A disclaimer: This is going to be a bit long.
My Mariners' memories stretch back to 1994 and my first game at the Kingdome at the ripe young age of 6. If memory serves correctly (and it likely doesn't), Ken Griffey Jr. hit a walkoff home run against the White Sox. Like so many other young fans my age, my Mariner love was solidified for life by the entire magical 1995 season. That same year, I watched the "Baseball" documentary by Ken Burns (if you haven't seen it, do it), and spent countless hours at the library reading every baseball history book I could get my hands on.
I ate, drank, slept, and breathed baseball for 8 or 9 years. My family often laughs at the numerous days I spent poring over box scores, copying down lineups, and reenacting games by myself in the back yard, playing every position, complete with every player's stance and windup, and signature Dave Niehaus calls for each play. I loved pitching. I went to a number of clinics (one included an appearance by the one and only Sean Spencer--remember him? Yeah, he sucked. Ryan Radmanovic was also there--he sucked too, and was apparently a lot smaller than I remember). I wasn't too bad--in fact, I was pretty good, and had a couple coaches recommend I consider thinking more seriously about pitching at higher levels. However, I ended up leaving the country for highschool and I drifted from baseball for a few years.
My interest was reignited when I came to university here in Walla Walla three years ago. Two years ago, I met a friend of mine who happened to have a similar relationship with this damned sport, and he introduced me to the world of sabermetrics, USSM, FG, and LL. I still think it's funny looking back and remembering how recently I thought batting average and ERA were good evaluative statistics, and loved keeping track of saves.
So what's my point? In all of those years and games attended, I never had the opportunity to interact with the players on a very personal level like a lot of young kids have been able to. I never attended Spring Training, and I was never able to get all that close to any decent players at either the Kingdome or Safeco. I never came away with much in the way of interesting memorabilia (the coolest thing I can think of is that I got Paul Spoljaric's autograph on four separate occasions--and that's not all that cool, because he kinda sucked too). So when my friend here at the university invited me to go down to Spring Training with his family last year, it was a huge trip down memory lane, and made me feel like little kid again. I felt like I had to catch up on lost time, and I was able to get some cool autographs and pictures, even though I felt kind of dopey doing it.
This year they invited me to go again, and I had a more conservative game plan. Other than the obvious (Felix and Ichiro), I wanted four specific autographs: Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Justin Smoak, and Michael Pineda. Other than those few, I'd take whatever fell into my lap and seemed fun (Adam Dunn? You're kinda fat, but you have a cool auto, so ok).
Well, I came away with some interesting experiences, including a couple in particular, so I thought I'd share them with the LL community, particularly for those like me before the last two springs, who have never really had that opportunity to interact on a slightly more personal level with the players. I'll say this, for sure: if you have the chance to go to Spring Traning, do it. It's a blast. Beautiful complex, gorgeous weather, and who cares that the games don't matter--it's baseball after 5+ months of no baseball!
Yay, Dustin! He's a lot smaller than I imagined.
His swing is cooler than his autograph.
Yeah, looks about right.
No picture to go with it, but he's a super nice guy!
Again, no picture. But based on a sample size of one autograph coolness, he's gonna be one freakin' good pitcher. And good grief he's huge. I'm 6'1" and was on level ground with him, and I can honestly say he is ALL of 6'7"/260. But he's also really quiet, almost borderline shy. I'm sure the language barrier may contribute to that.
And now to the last picture. But there's a bit of a background story. When I went to ST last year, the first autograph I got was Milton Bradley, and I was struck at how polite and friendly he seemed. This year, on the last Thursday of Spring Traning, I was over near the driveway leading away from the RF corner, the gauntlet all the players walk when they leave the game. For those that don't know, there's a fence separating you from the players, but that's the prime autograph seeker haven, and is generally lined with dozens of fans (mostly kids) clamoring for autographs. The players I've seen spend the most time signing and canoodling with the fans include David Eckstein, Jack Wilson, Brendan Ryan, Omar Vizquel (something in common there), Chase Headley, Chone Figgins, Erik Bedard (another really nice friendly guy), Eric Byrnes (hahaha), and finally, Milton Bradley.
Milton left the game and headed off the field. As he came out through the fence, a couple of young kids, perhaps around 12, began hollering, "MILTON! MILTON! CAN I HAVE YOUR AUTOGRAPH??" If they had been 5 instead of 12, it might have been cute. But they weren't 5, and it wasn't cute. But Milton laughed and trotted over carrying his bat bag. The first kid handed him his ball to sign, then asked, "Can I have your bat???" His buddy immediately followed with, "Can I have your other one??" Milton asked what the magic word is, and they both added "Please"s. He laughed again and told them he couldn't give away both of them. The first kid pointed out that he'd asked first, and Milton replied, "That you did!", and proceeded to fish his bat out and hand it to him. The other little guy said, "Well, can I have SOMETHING?"
At that point, I probably would have hit him with the other bat, but Milton flashed that radiant smile and set his bag on the ground. He fished around in it for a little bit and snagged a pair of batting gloves and gave them to the kid. All the fans in the area, including those up along the bridge over the driveway, broke into applause and cheering. Milton straightened up and scowled around at everyone, holding his finger to his lips as if to shush them, and I thought, "Ho boy, here it goes!" Then he said one of the coolest and funniest things I think I've heard: "Hey now folks, keep it down! I have a reputation to keep up here." Cue:
Milton had very nearly cemented himself as one of my favorite players at this point, but he wasn't done. He then proceeded to spend the next half an hour signing every piece of memorabilia thrust in his face, chatting and laughing with people the whole time. I got his auto a second time, and thanked him and told him that I was really happy he was a Mariner. He paused, looked up and made eye contact with me, and said, "You know, I really am too." I walked back up to where my friend was standing and told him about it. He laughed and then said, "Hey, you should have asked him to sign it 'The Kanye West of baseball'!" We shared some chuckles about it, but then I started seriously considering it. I didn't want to piss him off though, so I hesitated for a few minutes, but he was still signing, so I went back and posted up at the end of the line, and waited for him. When he finally got to me, and I asked him, he threw his head back and guffawed, and then...
I love Milton Bradley.