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.