Sunday, March 24, 2013

Baseball "Heroes"

As children, we are inundated with images of professional sports players and entertainers, images that create a perspective that these people should be idolized and revered.  In the 21st century this has become commonplace with our youth as professional ballplayers are held up as role models and the pinnacle of success.  Although baseball on television wasn't as prevalent in the 1980's when I was growing up as it is today, we still held up our favorite players as heroes.  Don Mattingly filled that role for me and in some respects I still look at him as a role model, which isn't necessarily bad as he has had a multitude of success both as a player and as a manager.  Even to this day, my screen name on this blog is dm23HOF, which can be explained at a later date.

In early August of 1991, my parents took me to a game at the old Tiger Stadium.  We lived near Toledo, Ohio, which was home of the Tiger's Triple-A affiliate: The Toledo Mud Hens.  Growing up an hour from Detroit it was hard not being a fan of the Tigers, but my father was a die-hard Yankee fan as his baseball idol growing up was Mickey Mantle.  That passion for the Yankees was passed down to me and has now been passed on to a 3rd generation with my sons and daughter.  So on that day in August, we traveled the hour north to see my two favorite baseball teams.  For those of you in the know, you realize that the Yankees weren't a very good team in 80's and weren't any better in 1991 (the Yanks finished that season 71-91, 5th in the AL East).  The Tigers were still good after winning a World Series title in 1984 having players such as Cecil Fielder, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Mike Henneman, and a Hall-of-Fame manager by the name of Sparky Anderson.  The Yankees...well they were basically Don Mattingly and a bunch of no-namers with a manager named Stump Merrill.  A side-note: Bernie Williams DID play 85 games that year.

That day was hot, and so were the bats for both teams as they each recorded 10 hits.  Mattingly recorded his 21st double of the season, but his batting average slipped below .300 to .299 as he went 1-4 with 1 RBI plating Rookie Bernie Williams.  The Tigers won that day 7-6 as Lou Whitaker's home run in the 6th inning was the difference even with a 3-run 8th by the Yanks.  My family saw a really well-played baseball game in a hallowed hall between my 2 favorite teams.  Two weeks from that game I would turn 12 years old, so a bright-eyed 11-year old was in baseball heaven at the conclusion of that game.  To top this off, I had brought my most prized possession along with me just in case I was able to get close enough to "Donnie Baseball": his 1984 Topps Rookie Card.  Getting autographs on baseball cards isn't a big deal anymore, but in the 80's and 90's kids lived for that kind of stuff.  So my parents, probably begrudgingly, allowed me to await outside the players' entrance at the stadium in hopes of a glimpse of my hero.

An hour passed and several Yankee players made their way passed a large group of people looking for autographs and pictures of their favorites.  Steve Sax, Jesse Barfield, Matt Nokes, Randy Velarde, Kevin Maas, Steve Farr, Jimmy Leyritz...they all passed by me one-by-one and still no Mattingly sighting.  Those guys all got on the team bus parked on Trumbull Avenue.  All of a sudden there was a cheer from the crowd as my childhood hero, Don Mattingly, mustache and all walked out of the door from Tiger Stadium and made a bee-line for an awaiting taxi.  About twenty kids, including myself headed towards the metal cattle-guard nearest his taxi yelling out "Donnie Baseball...can you sign my ball (card, hat...insert memorabilia here)"...and he signed every last one of them.  I was next up with my Rookie Card and just as he reached for it, his handler moved him along apologizing to the rest of us as "Mr. Mattingly has a very busy schedule..."

Representation of my most prized possession
Of course I was crushed.  I had waited an "entire" hour for my idol and was that close only to be turned away.  Don got in the yellow cab and the vehicle started heading down the street in very congested traffic.  My parents who were a few yards behind all the kids came up to see if I had gotten my card signed.  I'm sure I looked heartbroken as my mother immediately said "Oh no, what happened?" I told her I was next to get my card signed and the next thing I know, my mother is rushing down Trumbull Avenue with my prized possession raised above her head yelling "Mr. need to sign my son's baseball card."  I was so unbelievably embarrassed that I wanted to die.  We have all lived through embarrassing parent-kid moments, but this one took the cake...I mean, this guy was my hero!  After a few minutes, I could no longer see my mom and we could only wait to see what had transpired.  Ten minutes later, my mother returned to the stadium doors to an absolutely humiliated son.  As she reached us, she yelled out: "I got it!"  Apparently she had run an entire 4 blocks in downtown Detroit and finally caught Don Mattingly's taxi at a redlight.  She had banged on the window of the taxi until Don opened the window just enough for her to slide the baseball card in and have it signed.  Wow...what an amazing day...I had gone from crushed to the happiest kid on Planet Earth.  My childhood idol had down such a great thing for me, but I was still embarrassed by what my mom had done!

Several years later that card was stolen from me out of a house I lived in during college.  That card was still my most prized possession, but not because Don Mattingly had signed it.  What I didn't realize back in 1991 was that baseball players are not really heroes...they are just grown men playing a game for a pretty good living.  What Donnie Baseball did for me that day was not out of the goodness of his heart, in fact he was practically held hostage by my mother.  No that day, one of my true heroes in life, my mother, saw her first-born son about to weep outside of Tiger Stadium and did something extraordinary.  She probably would have run 20 blocks if it meant getting a stupid baseball card signed by her kid's favorite player if only to see a smile on my face.  Baseball players aren't heroes, they aren't idols, in some cases that aren't even good people.  What I do know is that having that card stolen hurt me very deeply, because my mother, one of my all-time heroes had shown me such astounding love and it reminded me of it every day.


Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)