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.”