When I was younger, I learned the value of “giving opportunity the chance to knock.” Here’s one of the times it did:
Farewell to Riverfront
September 23, 2002 – didn’t need to look that one up – was the day of the Farewell to Riverfront event in Cincinnati. The Reds were about to “blow it up!” and say goodbye to Riverfront Stadium (or, boo, “Cinergy Field”). They seized their role as the latest participant in baseball’s push to move away from dome-like mega-bowl stadiums and simultaneously both return to and progress to retro-style ballparks. Several other franchises made the same move in the few years before or after. A huge boom (Get it? Demolition puns are fun.) of ballpark building began in the 1990s and continued on through the 2000s to the point that there are now only six remaining parks that were in existence prior to 1989. The peak of this activity was from 1998-2004, during which Phoenix (1998, new franchise), Seattle (1999), San Francisco (2000), Houston (2000), Detroit (2000), Pittsburgh (2001), Milwaukee (2001), Cincinnati (2003), San Diego (2004), and Philadelphia (2004) all received new homes for their boys of summer. But more on those later (hint, possible future ballpark rankings list, hint).
Six days later – didn’t need to look that one up either – I would be woken up in the back of an old minivan to get out and stand in the cold as the big ol’ concrete behemoth that housed 32 years of Reds history, most notably the entirety of the Big Red Machine (and the Freezer Bowl!), crumbled to literal a pile of rubble before my young eyes. That was cool. If you ask my dad, it was definitely worth the $27 ticket for illegally parking the van across the river the day beforehand to secure a viewing spot of the demolition.
Before all this happened, though, there’s the story of how Cincinnati’s security team fell for the big and beady eyes of a scrawny ten year-old with an appetite for always meeting his heroes.
The Reds planned a legends and celebrities softball game the day after the final game of the 2002 season. Sure, I could get interested in watching a recently Hall-of-Fame-inducted, 60 year-old Tony Perez swing a softball bat, but the real treasure was the meet-and-greet autograph session open to the public the morning before the event. Several Reds, Bengals (Anthony Munoz!), and other Cincinnati dignitaries were set to be there, but the most exciting part for these kinds of events is usually the rest of the crew that baseball (circular, all-encompassing hand motion) gets to descend on the city: the “imports” for the event, as we called them.
I looked through the program and quickly realized that the two best non-Reds coming to the event were Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. Why? I actually still don’t know, but I suspect it had something to do with the time the Phillies borrowed a bunch of HOF-caliber Reds back in the ‘80s and came home with a free ring. Yeah, I said borrowed. See how I slid that dig in there for the Philly fans? It’s okay, the last time we faced off in a meaningful situation, it involved Halladay tossing a playoff no-no and drinking the tears of my city live on national television. You’re still winning. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
Well, That’s a Letdown
So the plan was made. We would go to the game, we would go to the autograph session, and I would waltz in and meet all my heroes. Not quite. Things were a little more complicated.
We show up to the event to find it… poorly organized. The players were posted up in the ticketing and will call offices on either side of a standalone building apart from the stadium. Each side was divided from the other, and you had to wait (at least an hour) in line on your predetermined half of the building to be allowed the privilege of choosing one of several lines in which to wait again… in order to be able to walk up to the office and have the person sign your item that you slid under the slot in the security window. What a magical experience in… treating a child’s hero like a petting zoo exhibit. That was a real letdown. Side rant coming.
I have always been a purist. “But everyone did steroids!” is not an argument. You either cheated for an advantage or you didn’t. “But there’s so much more involved in being a DH!” I, too, wish I could skip the parts of my job that I’m bad at and get paid the same anyway. The point is that, yes, I love all of the collected memorabilia and all of my autographed baseballs; but if tomorrow they all went up in flames, it wouldn’t be an issue aside from the fact that they stand as jumping-off points for amazing memories and stories. I will never sell one thing. It’s the experience and the principle that holds the value for me.
I would trade my (spoiler alert) fully-signed program from the event with every attendee in it (end spoilers) for ten year-old Adam to have been able to stand with Mike Schmidt for a minute and ask him about growing up in southwest Ohio and how it impacted his relationship with Cincinnati boy Pete Rose or probe Steve Carlton for the secrets to the longevity of his peak (more on the times this has been able to happen at events that were done the right way coming in the future – with surprise guests Jim Brown and Bill Russell!).
So now, when I say that waiting a few hours to have someone maybe not even make eye contact with you as you slide a program toward them and then get it back two seconds later is underwhelming, you know what I mean. That was fine for most people there, but it wouldn’t do it for young Adam. That’s the weakest possible version of meeting your heroes.
The Hunt for Red (in) September
The moral of the story for a large portion of the autograph-chasing days of my childhood was that I looked younger and thought older than I actually was. It helped being a skinny “cute kid” who looked younger than he was, it helped to very evidently be an enormous baseball nerd, and it helped to understand the home turf on which I was working. But it was borderline unfair to know all this at the age of ten and to be taught how I could use it to my advantage by the salesman 35 years my senior who doubled as my dad.
So we lined up. First thing you have to do at nearly every event is wait. A lot. My dad asks who I want to go see (Schmidt) and who I want him to go see. Naturally, Schmidt and Carlton are on opposite sides. So we line up on the Schmidt side. We wait until we get to the branch point, and then we split off from each other. I go to the Schmidt line, and I honestly forget who he went to go see.
I get to the front of the line to see, in the words of Boomer, one Michael Jack Schmidt. I slide the program to him, energetically and nervously ask him how his day is (evidently boring and unsatisfying from the look on his face), thank him for coming out to Cincinnati, and tell him how much I appreciate his time. He looks at me like I have seven heads. The usual. I spend every possible second trying to talk to him until it’s the next person’s turn, quickly realize I can’t stretch any more time for myself, and go to leave.
This is Where the Magic Happens
And then the magic happened. In the poor organization of the event, they managed to neglect coming up with a way to make people leave the enclosed area around the ticketing office once they were through the line. You had to literally walk in front of all the other lines and windows to be able to get out of that area. I tried to leave (I did! Honestly!) and found zero direction. It was at this point that I realized I had made zero plans with my father to rendezvous after we met our respective people. It was 2002, and I was ten. Texting was not a thing. Sure, he’s 6’3”, so that helps, but I was short then! Good luck finding him in the sea of people smashed so perfectly together like cattle that you could hear a dull moo. A security worker came over and asked if I needed help.
The words were out of my mouth before I had time to process them. Six words that then became one of our greatest memes. “I have to find my dad.” It was true. I didn’t mean it in any way other than the truth… but then his face changed, and I knew I was on to something. When he stopped paying attention to me, I hopped in another line. Then another. Then another. “Are you lost?” Not anymore. “I have to find my dad.” It was brilliant. Drop that and walk away. Meet your heroes now; meet up with dad later. He’ll get it. Heck, he’ll probably even applaud you for it (he did). The move worked a solid three or four times, not counting the times I got away without being asked what I was doing, until someone seemed suspicious and I had to leave. Fortunately by that point I had met everyone on that half of the building.
I met up with my confused father and told him the playbook. He was impressed! If some is good, more is better, right? I had no plans to stop. Steve Carlton and crew were waiting on the other side, and I was going to go until I got my Phil (there, finally said it). We had enough time to get into the line on the other side before it closed, so we did just that. The event was four or five hours long (which, by the way, had to be absolutely mind-numbing for the players), and they cut the preliminary entry lines off at a certain point in time, so I’m actually pretty sure in morality-retrospect that young Adam didn’t ruin or steal anyone else’s experience. Steve Carlton, here we come.
After an hour or so, the feeding frenzy continued. One time someone in the line next to me who wasn’t paying attention didn’t realize it was their turn, and I literally slid on over from the front of my line to theirs once I was done in mine. Not a joke. I think it was for (World Series Champion and Hershiser-streak-ender, trivia question) Todd Benzinger? Doesn’t matter. Chaos. You get my point. Anyway, you can probably guess how it all turned out – aside from the fact that my program cover suspiciously gained more and more black ink that wasn’t so easily hidden. I doubt they knew the “rules,” but I swear a player or two gave a weird look.
We made it. Whether by accident, malice, desperation, or whatever you want to call it, young Adam met every single player there. The list included Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Doc Gooden, and Steve Garvey, among several others. We grabbed some food and went inside to watch the “real” event itself. Fun fact, (World Series Champion and Cincinnati native) Ron Oester threw me his hat afterward. I do not know why this is a thing that happened.
After the event, we decided to head out to the parking lot area where the players come out. You know, normal behavior for any stalker of a child who prefers to actually meet players and shake their hands instead of stare at them like caged animals through a hole in bulletproof glass.
This is how you know who is a genuinely nice person. I don’t fault a single person for not coming over to see the fans. Most don’t. Not everyone is Sean Casey. Not everyone is Scott Sullivan (a sidearm, rubber-arm type guy and, in my experience, great human being for the Reds around that era). However, the ones who go out of their way to come talk to fans who waited around on the off-chance they would be graced with a player’s presence are the great guys. Steve Carlton was a great guy that night.
Naturally, when Carlton came over, I was near the very front of the pack in an instant and got my few seconds of face-time and thank yous. The fun part was that we had to throw baseballs over a fence and catch them back from him, so everyone there also officially had a catch with Steve Carlton as well.
He stood and signed balls and talked to fans for at least 15-20 minutes. He didn’t have to – he’s a legend. People love him regardless. No one would know if he took that time for himself and went out to a bar or back to the hotel room a little sooner. He was just being nice. Bonus niceness. Extra innings niceness. That always sticks with me. That’s the lesson here (aside from “sometimes a kid will accidentally discover a beautiful lie to use to get what he wants and then run it into the ground”). I remember it still 17 years later and appreciate it even more now than I did then that he would do that for a bunch of kids.
Fast forward those 17 years, and the program is sitting in a bedroom in my parents’ house. It’ll probably sit there for another decade, too. That’s not what matters, though. What matters is that sometimes you give opportunity the chance to knock, and sometimes you come home with fun stories that last a lifetime.