Awkward sports celebrity encounters

Last week I mentioned my visit to Cincinnati to see the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Reds. I collect autographed baseballs, and I’m too cheap to pay $100 or so at a card show to get a signature on a twenty-dollar ball. So when I go to a major league game (especially if I’m by myself), I enter the ballpark as soon as the gates open and stand close to the dugout to try to get signatures. (I’m starting to re-think this. I’m often the only adult, and I feel a little silly standing there with a bunch of twelve to fifteen year old kids asking for autographs.)

At the D-backs game I got a ball signed by Archie Bradley. He’s a relief pitcher, but has good stuff and will probably be back in a rotation soon. He was friendly and gregarious, signing for everybody that asked, taking pictures with kids, and chatting amiably. He seemed to enjoy all the interaction, and jogged back to the clubhouse after signing dozens of balls, hats, cards, and random scraps of paper.

Shortly before game time, Zack Greinke came out of the dugout and slowly walked over to the crowd, eyes down. Greinke is one of the best pitchers in the game, but he has a reputation as something of an iconoclast. He rarely signs for fans and allegedly suffers from a personality disorder that includes fear of crowds. Somebody in the crowd behind me said they’d read that his current contract includes a requirement to sign autographs.

Zack Greinke looks on during batting practice.

He came to the line and moved toward me, slowly signing whatever was held out to him. He didn’t make eye contact with anybody, and ignored questions from kids. I didn’t see him look up at me, but as I held out a baseball and sharpie he skipped around me. After signing a total of less than ten autographs, he slowly walked back to the dugout.

I have no problem with a player signing only for kids. It’s reasonable to assume that an adult is getting a ball signed as an investment, and I can understand resenting somebody making a profit off your signature. And I can’t say I think players “owe it to the fans” to sign autographs. They’re paid to play baseball, and some of the same fans they sign for today will be booing them tomorrow if they go hitless.

But I started thinking about how hard it is for some people to interact with strangers. Hell, it’s hard for me, and I don’t have a bunch of people crowding around me whenever I’m in public.

One night when I was an usher at Victory Field in Indianapolis, Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean was seated in my section. I always liked Tom Crean. There are a lot of stories (several from my own kids) of him accommodating fans, helping regular students and generally being a good person. But there was always an awkward side to him. After IU clinched the Big Ten championship in a game at Michigan, he started yelling at a UM assistant coach in the post-game handshake line. The object of Crean’s ire had been at IU under Kelvin Sampson and was involved in recruiting violations that led to sanctions against the Hoosiers. But, ultimately, the misbehavior had resulted in IU hiring Crean. So why bring it up then? Who does that?  

As an IU fan, I recognized Crean at the ballpark immediately. I greeted him and he nodded at the ground, handing me the tickets for him and his son. After I wiped down the seat I said, “Good luck, Coach!” He silently handed me a nice tip and sat down. During the game, kids constantly came up to him and asked for signatures. He always obliged them, smiling, chatting, and taking selfies. He was clearly more comfortable with kids than adults. Or, at least, more comfortable with kids than with me.

Coach_Tom_Crean

Again, like I said, I get this. Sports fans – especially basketball fans in Indiana – are not an understanding bunch. The same hand patting your back tonight could well be typing a venomous diatribe about your 1-3-1 defense tomorrow. And I think Crean had it especially tough. He has some odd facial expressions, and he often wore pants pulled up to his sternum. Indiana fans probably set their expectations too high after Crean convinced Cody Zeller to come to Indiana in his second year. Last season after he was fired, it was hard to find many fans sorry to see him go. People would say “Sure, he’s a great guy, but…”.

A lot of people want to be famous. But I think some people are famous because they’ve focused on a particular talent with such intensity for such a long time that their social skills were neglected. Some of them started three lengths back in that respect anyway, which probably led to them focusing so intently on a particular task. It must be a special kind of hell to be really good at something you love that results in daily encounters with something you dread.

From now on, I’m just going to bite the bullet and pay for player signatures. If a guy is getting money to sit at a table and sign, I’m willing to encroach on his agoraphobia.    

 

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