Back in March, as I do each year, I flew to Fort Myers to spend a few days with my sister Joanie and brother-in-law, John. Among our sundry activities, John and I will check out either the Minnesota Twins camp or the Boston Red Sox camp, both located in the city for some spring training fun.
This time, John and I checked out Boston’s, officially called JetBlue Park at Fenway South. It was just the second day the complex was open, even before the established pros arrived. However, the minor leaguers were there in full force, enjoying their spring catbird seats until the big boys pulled into town.
As they were going through drills and taking batting practice, I immediately noticed something. While baseball has long been considered the most democratic of sports, a sport where players of smaller stature like Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese (5-9, 160 pounds) and Wee Willie Keeler (5-4, 140 pounds) can make their mark, these were not small young men. Almost every one of them easily was 6 feet or more and at least a couple hundred well-proportioned pounds.
One that we noted was Boston’s most prized minor leaguer. He was selected as the fourth player in the first round of last year’s Major League Baseball Draft, 19-year-old Marcello Mayer. The Sox’s possible shortstop of the future certainly looked the part as he settled in. A quick tap on my phone provided me with his dimensions, 6’3” and just a cheeseburger away from 190 pounds.
After he delivered a spray of line drives that sounded like rifle shots each time the baseball impacted the maple bat, he strolled out of the cage and immediately was surrounded by those with balls for him to autograph. While most were kids, one stood out because he was decidedly not, a man easily in his 40s.
As Mayer was signing, I looked away to continue to take in the experience that always has captivated me, baseball activity. A few minutes later, as John and I were talking to one of the aforementioned retirees working at the camp, I got a tap on the shoulder.
It was the same man that stuck out like a weed amongst the kids around Mayer. He must have been afraid that the young prospect wouldn’t sign more than one item because he had a second ball and asked if I would go get it signed for a sick brother of his.
I knew immediately as I refused his request that there was no sick brother. This was someone who was monetizing a prospect’s future, hoping that one day Mayer would be a star and he could sell those balls on eBay. After he walked away, I got to thinking about my own youth and the occasional autographs I collected. Some, I still have, each comes with a memory of my acquisition, and none of them you’ll ever see on eBay.
Actually, the autographs that have ties to my dad are the ones that leaped to mind that day at Jet Blue. One item, sadly, did not survive the poor judgment and lack of foresight of a boy far too young to appreciate the item my father brought me home from a business trip. The item was an autographed ball my father obtained from a customer of his who knew the clubhouse attendant at Crosley Field, then the home of the Cincinnati Reds.
The ball contained the autographs of the entire 1961 National League champion Reds, including the great Frank Robinson. Despite my father telling me to preserve the ball and not play with it, the pristine surface of the ball was as great a temptation to me as that shiny red apple was to Eve. I did take it outside and played with it so much that the grass stains soon overwhelmed the blue ballpoint signatures once plainly visible. To this day, it remains one of my most profound regrets.
However, there are two with ties to Dad that I did retain and are displayed on the walls in my man cave. On a trip to St. Louis, Dad dined at a restaurant the great Cardinal Hall of Famer Stan Musial co-owned. Musial happened to be there that night. The framed still-vivid color photo shows Musial kneeling in the on-deck circle, and the autograph reads, “To Jack Grindrod, Best Wishes, Stan Musial.”
The other autograph that has a connection to my father is even more special because the prized signature I acquired was from my childhood hero, Mickey Mantle. The connection to dad goes all the way back to his hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts. One of his schoolmates was future 17-year Major Leaguer Jim Hegan, a long-time Cleveland Indian catcher and the receiver of hundreds of the great Bob Feller’s slants.
By 1961, Hegan was the bullpen coach for the Yankees, and my dad felt that I should write a letter to Hegan requesting both his and Mantle’s signature. Sure enough, one wonderful day, I received on official Yankee stationery a note from Hegan. He was as humble as he was solicitous to my request, saying in the note extending warm wishes to Dad that he would sign his name at the bottom of the page so that I could keep Mickey’s at the top of the stationery all by itself. While 60 years have faded the ink a bit, the letter and Mantle’s signature are still quite legible and, of course, the memory is indelible.
Yes, I thought about autographs on that day at JetBlue this past March, both the one obtained by someone who saw only dollar signs in the signature of a possible future star and also my own, now six decades old, ones that if I tarry too long before, I’ll cry.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.