COLLINS: Sports Memories Worth Is In Eye Of Beholder
I was young, starstruck, opportunistic, trusting. And I was also an idiot.
I was probably 15 or 16, ready to cash in on my patience. Quite a few years before that, my aunt took me to a game at old Veterans Stadium. Got there as the Phillies were taking batting practice that day, and some guy in the batters box named Mike Schmidt pulled a BP fastball down the left-field line, hooking toward our seats in foul territory. It hopped a few rows in front of us, bounced up, and I smothered it.
Flash forward a few years, and I finally took that ball out of the closet for the first time. My youngest brother Chris was going to one of those morning games with his middle school class at Lackawanna County Stadium one day and asked if there was anything I wanted him to get signed. I had read in the paper John Kruk was doing a rehab assignment that morning with the Red Barons when they played the Richmond Braves and trusted him with one simple task.
“If John Kruk is signing,” I instructed him, “ask him if he can sign this. If John Kruk isn’t signing, bring the ball home the way it is. Don’t let anyone else even touch it, OK?”
He agreed. But, in a much more realistic sense, he didn’t care.
When he came home, he handed me the ball. There was an autograph on it. It was not John Kruk’s.
“He wasn’t signing. This guy from the other team was,” my brother said, adding that he didn’t know who it was.
Should’ve known better, I thought. Now the ball is worthless. Might as well go play catch with it. I don’t even know who signed
this. Some guy from the Richmond Braves? I can barely even read it. Looks like...“Clipper J?” What kind of a name is that?
So, I played catch with it. And, of course, wound up losing it with an errant throw down the hill, toward the railroad tracks behind my childhood home. The Mike Schmidt ball was gone forever.
A few years later, when the Braves became one of the best teams in baseball, it occurred to me my brother accidentally got the baseball signed by a very young Chipper Jones. And I literally threw it away.
I’ve often asked myself over the years, which would you rather have today: The cash value of the Chipper ball, or the story of how dumb you were when presented with the Chipper ball?
You can get a run-of-the-mill, autographed Chipper Jones-signed baseball online today for a couple hundred bucks. But the story, to me, is priceless.
In that regard, I can identify with Ely Hydes.
Hydes is the Detroit Tigers fan who, at Comerica Park on Thursday night, caught a home run hit by Angels slugger Albert Pujols. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill ball, though. It gave Pujols his 2,000th career RBI, and that’s a bigger deal. Only four other players in major league history — Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez and Cap Anson — have reached that milestone.
Pressed — rudely, he says — by Tigers officials to hand over the ball in exchange for some autographed items or a brief meet-and-greet with Pujols or whatever they could come up with, Hydes had a decision to make. Take what the Tigers were offering — and the offers started out small — or walk out of the stadium with an historic baseball Major League Baseball would refuse to authenticate.
Hydes, a lifelong baseball fan, decided it was better to just walk away with the ball. He had a brother who is a Cardinals fan and would love access to that piece of Pujols history. He has a child on the way, and he’d love to present it as a gift at birth. Better than what Tigers security was trying to force on him. Better than backing down to MLB’s threat to devalue the baseball.
Despite the thousands of fans who have taken to social media to bash the guy for getting nothing for a baseball, and the Angels writers who did MLB’s bidding by scolding him for the decision, it’s Hydes’ right to do what he wants with the baseball. It’s his. And he gets to determine whether the physical proof of the memory is worth more than the sum of the parts the teams were willing to give him.
Look, if it were me, I’d have given Pujols the ball. Wouldn’t have appreciated team security turning my night at the ballpark into an hours-long mediation while we both came to terms on fair compensation. But that ball is history. That ball’s fate should be determined by Pujols, who handled the situation with aplomb.
“We play this game for the fans, too, and if they want to keep it, I think they have the right,” Pujols said afterward. “I just hope he can enjoy.”
Baseball is a special game, and a night at the ballpark is a special time. Hard to remember sometimes when we see middle-aged men carrying a bag of new baseballs or a binder full of cars pushing to the front of an autograph line. But sometimes, the memories trump the monetary value of the autographs we get or the memorabilia that falls into our laps.
I used to collect autographs at the ballpark when I was a kid. Got some good ones, too. My favorite: Al Leiter. A friend and I saw him pitch a rehab game for Syracuse at Lackawanna County Stadium in the early 1990s. Waited for him outside the clubhouse, and when he walked out, he told us he had to go “talk to the pitching coach on the bus for a minute” but would be right back out to see us. A half hour passed, the bus loaded up, and as we stood there waiting, the bus started to pull away.
It got about 50 feet before it stopped. Leiter hopped out, ran over to us, signed a card for each of us and talked with us about baseball for a few minutes while that bus waited, full of players, to head back to the team hotel for the night.
Don’t even know where that card is now, but I’ll always remember what a terrific guy Al Leiter was for not forgetting a couple of kids who came to see him.
Sad world we live in when someone gets criticized for valuing the worth of a memory more than what it can get on the open market.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.