The Autograph Hunter, Part 2
by Trust Billy
In this episode: A player demonstrates the amazing eye hand coordination of the professional athlete, then does something unexpected. A young baseball executive walks up to me and introduces himself.
The second in a four-part series about my experiences asking people mentioned in the book Moneyball to autograph my copy of the book. Click here to read Part 1. The complete story can be found at bentherewrotethat.com.
6. I Go 5-6 with Two HR at My Second Spring Training (But Still, No Billy Beane Sighting)
Phoenix Municipal Stadium, March 17, 2006. The A’s came on the field to warm up before the first game of the spring training package Paula gave me for Christmas. Outfielder Nick Swisher finished his pregame swings in the batter’s box and strutted toward the dugout. He stopped and waved to the 20 fans standing behind it. We stood in the stands, two feet above Nick and 10 feet away. He flashed his big grin.
I moved to the front of the fans and held the book Moneyball chest level so Nick could see it. He nodded to me and raised his right hand slightly to signal me to toss the book to him. I tossed underhanded, arcing the book over the dugout in his direction.
As I released the book, a ball flew out of the far left side of the crowd. Nick pivoted right, caught the ball, then pivoted left and caught the book. Bang, bang, like a juggler. The crowd cheered. Nick curtsied. Nick enjoyed it more than the fans. I would love to have a video of that. Professional athletes have remarkable hand-eye coordination.
Nick shouted at the bat boy. The bat boy brought him a Sharpie, and he signed the book cover. I had hit a home run.
Pictured: Nick Swisher
Nick had his grandmother's initials tattooed on his chest. He had long flowing hair, the kind of long flowing hair that a caller to a sports talk show criticized.
"Nick is letting his hair grow so that he can donate it to cancer survivors who lose their hair during chemotherapy," explained the show’s host.
"I’m sorry, I did not know that," the critic said.
Phoenix Municipal Stadium, March 18, 2006. I arrived three hours before game time. An older couple beat everyone else there. We chatted for two hours and waited for the gates to open. The couple had dozens of baseball cards to be autographed. We swapped autograph-hunting stories. They told me about a player who never signed autographs and was rude to anyone who asked. The couple normally attended Cubs games, but the Cubs did not play that day.
When the gates opened, the wife beelined to one end of the dugout and stationed herself at the head of steps leading down to the field. I joined the group behind her. Eric Chavez (page 257) came over and began signing. When a player signs, a crowd gathers.
The wife passed items from fans to Eric, then back to the fans. He signed the book on a random page. I would have picked page 257, but I had not perfected the knack of getting a selected page signed. Eric struck me as focused, business-like and reserved. Maybe that’s why there are not a lot of anecdotes about him in Moneyball or the movie based on it.
"That looks like Eric Chavez's autograph," Random Fan said, years later. Like most autographs, it’s illegible. Autograph hunters can be good at what they do.
Pictured: Eric Chavez (Notice the experienced autograph hunter passing items from fans to Eric and back. Fans have placed items on top of the dugout near her right hand. She passes them to Eric one at a time. More autographs per minute. Eric signs what someone else puts in front of him.)
The Kansas City Royals, the visiting team, arrived an hour before the game. Most early arriving visitors walk through the stadium to practice fields for batting practice. My best chance to get an autograph would be to wait along the far right field line near their expected path.
Oakland had drafted Mark Teahen (page 31) and traded him to Kansas City. Mark walked by me on his way to the practice field. "Hey, Mark!" I yelled. He turned his head, looking for someone he knew. "Could I get your autograph?" He nodded. He took his time and signed on the page I had picked out. He walked away before I remembered to take his picture.
Pictured: Mark Teahen (#24)
Pitchers warmed up in front of the right field stands on two pitching mounds with home plates. I looked for catcher Jeremy Brown (page 97) there.
A player meeting Jeremy’s description walked in front of the stands, 10 feet away. "Jeremy!" I yelled, trying to sound like a friend from Alabama. He looked at me like he heard a familiar voice. Maybe my southern accent helped. "Congratulations on your great playoff hitting!" The Texas League had named him Most Valuable Player in last season’s playoffs. He seemed surprised and pleased.
"Thanks," he said.
"Could you sign..?" I held up the book to my chest. He signed under his name, at the beginning of the chapter about him. That chapter made me laugh out loud. I identified with Jeremy. Baseball experts underrated him because he didn’t look like an athlete.
Phoenix Municipal Stadium, March 19, 2006. As soon as I entered, I went to my seat and reviewed both teams’ rosters. It took 15 minutes to decide that John Mabry (page 182) of the visiting Chicago Cubs would be my best chance of getting an autograph. He would play catch on the third-base side of the stadium before the game. The visitors wore game uniforms with names and numbers. I identified John in a scattered group of 20 players.
John had complained about his lack of playing time in the few sentences that mentioned him in the book. He had hit well but been traded midseason for not much in return.
He frowned and autographed the page I had picked out. He made an effort to be good to the fans.
He hit the ball hard that day.
Pictured: John Mabry
Paula’s Christmas gift had paid off for both of us. I got great autographs; she got great shopping.
7. I Meet a Player’s Father
Angel Stadium, Anaheim, May 1, 2006. Kirk Saarloos (page 19) walked over to the stands to greet some people he knew. While he stood there, he signed a few autographs, including my book. He left before I could get his picture, and threw a couple of balls into the upper deck.
"That is a great book," said one of the people Kirk had greeted. "I’m Kirk’s father. Kirk and I visited Billy Beane’s office last week. He has been good to us."
"My goal is to get Billy Beane’s autograph," I said. "I wanted to get every person mentioned in the book to sign it. But now I will just take what I can get."
"You could mail it to the A’s office and request Billy’s autograph. They get requests like that all the time. They would be happy to help you."
"Thanks, but I have to meet the people in person. I feel like I know them from the book. Maybe I should contact the A’s office about the picture they took on Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Everyone wrote down their email addresses but I didn’t receive it. It’s a picture of me showing Barry Zito a curveball grip."
"I guarantee you they will try to find it and send it to you." I never contacted the A’s about the picture.
"My sister and her husband live in Round Rock and watched Kirk pitch when he played for the Express."
"Kirk had a great season with the Round Rock Express: 15-1 and Player of the Year."
8. Three Good Days at Work
Los Angeles AFB, California, various times, 2006. In my fourth year of following the A's, they swept the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. I sat next to a Yankees fan at the Monday morning staff meeting. We usually talked baseball. That morning he didn’t mention baseball.
"How did the Yankees do this weekend?" I asked.
"Randy Johnson needs to develop a curveball," he exclaimed.
"How much are you paying him? $20 million? You would think for that kind of money he would not lose his focus because he didn’t get a call." No answer. "Our pitcher, Kirk Saarloos, makes the major-league minimum, $300,000. He stayed in the game longer than your big money pitcher."
The next weekend, the A's swept my boss’s favorite team, the Dodgers. When he came into the Monday morning staff meeting, I asked, "How did the Dodgers do this weekend?"
"The umpire was just tired and ready to go home! He called a strike a ball just so the winning run would score and the game would be over," he said.
"Well, it took nerve for the batter (Bobby Crosby) to take a close pitch in the bottom of the 18th inning on a full count with the bases loaded. But the A’s look for players that take close pitches," I said, aware that gloating could be career-limiting.
"Hey, Marv," I said to the office Mariners fan. "The A’s just broke the record for the most consecutive wins against a division opponent. They beat the Mariners 15 times in a row."
"Do you have to rub it in?" he asked. I quit gloating.
9. Appreciated In Oakland (But Not by Billy Beane)
Fan Fest, Oakland Coliseum, January 27, 2007. I took a two-hour flight to Oakland for the Oakland A’s Fan Fest. A shuttle from the airport to the Coliseum took eight minutes.
I doubted I would get any autographs; the autograph tickets had sold out online in minutes.
A brochure listed the day's events. My only chance to get an autograph would be at "Baseball 101." David Forst (page 139) would be featured with the new manager and a pitching prospect. I walked around the stadium twice, asking people for directions.
Finally, I snaked through a narrow corridor into a large open room. Four people sat on stools facing 50 empty folding chairs. It was just them and me. Nobody else was there.
A 30-year-old man walked toward me, extended his hand and said, "Hi, I’m David Forst. Since you are the only person here, it looks like you will have to ask all the questions."
"It might be a short Q and A, but I’ll try. Can I get your autograph?"
"Sure." I pulled the book out of my backpack. "I have been trying to forget about that book. Are you going to get Billy Beane to sign every page he is on?" (The book mentions David one time. It mentions Billy an uncountable number of times.)
"No, just the page where he threw the chair through the wall."
My index worked and David signed the page that mentions him. Sandy Alderson’s son took a picture of me, David, and prospect Jason Windsor. (The book mentions Sandy Alderson.)
"I wish more people were here," David said.
"This room is hard to find," I said. "I had to ask directions three times to get here."
David walked back to the entrance and asked an employee to go out to the main corridor and invite fans to the event. The room filled in 10 minutes. I asked two questions and mentioned my favorite blog, Athletics Nation.
"That blog has some very knowledgeable fans," David said.
David made my trip a success. But it got better.
Baseball 101 ended. Since I sat in the front row, I would be one of the last to leave. The narrow corridor at the rear of the room created an irritating bottleneck. Twenty people milled around, blocking me. Why didn’t they keep moving?
Because Joe Blanton (page 114) sat at a table and signed autographs on one side of the corridor. A local health organization had hired him to attract attention to their booth. Working my way through the crowd a few inches at a time, I put the book in front of him, open to page 114. Joe signed like he signed all the other autographs.
Popular players Milton Bradley and Rich Harden signed and posed for pictures at another booth. I passed. The book did not mention them. If I stopped to get an unrelated autograph, I might miss an opportunity to get a related autograph.
I looked at every face in the crowd. Maybe Billy Beane would be walking back to his office. I kept looking even when I realized I would get no more autographs that day.
You have to be ready at all times. You never know what will happen. At one point, I found myself standing at the urinal next to the new A’s hitting coach. Nice guy. We talked about the A’s prospects for the coming season.
I had two more autographs than I dreamed I would get.
My cousin picked me up after the event and we stopped for a beer before he took me to the airport. I went home an excited, happy man.
This ends Part 2 of 4. Next up, in Part 3 of the series, an autograph target asks me if I brought him a pretzel and reveals an inaccuracy.