I nodded and hopped out, program and pencil in hand.

Sometimes life’s tapestry weaves itself works of magic, giving our dreams flight; the belief becomes real. The usher Dad was talking to before, he was there; he was talking to JT, right there leaning against the opened driver’s door. Superman? Maybe Yoda could have seen something like that twelve steps ahead; maybe Dad didn’t. Belief—isn’t that what half of baseball is about? I waited patiently for their conversation to end, to be addressed.

“Mr. Snow,” I asked, “would you sign my program?”

He smiled, leaned over to take the program and pencil from my outstretched arms. His car was as huge as his muscles; neither was as big as his smile.

I told him he was my favorite player and thanked him.

A dozen years later, as a young man, I’d be standing outside the same stadium, now opened once again to a vision of the distant hills. The A’s were in town, that other team foolishly sporting our letter and in colors like bad egg salad. In my heart, the magic was still the same, and I raced with a mob of kids and men alike toward Barry Zito, ball and pen in hand.

The reality was much different. A few men and their sons scattered against a player’s only lot or a lone man and his boy seeing a player start his car quietly in the darkness, those were the orange groves our county was named after; those were the times before they were torn down to replace round fruits with an equal number of people.

I didn’t even have the time for the civility, for a dignified, “Mr. Zito,” and a requisite, “please.” No, I was treading among the sea, arms extended anonymously toward one man, one player, all holding something. He took my ball then paused, looked across the home plate entrance, a small space under an overhang, behind a patio replete with two giant red hats for gazebos.

Some kid, no older than I was that day looking for the Suburban, handed a signed bat to a man who handed him a green slip of paper. I could see the disgust in Barry’s eyes. The Cy Young on his mantle at home a testament to a life’s toil at one craft; here it was worth five bucks to a kid who could score it easier than a grown man, even one with bowed legs and waddling like me.

Barry spun my ball and signed it on the horseshoe. I’d always handed balls sweet spot out, ready for a perfect, easy signature. He’d have signed it there, too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Texas Ranger

Now, I never met this next man, but that’s part of what makes our culture so unique, all these hounds, fans, and scavengers alike. The Texas Ranger, the embodiment of the Major League gunslinger, and man with the most strikeouts, no hitters, and the world record fastest pitch was as hard to make contact with as his heater: The Ryan Express.

We call the best pitcher each year Cy Young, like he’s the reincarnation of Buddha, but that’s only because Cy was the man before Nolan Ryan. If we’re going to be realistic, there are maybe two handfuls of pitchers, if that many, who really deserve the distinction, and the rest become the latter half of Barry Zito’s career. If there was some sort of Dalai Lama of pitching, reincarnating generation to generation, then the lineage would probably look something like Cy Young, The Big Train, Feller, Gibson, Koufax, and Ryan.

When I was a little kid, like before I turned ten, sports card shops were fairly common, and in my neighborhood there was Craig’s Sports Designs. Every year from the year I was born until they went out of business, Dad bought a complete Topps box set. Once in a while, I’ll pull out the binders or boxes and look inside at the gems, like rookie cards of current and certain future Hall of Famers. Name a top player, who debuted between 1983 and 1993, I have his rookie card—guys like Gary Sheffield, Bo Jackson, Sandy Alomar, or John Smoltz to name a few. Somewhere in there, autographed memorabilia grew into a huge phenomenon; Dad and I were swept up in it, too.

We were still small potatoes in a big scene, and aside from the biggest collector show, the National, we were oblivious to the collector shows and signings that they featured. Craig was our go-to guy for all things memorabilia. Beckett price guides, binders and plastic card sheets, sorting boxes, ball cubes, and, most importantly, signing announcements and flyers. The collector boom was happening, right then, in the idyllic sunrise of my life, and the shop down the street was our in.

It was the sunrise on parenthood for my Dad, too. That day we met the Mick, it had been maybe ten years since the days my parents watched Nolan Ryan pitch, young kids dating at Angel Stadium. They’d witnessed no-hitters; they’d seen him mow down lineups, like a greens-keeper, manicuring everything around one lone spot in the distance. Now, it was Dad’s and my turn to share the magic of baseball.

“That’s a lot right now for the Joe D,” Dad said. “I’ll have to think about it, save some money.”

Craig nodded, put the Joe DiMaggio ball back up on the high shelf behind the glass counter with all the baseball and basketball cards in it.

“You know, Vicki loves Nolan,” Dad said, probably talked about them dating, too.

Craig nodded, listening, waiting for his turn in the story swap.

“So, how much for the Ryan ball?” Dad asked.

Nolan was still pitching then, hadn’t yet drawn Robin Ventura’s blood even, so his ball wasn’t worth what Joe D’s was yet. I’d only seen Nolan playing for Texas, usually from the upper deck, or on that iconic Nike poster framed and hanging on the living room wall. I did see him a final time, in 1994, when the Angels retired his number. We sat a few rows back from the third-base line that time, in the lower deck. Before we’d get around to that DiMaggio ball at Craig’s, Joe would pass on. Our dream of getting his autograph never will though, even if it’s buried under the hundreds of ink-stroked balls, cards, posters, pictures, and locker plates of other players.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The One that Started It All

I must have earlier memories than this one, because I remember so much of preschool. None are any clearer, though. We stand outside a hotel, some standard beige thing with sort of square windows together forming on each floor a grid, and wait in the longest line I’d ever seen. Of course, that’s not saying much at four years old. There were some kids, like me, standing next to their dads, but more than anything there were scores of men in front or back of us.

In the pilgrimage line, the men held different things. Some held the standard fare like bats, balls, helmets, and pictures; some held gloves, cleats, or paintings on canvas; some held little boys’ hands and maybe a spark from their long-expired youth in tow. One might have been holding the hand of a legend; soon I would be.

“Son, when I was your age,” Dad said. It was probably the first time I’d heard him say that, and back then I found that comparison of eras equivalent to time travel. “This guy was probably the biggest thing going; boy, I loved watching him play.”

I was staring at the asphalt, but I was thinking about the grass at Dodger Stadium. Maybe this guy had played there.

“He could hit the ball farther than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Dad said. “Do you know what a legend this man is?”

I just listened and pretended to understand what Dad was talking about, nodding my head. The line in front of us was getting shorter, and I could see a small table with a couple men sitting behind it, one of their faces worn to a poor state by man’s mortal enemy.

Time passed slower than when I had to sit in the pew the whole service because I’d miss Sunday school, since my parents were always late to church. The few other boys were growing more impatient than I, and at least one of their fathers had to temper his urge to spank, I’m sure.

“Remember what you say, son?” Dad asked.

“Yes sir.” We reviewed manners; Dad told me about how to talk to adults.

I’m sure he’d told me how to act around adults before, but I got the feeling Dad was initiating me into something, a new culture and world I’d explore the rest of my life. He might have also wanted me not to embarrass him. By then, one impatient kid was making a scene a ways behind us in the line. Another dropped his dad’s ball, sort of playing with it.

Dad didn’t let me hold the ball as we snaked through the line. It was probably for the best. The first time he brought home a game-used puck from seeing the Kings at the old LA Forum, I left it in the lawn after playing some makeshift game of hockey. I have few regrets in the sports memorabilia world, among them that puck probably touched by The Great One himself.

“You want to hand him the ball?” Dad asked.

“Sure,” I said. My eyes were probably half as wide as my head. I’d never seen him play, but I knew his numbers. One, two, skip a few, four ninety-nine, five hundred something homers stands out even then, at an age where your heroes wear jerseys.

“Remember to shake his hand firm; look him straight in the eye,” Dad said.

I’ve never really liked eye contact, even then, but something about the gentleness created in the combination of financial transaction and etiquette always made it seem like a fun game. Today, people marvel at my lack of awe; sometimes my friends and family wonder why I never get nervous approaching a celebrity or asking them questions.

“Always hold the ball on the laces, with your fingertips, like this,” Dad said. His hand held mine as he showed me how to put my little paw around the ball. “That keeps fingertip oils off the leather.”

We were next in line. In one hand I had a clean, white, American League baseball—things like that mattered, Dad told me, and raised the autograph’s value—in the other I held my father’s.

“He was probably the greatest player to ever live,” Dad said, before we approached the table.

Today, maybe even back then, those words get tossed around as casually as the balls we never intended for signatures. When they’re uttered by a die-hard Red Sox fan, known to have cursed Buckner only a year before, and about a man who wore pinstripes, it means the same as an entire stadium packed full of Yankee fans chanting his name.

I’d smudge an 8x10 one day; leave a card, signed by another Hall of Famer, to fade in the sun like memories of his career; and I’d even skip out on meeting my doppelganger, Dan Haren, when he was a rookie pitching for an Oakland team visiting his future home in Anaheim.

Meeting this man so early in life and getting his autograph right on the sweet spot, the same spot he’d signed with his bat barrel five hundred and thirty-six times throughout his career, freed me from a life of regretting his autograph’s absence from the collection.

“Hello, Mr. Mantle. Nice to meet you.”