Close Encounters of the Worst Kind

Back to Archives

Recently I posted a piece about collecting autographs as part of the hobby. While I’ve never really been a big acquirer of signatures (funny I have a few hundred) I get the attraction to collect theme autographs of 500 goal scorers, Hall of Famers, teams, photos, etc. My passion is more about the artifacts that carry the story of the piece than having it signed. If the signature adds additional provenance or closure concerning the item, then by all means if the opportunity arises I’ll have the player sign. Standing in lines, waiting outside a hotel or rink, have never been things I’ve done with respect to my collection. While most of my experiences have been nothing but pleasant with the athletes there have been a few that didn’t go so well.

Years ago I attended the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago and with the weekly pass I purchased entitled me to a couple of autographs. I didn’t really have any interest in standing in a line but my curiosity got the best of me and decided to see what actually happens in the line (nothing) and waited for Johnny Unitas to sign a football. I thought by adding a Hall Of Fame quarterback would not only diversify my collection but also broaden the scope of topics to discuss. After forty-five minutes passed I started questioning myself why I was enduring this painful experience. Approaching the table set on a platform and handing Johnny the ball, he looked irritated with zero interest engaging in any kind of conversation with me, let alone a friendly nod. The feeling was mutual believe me.

I started to ask Unitas if he’d write his Hall of Fame induction year under his signature, but before I could blurt half the sentence, the staff member standing beside him shouted, “Mr. Unitas will only sign his name, so move along”

That would’ve been fine except for Unitas’s snicker of disgust that I could be so stupid asking such a thing.

My blood was boiling as I said, “Geez I guess after standing in that line for forty-five minutes my simple request must really be a burden on you Johnny. Just so we are clear I’m not trying to date you, just a little courtesy on your part might have been sufficient. You’re lucky I don’t drill this back in your face, but you’d probably sell it”

That certainly got Johnny’s attention as we glared at each other for what seemed a minute but was more likely a few seconds. I gave the ball away.

Joe Morgan ex-star of the Cincinnati Reds had just started his career hosting Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN and was a guest signer at a Sports Collectors show.

Again I had a free autograph and reluctantly stood in a small line to get Joe to sign a baseball. Approaching the table I thought I’d offer a comment about something he mentioned about the Jays on a telecast, but he didn’t even acknowledge my presence. He took the ball, scribbled his name while gazing in another direction making me feel like a stalker and a foot tall. Leaning over the table I said, “Sorry to disturb you but in case you aren’t aware, you’re getting paid to do this, at least humour us, Jesus.”

He looked through me and said nothing. I decided that unless a player was in the same room with me, I’d never ask for a signature again.

I appreciate they are busy (so am I) but clowns like these two fail to realize the reason they are seated at the table is because of the fans standing in line.

I’m asked constantly what certain athletes are like to deal with and if I ever feel intimidated? Never.

They are superior athletes at sports we all played as kids (and even as adults) but I always say give one of them a seat at a trading desk on Bay St and we’ll see who’s the star.

My firm was a major sponsor of the Special Olympics black tie dinner held every December broadcast live on TSN. It was a star-studded affair with Toronto society out in full force along with a who’s who of celebrity guests.

It was near the end of the evening and I was walking back to check on a few things Deb and I were bidding on in the silent auction. I noticed Raptors star Vince Carter who was having a breakout season, capturing the hearts of Toronto including our two young boys at home. Carter was standing by himself so I decided to break my own rule and ask him to sign the two programs I had for Ryan and Jules. Approaching I said, “Vince you will make two young boys very happy and me a star if you can sign these to Ryan and Jules.”

He continued leaning against the wall, rolled his eyes and said, “Really man?”

Stunned I look at him and replied, “If its too much trouble don’t worry, they’ll never know”

He snatched the programs, scribbled his name shaking his head the whole time staring at the roof of the Convention Hall. It was all I could do to restrain from ripping into this goof but I just said thanks and walked away a non-Carter fan.
Carter was paid to be at the event and mingle; it wasn’t like I was following him around a mall or interrupting his dinner at a restaurant. The look on his face was like I’d asked him if he wanted a dose of aids!

Players like Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Ernie Whitt and Darryl Sittler showed the classy side of athletes taking photos and signing autographs until the end of the evening. By the way, Shawn Green had been traded to LA but still made a point to attend the event even though he easily could’ve bowed out.

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson was also at the same Special Olympics event and Deb’s son Jules was a fan of his. Deb bought his book in the silent auction and when Johnson had a free moment she approached him to mention what a fan Jules was and how much she was sure he was going to enjoy reading this book. Dwayne Johnson couldn’t have been nicer, personalized the book and passed a message along to Jules appreciating his support as a fan. Is it a coincidence The Rock is regarded as one of the classiest and truly “good guys” in Hollywood?

Most of the athletes I’ve encountered have a sincere appreciation for the fans and nothing defines a person’s character both professionally and personally than by the way they treat others.

Vince Carter is the same guy who attended a morning graduation ceremony rather than preparing for a game seven-playoff later that afternoon. Really Man!!

This same jerk quit on his team, played soft, sat out a game supposedly hurt but was spotted at a night club after the game and so on. Really Man!!

And they want to bring this stiff back and retire his number? Really Man!!

When someone is in the public eye I get the fact fans can be overbearing and demanding; it’s a small price to pay to afford the life they live. The public pays the freight and even though they have no financial interest in the team outside of purchasing merchandise and tickets, fans still think they own the franchise.

Fans Matter!

Maybe these Prima Donna’s forget they were kids once themselves and may have asked an athlete for an autograph or just a friendly handshake or greeting? The short encounter with an athlete can leave a lasting impression forever on a fan that’s either pleasant or otherwise.

If guys like Carter, Unitas, Morgan and so on, are so put out dealing with public life, then maybe they should say no in the first place? Oh but do you really think they would give up the money they are paid to attend card shows, fundraisers etc.? Not on your life would they.

I’ll guarantee when they get free meals, comp tickets, deals on houses, cars, boats or whatever it may be; they have a friendly smile for that fan.

A few years ago a friend of mine was escorting Jean Beliveau to a number of Hall of Fame events over a few days and was walking him back to the Royal York one night. Beliveau’s health was failing, it had been a long day (now close to 11pm) and there was a crowd of fans in front of the hotel waiting for the players to arrive.
My pal said to Jean,

“Mr. Beliveau I know you are tired so I have way through the back of the hotel that can avoid this big crowd and get you quickly to your room”

Jean looked at Kevin, “Thanks but those people made me who I am today and I wont disappoint them”

He stood and signed autographs for 45 minutes.