On March 27, 2010, I flew to Phoenix for the day to attend a Cubs’ Spring Training game.  That’s not nearly as extravagant as it might initially sound.  I live in Los Angeles, so the cost of the trip and the travel time were both minimal.  And it was a small price to pay to finally get back to Spring Training.

When I was little kid, my parents would load my brothers and me into the car for an annual trip to Palm Springs to see the Cubs play the Angels.  Palms Springs Stadium was a glorified college baseball park–in fact, there wasn’t even a separate parking lot for the players, which meant there were lots of opportunities to get signatures after the games.  Somewhere in my parents’ house, we still have a large collection of autographed baseballs and photos taken with former Cub greats and not-so-greats.  We’ve even got a picture of my brothers and me all sitting on Harry Caray’s lap between innings.  But ever since the Angels left Palm Springs in 1992, I had not been back to a Spring Training game*.

*I did try to go to a game once in 2006, but it didn’t work out.  Back then, most of Arizona was at the tail end of the longest stretch of rainless days in its history–143 total.  My brothers, my sister-in-law, and I left LA on Friday night and drove through hours of non-stop rain, snow flurries, and even periodic hail.  We spent the night in one of Phoenix’s skeeviest hotels, and found out in the morning that the game had indeed been rained out.  Instead of basking in the sun at Hohokam Park, we found an Uno’s Pizza and watched some March Madness before driving back home.  The failure of that trip was at least part of the reason I was flying to Phoenix by myself in 2010.

My flight from LAX to PHX took just a little over an hour, but it seemed much longer.  That’s because it served as an unofficial charter for Dodger fans who had won a radio contest and were flying to Phoenix for a weekend of Spring Training fun.  We even had a local celebrity on board–Vic the Brick, a radio host from LA’s FOXSports station.  Once we were in the air, he took it upon himself to commandeer the in-flight PA and treat all of us passengers to a mixed bag of jokes, catchphrases, and rambling anecdotes.  He even hosted a Dodger trivia contest, complete with passengers running down the aisle, Price Is Right-style, to retrieve their free-drink vouchers.   It was one of the worst flying experiences of my life**, and I once spent several hours in FBI custody because of bomb threat made by a fellow passenger.

**That wouldn’t be my last encounter with Dodger fans that day.  In the Southwest terminal for my flight home, I spotted a dejected-looking Frank McCourt.  The Dodgers’ owner was also flying home to LA that night, and wound up sitting in the row behind me.  At the time, McCourt was in the early stages of his ugly divorce that has since exposed his own shady finances and crippled his ability to run the franchise.  As he slumped into a seat near the entrance to the jetway, it seemed clear he didn’t want to be bothered.  That didn’t stop me from selling a few unused baseballs to Dodger fans who wanted his autograph.

I arrived at Hohokam with plenty of time before the game started.  I had come prepared with pens and blank baseballs, and a mental wishlist of the autographs to get.  At the top of that list was Ron Santo.  After walking around the stadium and scoping things out, I asked a friendly-looking usher where I might best be able to meet Ron.  Hohokam employs several senior citizens as ushers, and this kind, old gentleman outlined two possible ways I might obtain Ron’s signature.  If you ever listened to Pat and Ron call a Spring Training game, you know Ron usually left the game early.  That was in part because it took him so long to get to his vehicle, since he stopped so often to sign autographs and meet fans.  Waiting til the end of the game might keep him at the park for hours after the last out, so somewhere in the eighth inning, he’d usually take off.  The usher pointed me to the only elevator at Hohokam, and told me that Ron had to come down from the press box there, and that was the surest way to get his autograph.

He also pointed to a line that had formed a few sections behind me that snaked all the way up to the press box windows.  He said I could take my chances, but that the line was closed off about a half hour prior to game time.  At that point, we were still almost an hour from the first pitch.  I thanked him for the advice and raced over to join the line.  The queue stretched along the main aisle between the upper and lower seating areas, then turned up center aisle of the upper seats, ending at the window Santo sat behind to call the games.  If you stood in the last row of seats, you could make eye-contact with Ron and shake his hand as he signed your jerseys, hats, and baseballs.

Directly in front of me in line was a middle-aged woman who had waited the day before for Ron to sign her jersey.  Today she hoped to get him to sign the hat she was wearing.  She spoke optimistically about our chances to make it to the front of the line, but I wasn’t so sure.  Every time we’d make significant progress forward, a mom or a dad would herd their children to the front of the line to meet up with the other parent who had been saving their places.  At roughly 40 minutes to game time, an usher appeared to tell us we likely would not make it up to the top before Ron had to go to work.  Ten minutes later, when the line should have been dispersed, Ron began to sign in earnest.  The greetings, handshakes, and photos all came to an end, as he fought off the ushers and the WGN radio staff to keep signing whatever the fans put in front of him.

Despite an influx of even more kids, we did eventually make it to the top of the stands with about 20 minutes left before game time.  I knew that any minute Pat and Ron were due to go on air, but Ron seemed determined to keep signing right up to the point the Cubs broadcast started.  All that stood between me and Ron was the middle-aged lady in front of me, and the lady in front of her who was leading her kids back down the aisle.  Sensing a momentary break in the action, another WGN employee stepped forward to put a stop the autograph session.  For some unknowable reason, the woman in front of me–who had been professing her deep admiration and respect for Ron for the last 40+ minutes–tossed her hat through the window like a frisbee, knocking papers, pens, and whatever beverage Ron had that day into his lap.  I was mortified as he slowly stood up and backed away to assess the mess she had made.  Pat Hughes scowled at her over his game notes, and the WGN staff shut the window and began cleaning up Ron’s desk.

Needless to say, that brought an abrupt end to the autograph session.  I went to my seat shocked and frustrated.  I knew I still had a shot to catch him at the elevator, but I didn’t know what kind of crowd would greet him there, or if the hat-flinger’s astounding rudeness had put him off signing autographs for the rest of the day.

The game went well.  Tyler Colvin was wrapping up his breakout Spring, and he went 4-5 that day with a homer and triple.  In the 2nd or 3rd inning, I met new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts as he brought his kids back from the concession stands.  But mostly I kept one eye on Ron’s window–which had since been reopened–to make sure I didn’t miss his departure from the booth.

Then in the middle of the 4th inning, I noticed a few Cubs fans standing on the last row of seats, discreetly passing items through the window for Ron to sign.  With the short breaks between innings, he couldn’t do more than a handful of autographs, but he obliged as many as he could, and encouraged the rest to wait for the next break in the action.  I began to inch my way back over to the seats in front of his window.  My plan was to get into an empty seat as close to the WGN booth as I could, so I could be in place just after the third out.  I think it was the middle of the 6th when I finally was able to reach up, shake Ron’s hand, and pass him a baseball.

The details of our brief conversation aren’t really important.  In a short minute or two, it’s hard to say all the things you want to say to someone who you’ve listened to for so long.  How do you tell him that his emotions, reactions, and thoughts go so far to inform you own about a team you both love?  How do you explain he’s such an important part of the prism through which you see your favorite team from day to day?  That you share his ups and downs, his frustrations, and his bottomless optimism that next year might be The Year?  Mostly I just thanked him for his hard work on our behalf, and told him how he made even the worst games worth listening to, in part because I knew he always suffered at least as much as I did.  I told that he was the best, because he was.

If I’m honest, I think it’s odd to feel such a deep connection to a stranger.  But maybe that’s just a reflection of Ron, since he never treated any Cubs fans like strangers. In his mind, we were all his family.

I kept an eye on Ron’s window for the rest of that game, where he flew through handshakes, photos, and autographs.  Around the eighth inning, I walked back down to the concourse to see what kind of crowd had gathered to meet him on his way home.  As he got off the elevator and headed to his car, a swarm of Cubs fans surrounded him and a slowly accompanied him out the stadium gates an into the parking lot.

I didn’t get any other signatures that day, but it didn’t matter.  I got what I came for.  I got to meet Ron Santo.

 

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