Saturday, August 10, 2013

While at the National Sports Collector's Convention last week, I had the pleasure of meeting a number of former professional baseball players. One of those players was Rick Monday.

If you didn't grow up a baseball fan in the 1970s-80s, chances are that Rick Monday is not a name you know.
1968 Topps Rick Monday

Monday had a solid, though not Hall of Fame-worthy career. He is perhaps best known for snatching an American flag away from a couple of moron protesters who ran out onto the field at Dodger Stadium on April 25, 1976, doused a flag with lighter fluid and were trying to set it on fire with matches. Monday, who was playing center field for the Chicago Cubs at the time, snagged it just as one of the protesters struck the second match.

I only had a moment to talk to Mr. Monday, but in that minute I told him how much I appreciated his show of patriotism. He was very gracious and said that he was just glad he got there on time.

Watch the video of Monday's heroics here.

Off to See the Wizard...Ozzie Smith

This autograph is from arguably the best shortstop to ever play the game, Ozzie Smith.

Ozzie - better known as "The Wizard" - dazzled sports fans for 19 seasons with his physics-defying defensive play.

He was an 15-time All-Star and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002 - his first year of eligibility. He was known for doing back-flips on the field after making an amazing play.
1987 Topps Glossy All-Star

I met Ozzie August 2 at the 2013 National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, IL. I asked him if he still does back-flips, to which he laughed and replied, "not intentionally, man, not intentionally." I am not entirely sure what that means, but he amused me. Ozzie and Cal Ripken, Jr., were the two nicest athletes I have met in person.

He made every person who approached him feel welcome. He greeted each person individually, shook hands and was a pleasure to meet. He ribbed me a little about the Reds shirt I was wearing, saying that I was obviously a fan of the Big Red Machine and not the Cards. I wanted to come back with a witty rejoinder, but the line was moving so I just laughed, thanked him and moved on.

1982 Topps, #21, Cal Ripken, Jr., Autographed

The Iron Man, Cal Ripken, Jr.

Last week, I met one of the giants of the sports world - Baltimore Orioles superstar, Cal Ripken, Jr., also known as Iron Man.

Ripken's streak of 2,632 straight games played is a feat to which there is no equal and is one that surely will stand for all-time.

Not only was Ripken durable, he was one of the best shortstops to ever step onto the diamond. Ripken played for 21 seasons as a shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, and was a 19-time all-star, 8-time Silver Slugger, 2-time American League MVP, and a World Series champion.

As a newbie to the National Convention - or "The National" as folks call it - I was not aware how autograph signings were handled. For the most part, the For the most part, they are handled well, though depending on the personality of the athlete signing autographs, the experience is generally pretty sterile with very little conversation and often, not even a handshake.

Ripken, however, was very different. He greeted each person, shook hands, and engaged everyone - particularly the kids - in conversation. He was known for staying late after every home game to sign autograph after autograph, and 12 years after retiring, he's still treating fans with grace and respect.

When I handed Ripken my 1982 Topps card, I told him that this was a card that I pulled from a wax pack in 1982 when I was 14. I told him that it had been a prized card in my collection (I actually have three copies) since then. He thanked me for the compliment, but them immediately placed his fingers over the pictures of the players on either side of him and asked me what their names were. I told him I honestly didn't know. He then started telling me about both of these men and ended with saying that even though neither of them had the same baseball career he had, they had gone on to have great lives and do great things and that fans should know about them, too.

Talk about class.

One thing that made the whole Ripken autograph experience completely different is that Ripken has an assistant whose job is to snap pictures of each and every person who wants one with Ripken. The way it worked was Ripken would sign 10-15 autographs and those people would then stand in a mini-line while Ripken got up and stood for pictures with each person.

The coolest part of the whole experience was that Ripken never hurried anyone and never made anyone feel like he was anything other than a guy who could play baseball. Even better was the fact that not a single person complained about waiting in a long line while Ripken chatted up fans and posed for pictures. You don't often see that kind of collective patience in a crowded setting.

After I posed with Ripken, he shook my hand and said, "don't forget to learn a little about Bob Bonner and Jeff Schneider." I promised him I would.

After going back to my hotel room that night, I did a little research and learned that Bonner played for parts of four seasons with the Orioles before retiring in 1984.

After he hung up his spikes, he became a Christian missionary to Zambia - a job he did for 26 years. He later started an organization called International African Missions to recruit missionaries to serve in African nations.

I wasn't able to find out a lot about Schneider other than his time in The Bigs was short and that after leaving the game, he went to being a self-proclaimed "normal guy."

Monday, January 21, 2013

You're Outta Here!

As baseball fans everywhere undoubtedly know by now, baseball lost two of its heroes on January 19, 2012 - Cards slugger Stan "The Man" Musial, and longtime manager and hothead, Earl Weaver.

1974 Topps Earl Weaver, #308

Because most news stories and blogs will focus on the hard-hitting Musial, I have decided to dedicate the balance of this post to Earl Weaver. Those of us who grew up watching baseball in the 70s and 80s remember a red-faced Weaver standing nose-to-nose with an umpire - any umpire - arguing calls. In fact, I've mused that while a good pitcher can work the dirt on the mound with his feet to make his pitch do his bidding, Weaver could expertly work (read: kick) the dirt around the umpire's shoes to insult his enemy. 

But Weaver wasn't just a hot-headed manager. He was a baseball purist who believed in simplicity when it came to coaching. He preached solid pitching, good defense and dingers that left the park. He eschewed base stealing, bunting and other tactics he considered gimmicky in favor for old-fashioned pitching and hitting.

Weaver managed the Baltimore Orioles from 1968-1982 and again 1985-1986. In 17 years of managing the Orioles, he endured only one losing season - his last with the club before retiring in 1986.

1969 Topps Earl Weaver, #516
Weaver was thrown out of a stunning 91 games during his coaching career for berating umpires over what he thought were questionable calls. Perhaps even more notable is that he was ejected from both games of doubleheader matchups on three separate occasions.

In addition to his knowledge of the game and his rabid dog approach to conflict resolution, Weaver was known for his biting sense of humor - with his players, the media and especially the umpires. After one ejection, Weaver reportedly shouted to the umpire that he was going to check the rule book. The umpire offered his rule book to Weaver, but Weaver declined, saying, "I can't read Braille."

Weaver was also known for spinning his cap around backward so that we could get as close to an umpire's face as possible without actually touching him and earning an instant ejection.

He earned three American League pennants (1969, 1971 and 1979) and one World Series in 1970. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996. His #4 jersey has been retired by the Orioles, never to be worn again.

Weaver died while on an Orioles fan Caribbean Cruise with his wife of nearly 50 years. Weaver liked spending time with Orioles fans and often joined fans and other Orioles players and coaches on the cruises.

Cruise organizer Ken Nigro said Weaver displayed his trademark bulldog behavior just days before his death, arguing over the scores of a Jeopardy game he was playing with other guests.

"It’s not 4-3, you lost that point," Nigro recalled Weaver saying. "It’s still 3-3."

Said Nigro: "He just started complaining. It was the old Earl Weaver all over again. He had that competitiveness until the end.”

Weaver was 82.