After recently reading a wordpress blog a man wrote about meeting Mickey Mantle when he was a kid (http://freshrhetoric.com/2010/08/13/my-time-with-mickey-mantle/), I was inspired to put my own few experiences of running into ball players as a kid down. I’m 32 now and when I do see a player away from the field, it’s still fun, but not mind blowing like when I was a kid. Now I think to myself, “Cool, there’s Scott Baker.” As a nine-year old my thoughts were more like, “Oh my God! That‘s Juan Berenguer!!! That’s really him!”
The biggest chance encounter happened at the Burnsville (Minnesota) Mall with my parents at the food court. It was 1986 (I believe) and I was a skinny, blond, eight-year old Twins fan (add 24 years on to that, and things haven’t changed much). As I was eating some fast food and Coke I would never put in my stomach today, my mom pointed to one of the restaurants where a man was ordering. “Hey Jeff, look over there! It’s Mickey Hatcher.” I actually didn’t recognize the 31-year old backup outfielder. He took a table about 25 feet from ours.
While my parents and I were wondering how we could approach him for his autograph, we heard him shout, “Hey, Randy!” We looked to where he was yelling and there stood left fielder Randy Bush, also getting something to eat. Randy saw Mickey and sat with him. What are the odds that these two Minnesota Twins would run into each other at the Burnsville Mall food court and I would be there? Why my parents and I were at the Burnsville Mall, I have no idea as it’s 44 miles away from my hometown, Forest Lake. Perhaps the baseball Gods said, “We should let this baseball superfan see what a big leaguer looks like up close.”
My mom eventually led me up to their table and asked if they could sign a napkin for her son. “Oh, sure,” Randy Bush said and asked for my name. “To Jeff. Best wishes” and their signatures covered the small napkin and was pinned to my bulletin board in my room until my mother took it down when I went off to college.
The only other time I was able to get more than two seconds and a quick autograph from a big leaguer was also in 1986 at the Rosedale Mall in Roseville. Frank Viola was scheduled to be signing autographs and my mom and I went down to see him. Being the shy kid I was, my mother had to coax me into talking to the red-headed 26-year old. I had a ball my dad had caught during batting practice. As Frankie “Sweet Music” Viola was signing it, my mom said, “Did you tell him how you got that ball.” I quietly told the future Cy Young winner about getting the ball. His reply was something like, “Oh, really! Well, that’s great.” My mom then took a picture of me with the eventual 1987 World Series MVP’s hand on my shoulder. I haven’t seen that picture in many years, but if I ever do, it will be scanned and put on this blog.
I even went to a Best Buy in 1988 for Juan Berenguer’s autograph, but he seemed uninterested in his surroundings. The same went for Kent Hrbek at the Ford dealership in Forest Lake. I was one of dozens and dozens of kids to snag Kirby Puckett’s signature in my 1987 yearbook before a game along the third-base line seats. Of course, Puckett could only sign, move on, sign, move on …
It seems most athletes realize the influence they have on kids. People complain about how much money baseball players make, but I do see a lot of work for their communities and the kids. I can’t stand it when I go to spring training games and see grown men paging through their baseball card books to get autographs that will likely be sold on eBay. Getting autographs was something I grew out of and it should be saved for the kids. It’s a fun hobbie and a great way to come face-to-face with big leaguers.
The few big leaguers I did come face-to-face with as a kid had a profound effect on me. I’ll always remember Randy Bush and Mickey Hatcher for their kindness at Burnsville Mall and the same can be said for Frank Viola.
I was at a family reunion a few years back and I asked one of my cousins, who’s about 12-years old, who his favorite Milwaukee Brewer was. “Bill Hall,” he said. Of all the Brewers at the time, fans complained about Hall more than most since he was in about a three-year slump. “Why Bill Hall?” I asked. There was some event where Bill Hall came and talked to either his class or baseball team and he was really nice to the kids.
It doesn’t take much to make friends when you’re a big leaguer. A simple smile and acknowledgement of a kid will make his day and give him/her a memory that will last forever.