“Gimme’ a ball!” Over and over again that cry, wail, plea and demand spewed forth from the mouths of children camped right next to the photo bays that adjoin the dugouts at Oklahoma City’s Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark last week during the Big 12 Baseball Championship. Those obsessive cries were beyond annoying.
Please understand there is something very charming when a player tosses or hands a ball to a young fan. That simple act of giving should be accepted as the spreading of goodwill for the game. Instead, it quickly deteriorates into begging from every kid that did not get a ball. Constant begging. I do not want to make this into a diatribe over the degeneration of American youth, but the begging does seem to destroy the very real human wonder of the game of baseball. If that problem parallels real life, so be it.
There once was a day when to get a ball, it had to be earned. That meant camping out along the right or left field lines at Kansas City’s old Municipal Stadium waiting for foul balls hit during batting practice. It also meant running and jostling in a pack of ball-hungry kids battling for a real prize. Sliding under the straining arms was always a good plan, but most of all a grip of steel won the day. Each and every ball signified a triumph.
At popular local fast pitch softball games in Topeka, bringing a foul ball back meant a piece of candy or bubble gum from the “candyman.” The huge man sitting on the front row by the backstop was never known by any other name. He was just the “candyman” before that name took on an entire new meaning as a teenager.
Of course nabbing those foul balls meant torn jeans, shredded knees, scraped elbows and a filth that often meant a garden hose shower before ever making it inside the house. No wonder cutoffs came into vogue in the 60’s. How else could parents get any real wear out of jeans scarred with torn and battered knees.
Sadly, today it is easier to just stand, beg and whine. Shooting from a high angle during KU’s game against Oklahoma State, I noticed an older gentleman seated all alone in an upper deck section. A foul ball landed a few rows away. The man picked up the ball and began to walk back to his seat. He held up the ball and waved it to someone sitting along the right field line just as a boy arrived with his mother in tow. The boy held out his hands wanting the ball, as though it is a given now that kids get the balls. The man sympathetically explained that he had a grandson sitting below with his parents. The ball was going to stay in the family.
The mother began to walk the boy away as he burst into tears. He continued to cry as he returned to his seat. Finally, the man could take no more. He walked the ball over to the boy and gave it up. I thought about my grandson, now too young to really appreciate a ball, but the time will come.
Hopefully, Jake will never act the way a boy did during Sunday’s championship game. Out of that horde of screaming kids near the photo bay, one in particular was ceaseless in his screaming. As the game wore on he began to scream constantly in a piercing whine that he wanted a ball given to him even while the teams battled on the field. A man seated a few rows back from the din finally blurted out, “Will someone give that kid a ball so he will shut up.”
An inning later a ball thrown in from the outfield during half-inning warmup tosses flew into the photo bay. Picking it up, I was ready to throw it back to the player, but he tilted his head to the crowd signaling me to give it up. I knew exactly what he wanted. I walked over to the droning boy, handed him the ball and told him “you’ve got your ball. Now sit down and be quiet.” Older fans in the section began to cheer in thanks.
Laura made a superb photograph of KU catcher Ka’iana Eldredge signing autographs before a KU game in OKC. The look of awe on the face of one of the boys is wonderful. That is not seen often at the collegiate level, autographs are not as important as getting free baseballs. However, that changes at the Major League level, which leads me to my quest for the only autograph that ever mattered to me.
When the New York Yankees came to Kansas City to play the Kansas City A’s in the late 50’s and early 60’s, they stayed at the historic Muehlebach Hotel. Many players would kill time sitting in the richly decorated lobby. This discovery came while my family stayed at the same hotel during a Yankees series we were attending. My parents set the ground rules for me and my sister. We must use “please” and “thank you” and always address them by their last name with Mister added at the start. If they did not want to sign, we were to thank them and walk away without complaint.
The ball full of Yankee greats’ autographs is priceless to me because one of those signatures happens to be from Mickey Mantle. Ford, Howard, Boyer and other Yankee stars are there on the ball I grabbed the night before during batting practice. However, one of the biggest names is missing, Yogi Berra. A cousin of mine has that one, but to get it he had to get his mother to yell endlessly at Berra and hold up the ball as the players sat on the bus heading for the ballpark. Oh, how I wanted Berra’s autograph. My older cousin waved his ball in my face, but I remember thinking even then that his mother got the autograph, not him. I could live without the Berra signature on my ball.
Thinking back, I might not have been any different from the kids in Oklahoma City when I bothered players sitting in a hotel lobby. That realization came to me over the years and my interest in autographs faded, save for one from Hank Aaron. Even my friend, George Brett, was never asked to autograph a ball for me.
My hope is such a realization comes to some of those boys at the Big 12 games last week. Tragically, the begging is likely to continue instead. I just need to remember to bring ear plugs with me next year.