I was at what was then known as Baseball City, FL, just south of Orlando, for a Kansas City Royals Spring Training game.
Standing on the concourse, I spotted George Brett walking from the field over to a throng of fans standing along the fence down the first base line.
I scurried over, 1991 Donruss card in hand (the only Brett card I thought to bring), and slowly but surely slunk my way to the front of the line.
My strategy paid off. I was just a few people in front of where Brett was signing, and he was heading my way.
As Brett took something from one fan’s hand, I knew he had to give it back, so I made sure my card was right next to that person’s eagerly waiting hand.
Problem was, I was so nervous about obtaining the autograph of my boyhood hero that when he handed me back the card, I placed my thumb squarely on the signature, smearing it.
Live and learn.
Apparently, Brett was more willing to sign when he was a player, because my next opportunity didn’t end on a pleasant note, either, but I gained a new hero from the experience.
The place was called The Field of Dreams, near Platte City, MO, at a ball park created from a corn field in the likeness of the Kevin Costner movie.
It was 110 degrees in the shade, and Brett was supposed to sign autographs from 1 to 2 p.m. He arrived late and left early, in a grumpy mood.
As I waited in line, I noticed a stack of generic Brett cards with his autograph on them, apparently for those who had nothing to sign.
The boy in front of me, probably not 10 years old, started to take one while Brett was signing his baseball. The boy quickly pulled his hand back as Brett slapped at it, sternly telling the lad, “Only one per person.”
I had a mini Royals bat and an 8×10 for him to sign, so by then, I was expecting a war.
As he signed my bat, I kindly asked him if he would sign the photo. When he protested, I shot back, “It’s for my son, ‘Brett.’” Reluctantly, he grabbed the pic and scribbled a personal autograph, just in case I was lying, I suppose.
Yet, about 10 feet away sat Buck O’Neil, lounged in a chair, shirt unbuttoned, without a care in the world.
Buck wouldn’t sign an autograph for anyone – unless he got a hug.
I stood there, taking in the contrast.
Here was a man who was retired, a hero to many kids in the heartland of America, with nothing to do but play golf all day. He made millions from playing a boy’s game, yet, he seemed bitter and angry.
And 10 feet away sat a man who wasn’t allowed to play in nice ball parks solely because of the color of his skin. He was banned from the majors until late in his career, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Yet, he was friendly and had a smile for everyone.
George Brett is everything that is wrong with sports today: Self-centered superstar athletes who have no time to give back to those who pay their exorbitant salaries. Guys who refuse to sign autographs unless they can charge you $60 at a card show.
On the other hand, Buck O’Neil, rest his soul, is a refreshing contrast.
True, athletes don’t owe us fans anything. But I’ve always believed they have an obligation to give back to those who worship the ground in which they walk.
The Seattle Mariners were in Kansas City a few weeks back, and my friend and I were one of very few who showed up early in hopes of getting autographs.
Ichiro stepped out of a cab, right in front of us. Head down and hands in his pockets, he walked briskly into the stadium, a stern “No” when asked for his signature.
It took me back to the trials that black men like Buck O’Neil went through to get acceptance in American sports.
Here was a world-renowned superstar, one of the first to usher in the wave of Japanese baseball players, and that was the thanks we got.