The loss of Minnie Minoso and Ernie Banks made me think about some of the encounters I've had with athletes over the years, notably Ron Santo. At one time I was an autograph seeker. I'd get various players to sign whatever I might have on me -- a notebook, a program, a baseball card, etc. I never obtained too many really good ones until I started going to spring training in Mesa.
There, I met a man from Cooperstown, New York, named Niles Curtis. Mr. Curtis was a huge Cubs fan, and we kept in touch for many years until his death. His wife rarely went to the games in Arizona, and usually Mr. Curtis was by himself.
I met him at Fitch Park, where I was one of a small group watching prospects in the Cubs Accelerated Program (CAPS) work out on the fields there. I knew my Cubs baseball back then, and Mr. Curtis knew a lot more. He had some inside info about various prospects, what their strengths were, what they were working on, how their college or high school careers went...that sort of thing. We were all watching a prospect named Kevin Orie, a tall, lanky kid who looked comfortable at short. Orie had a brief stint as a Cubs third bagger, moved to second, then disappeared after he was traded.
Anyway, later on a trip Mr. Curtis and I were watching the workouts at Ho Ho Kam park (the old park) before a spring training game. The team would let people in to watch in the morning for free, kick everyone out around eleven, then reopen to ticketholders. So this was before they kicked us out. We were just sitting, watching, and over to my left I spotted my boyhood idol, Ron Santo, sitting in the stands with a uniformed coach.
I said something to Mr. Curtis about Santo, about wanting his autograph, but not wanting to bother him. Mr. Curtis said, "Go on over and talk to him! Mr. Santo's a real gentleman, and he'll be happy to sign an autograph for you."
So I did. I walked over, and somehow lost my voice. I was standing in the presence of my IDOL! The man who inspired me as a baseball player, made me want to be a third baseman! I didn't know what to say! I held out the program I had purchased, and said something like, "Would you sign your autograph for me?"
Mr. Santo said, "Sure!" He took the program and signed.
I wandered away, having completely ignored the man next to him. I looked back, saw them deep in conversation, and made my way back to my seat. I sat down and Mr. Curtis looked at my program. "Did you get Jimmy Piersall to sign as well?" he asked me.
Oh! That's who the uniformed man was. Jimmy Piersall, the infamous subject of Fear Strikes Out, and the radio partner of Harry Caray back in their Sox broadcast days, was working as a minor league outfield instructor for the Cubs that year (and a few other years). He was sitting next to Santo, talking about baseball, and I walk up like a dummy and totally ignore him! Am I a moron, or what?
I never did get Jimmy Piersall's autograph. I think that if I was going to get it, it would have been on that day. Any other day and who knows what Piersall mood you'd run into?
In a future post, I'd like to write about my two encounters with Harry Caray himself. One was in spring training and the other...well that's a story for it's own blog post. Till then...