Thursday, March 3, 2011

Goose Gossage among the Pineapples

After meeting Joe Torre at the Bronx Zoo and his book signing in '98, I found I was definitely bitten by the autograph experience bug.  My girlfriend and I were on the hunt to find more opportunities to meet sports figures and get an idea of who they were outside of their sport.
The interesting thing is my girlfriend (now wife) grew up in Queens, and was a die-hard Mets fan.  I grew up just north of the Bronx and have always been a true blue Yankee fan.  The Joe Torre meeting was a great experience for both of us, as I knew him as the Yankee Skipper, and she remembered him fondly blowing big pink bubbles in the Mets dugout in the mid-late 70's.
I just knew she didn't follow the Yankees back then.  I was quite surprised when she informed me that Goose Gossage was going to be at a local Shoprite supermarket to do a free signing.
"How do you even know who he is?" I asked her.
"I was a Mets fan, I wasn't dead," she replied.  "I saw the sports highlight reels.  I am familiar with classic, great players."  Duhhhhhhh.....
A supermarket?  Really?!  I was reluctant, but we trudged out to Warwick, NY, a good 45 minute drive from our house.  What was the great Yankee reliever doing out there in the sticks anyway?
When we got there, we were directed to the produce department.  There, among the pineapples and grapefruits was a rectangular table and two chairs, and a line of mostly men my age with their sons.
Mr. Gossage was late to the signing, and practically ran through the store with his assistant, who was lugging a box of 8x10 photos.  He immediately apologized to the small crowd of 45 people for being tardy.
We were at the middle of the line, and probably had to wait about an hour before we got to meet him.  So I really got a good idea of who Gossage was as a sports figure. 
Gossage was actually spending a good 5 minutes with each person on the line.  He would shake hands with the adults, but he would really focus on the kids.  The amazing thing was, most of them weren't old enough to have seen him play.  But he knew most of them played the game themselves, or were fans of the Yankees.
So he would ask the kids who their favorite player was, what position did they like to play and who they admired.  He took pictures, sometimes a few at a time with them, shook their hands and told them to practice.
I don't really remember much else from that signing.  But I learned that Gossage loved his fans, and fans of the sport of baseball.  And all of that 9 years before he was voted into the Hall of Fame.

For a continuation of this story, check out Goose Gossage Part II:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Joe Torre, 1998: The Beginning

Joe Torre and I at the Bronx Zoo, 1998

They say it is best to start at the beginning, and that would be November 1998, when my girlfriend (now wife) brought me to the first annual Bronx Zoo Christmas Lights, also known as the Holiday Lights Festival.  At the time, New York Yankee skipper, Joe Torre, was there with his wife and children to throw the switch and begin the festivities.  Dressed in a dark wool coat and a green and red elf hat, Mr. Torre made quick work of flipping the large switch that lit the festive figures.
I watched from afar as he shook many people’s hands, stopping to speak to some of the younger children that were clamoring to meet him.  His wife and two children meandered off to take in some of the scenery, immune to the excitement that meant being part of the Torre family.
My girlfriend, armed with several new Rawlings baseballs and a pen, took me over to him, introduced herself and then introduced me.  I shook his hand and handed him the ball and pen.  As he signed the baseballs, I asked him if I could take a picture with him.  An associate took the picture and that was the end of it.  Or so I thought.
A few months later, I found a local book signing for his new book, Joe Torre’s Ground Rules for Winners.  Armed with a quite unflattering photo from the zoo lights event, I grabbed a copy of the book and waited patiently on line for an autograph.  A huge sign hung next to Mr. Torre that stated, “Absolutely no autographs except for Joe Torre’s Ground Rules for Winners.” 
I walked up to Mr. Torre, leaned in and said, “I know you are not supposed to sign anything but your book, but I have a photo of the two of us from the zoo event, and I would love you to autograph it for me.”
“Pull it out quick,” Torre responded.  He looked down at the picture, glanced up at me with a huge grin and joked, “What, were you drunk or something?”
“And that hat looks so great on you,” I responded almost immediately.  He signed the photo and my book. 
Telling that story over the years made me realize something.   It isn’t simply the signed ball that sits in the case, or the autographed photo on the wall - it is the story, the memory of the meeting, the laughs and camaraderie that make the experience memorable.  There I was, an average Joe, joking around with the manager of the 1998 World Champion Yankees.  It felt good, and it propelled me from being a fan of the game, to being an autograph experience fanatic.