Friday, February 8, 2013

When the Ink Dries

I'm an autograph hound. It's something that piqued my interest in middle school, and the thrill of the hunt still riles me up. My style is frugal and somewhat scrappy; I've never coughed up more than $30 at a signing, and whenever I'm at a baseball game I'm the first behind the dugout and the last to leave. My strategy is a blend of advice that I've picked up from the Beckett magazines and tips from fellow hounds. Sixteen years on, my collection is a disparate mix of Hall of Famers and has-beens, superstars and benchwarmers. A lot of athletes treat autograph requests as an unwanted nuisance (and for more popular players, I sympathize) but for every sullen old coot like Hank Bauer, there's a Jerry Terrell that's just happy to be remembered.*

Sometime around Christmas, a buddy of mine asked for a favor. He runs a sports card chop in Naperville, IL (two towns over from Downers), and he needed extra help for an event he was holding on January 28th. Dean hosts autograph signings at his shop every now and then, generally a mix of current Chicago notables past and present, but this next event was going to be especially daring. Instead of just one guest or two --keep in mind, this is a little mom n' pop shop-- Dean was going to hold four signings at once. With so many ex-jocks signing, he needed additional assistance. Suffice to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

The four Chicago-based athletes signing that night represented four of the five major local sports teams. (I assume there was a lack of space or not enough money to bring in an ex-Blackhawk.) Four tables, single file, with a retired athlete and their assigned handler sitting in metal folding chairs. On the far end was Mike Hartenstine, a former All-American defensive end that played for the '85 Bears. To his left was Gary "Sarge" Matthews, a former Rookie of the Year and one-time All Star that played with the Cubs in the mid-1980s. To Sarge's left was Ron Kittle, another former ROY and a much-feared (albeit one-dimensional) power hitter for the Pale Hose. The last table belonged to Bob "Butterbean" Love, a three-time All-Star with the Bulls in the late '60s and '70s. I was assigned to Butterbean.

The event was supposed to start at 6, but the handlers were supposed to arrive by 5:30. I explained to Dean that I would be ten minutes late because of my temp job. Luckily for me, Love was stuck in traffic and showed up around 5:55. I had only met two other NBA players in my lifetime (Evan Eschmeyer and Ron Artest) so I gawked a little when Love's 6'8" frame crouched under the doorway and entered the card shop. Love was jovial but aloof, and I soon realized that he was almost completely deaf. When he sat down, Love told me that he left his hearing aid at home; I was afraid to ask why, but I assumed it was something he was self-conscious about. For those of you that know his life story, this wasn't the first time Love kept a secret from the public. People would walk past Love, ask him questions, and he would just stare and nod politely. In an attempt to bond with him, I told him that I would be his "ears" for the evening; he chuckled and said thank you, but I was reluctant to let people on to his disability.

The tone of the evening was eclectic, to put it succiently. Kittle has an older dog that had leg surgery that day; he didn't have time to drop the dog off at his house from the vet, so Ron brought the weary animal with him. Kittle was also the most loquacious of the four stars, sharing anecdotes and bantering with the autograph seekers. The pooch laid under the table, struggling to adjust himself with his bum front leg, never leaving Ron's side. Sarge was almost as talkative but decidedly grumpy; he was battling some kind of knee problem, and on the rare occasion that Matthews stood up he walked around with an uncomfortable limp. Matthews and Kittle were seemingly well-acquainted, so between autographs Ron would turn to Sarge to banter and keep the mood light. In contrast Hartenstine was relatively quiet, reserved and polite. His reputation as a workmanlike, stoic football player translated into his personality.

The signing went on until 7:30. The crowds had died down at least fifteen minutes earlier, which allowed the guests and handlers to nab some free pizza. Mr. Love had a prior engagement that evening, so his handler picked him up at half past seven on the dot. Before we walked out, Dean gave Butterbean a half-dozen or so photos from his heyday. Apparently, Love's wife took all his memorabilia in a recent divorce, and he had nothing basketball-related to his name. Butterbean turned out to be a modest and graceful man, if not aloof and a little incoherent. Sarge hobbled out about ten minutes later, followed shortly by Kittle and his dog. Hartenstine nonchalantly left last, but not before I shook his hand. I went home with two autographed 8x10 photos and two signed trading cards, my pay for a hard night's work.

I try to avoid idolizing professional athletes. I respect that beyond their tremendous physical abilities, they're Working Joes like you and me. Where the average person can hone their craft for fifty years, an athlete taps out at twenty (if that). They can be kind and humble or selfish and vainglorious. Respect is earned, not innate. The four former professional athletes I met that night couldn't have been more disparate. One was a nurturer, where another was nurtured. One smiled as another scowled. One embraced the spotlight while another stayed unperturbed. (The "one" was Kittle, obviously.) For ninety incomparable minutes I caught in a polytheistic cult of personality, one that I'm not sure I can duplicate or compare to again.

*I apologize for naming names, but if you ever run into either of these guys, now you know.

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