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.”