We hadn't been able to get tickets to the Boston Red Sox game at all, but we had managed bleacher seats to see the Reds play the Yankees. I'm not so much impressed with the Yankees, but I have to admit: this was exciting.
The day before, we'd gotten the first two autographs of our trip, and that was pretty cool, but they were not either of the autographs that we had actually had in mind coming into the trip: Ken Griffey Jr.'s on the baseball card that Jon had treasured since he was 13 or Ryan Freel's on the sweaty t-shirt I'd been wearing all over the state of Florida. We knew that the liklihood on the former was low, but I was feeling confident that I could get Freel to sign the shirt, assuming the armpit fumes didn't knock him down before he had the chance.
We entered the park as soon as it opened and camped out in the front row next to the dugout, even though our seats were in the bleachers, on the off-chance that one or more players would actually make an appearance.
Like always, we primarily stared at the grounds crew for the better part of two hours. Winter and I revisited our game of identifying the letter S on all the billboards and pointing at all the planes that flew overhead. The park was already pretty full for the sold-out game when Jon noticed Freel over by the bleacher wall, signing autographs.
“Should we go over there, or do you think he will he make it down here?” Jon asked. I took a look around. If we left our spot, we definitely would not get it back, but Freel was a good 100 yards away and the knot of people that had formed down next to him made it look like he wasn't moving any time soon.
“We'd better go,” I said. I took up my shirt and pen and let Jon follow me with our bag and child. The wall in front of the bleachers is wedge-shaped, so it is low close to the infield and gets progressively higher toward the edge of the outfield. Plus, there is a 3 1/2 foot chain-link fence covered with a tarp atop the concrete wall. The effect is such that where the bleachers meet the regular seats, the chain link fence comes about to your waist, but by the time you work your way down to the other end, the concrete part is up to your hips and the fence part is topping six feet.
Guess at which end Freel was standing.
As you would expect, people were standing on the cement wall to peer over, pretty much right in front of the sign asking you not to stand on the wall, so the ushers were constantly telling people to get down. Despite the crush of people, it didn't take very long for me to get to the front of the group, and though it felt totally awkward to present something for signing without so much as eye-contact by way of permission, I really had no choice, so I draped my t-shirt over the fence and made my pen available. I was able to hop up long enough to confirm that I was at least getting the correct signature, but that was about all I could do.
My pen soon disappeared from my hand and reappeared a moment later. It was done.
To write it out, this does not really sound like that big a deal. So it's probably difficult to understand that I was completely and totally awe-struck. Disproportionately so. With my head spinning, I looked around for Jon and Winter, but they were nowhere to be found. I stepped away from the crowd to get a fresh perspective and collect my wits that were suddenly scattered all over.
Meanwhile, Jon and Winter were directly behind me the entire time. When I had looked around for them, I had apparently looked Jon straight in the face, but my gaze passed right through him. Jon had the foul ball that he'd caught the day before, and once I was done with the shirt, he'd anticipated me taking Winter so he could have it signed as well. He had not counted on the severe effect my hero-worship would have on me, and since I'd wandered off in a daze, he was left at the front of the line with Winter.
Jon had passed the ball over the high, high fence successfully, but Winter, having that precise timing that only small children have, chose that moment to be knocked down by a passing stranger. Jon, of course, had no choice but to bend down to pick Winter up, but in doing so made himself unavailable to receive the ball back from Freel. He hardly had a second to worry about what would become of our spring training ball, though, before it came sailing back over the fence and bounced squarely off the top of his head.
Jon collected himself, then collected Winter and the ball and came to find me, still wandering around in a stupor despite the fact that I had not actually been the one to take a blow to the head.
Having acheived our goal, we found ourselves a spot in the bleachers and camped out until the game started. It was a good game, punctuated by a homerun by the man of the day, Ryan Freel, that would provide the winning margin in the 5-4 victory.
As in all of the spring training games, the starters didn't play the whole game, and once they were done with their contribution they wandered off through right field, past the home bleachers. Usually these players get a dencent ovation as they walk past, but this group in for the Yankees' game apparently didn't know what they were doing because both Griffey and Dunn walked by with no more than a smattering of applause.
So, having have pulled myself together somewhat when Freel came out of the game the inning after the homerun, I took matters into my own hands. From 3/4 of the way up the bleachers, I shouted down, “Nice hit, Ryan.” Everyone in the bleachers seemed to suddenly look up and notice who was passing by and clap their approval. I had started the single loudest ovation that any player got going off the field that day.
That right there, my friends, was the single moment that made the entire trip worthwhile.
After the game, we got a souvenir program for my Jeter-loving sister-in-law and wandered out, sore of buttocks from the bleachers, but floating on a cloud. At least I was. Jon may still have been rubbing the top of his head.