A Birthday Remembered
by Taylor Hibma
Do people remember most of their birthdays growing up?
I only ask because I don’t and perhaps that’s a fairly common occurrence.
From my standpoint, unless someone is thrown an unforgettable party or has an epicexperience to mark the occasion, it’s really just kind of another date on the calendar that makes a person a year older. Because of the nature of my mom and dad, I know there were always thoughtful gifts and a chocolate cake, and I was certainly made to feel like that day was the best
out of all. But as far as what exactly happened, like the details and such?
I’m at a loss for the vast majority of them except for one.
My eighth (September 24, 1988).
At the time my family lived in a suburb just outside of Milwaukee. Baseball was my passion back then, and the sport consumed me from the still melting snow in the spring to the crisp, cool autumn air. Nearly every summer afternoon, my dad would hit dozens and dozens of balls to me from the time he finished work until the twilight sky shaded a touch too dark or my mother would yell at us for staying out too late.
During those hot, humid Midwestern evenings, I’d dive for catches and snatch blistering grounders in our backyard all while pretending to be my favorite player at the time. To this day, I can still name the lineup for the Milwaukee Brewers that season.
B.J. Surhoff crouched behind the plate.
Greg Brock played first.
Jim Gantner was at second.
Paul Molitor handled the hot corner.
Dale Sveum roamed shortstop.
Rob Deer, Robin Yount, and Jeffrey Leonard all patrolled the outfield. Teddy Higuera was the Brewers’ starting ace, and Dan Plesac closed out the games.
It wasn’t until late in the year that a brash, 19-year old uber talented shortstop by the name of Gary Sheffield got called to The Bigs. He quickly became one of my favorite
players—but it wasn’t only because of his immense talent. Sheffield (who should be in the Hall of Fame) had his initials ‘GS’ plated in gold on his two front teeth, which seemed to be about the coolest thing a person could do.
“When you’re older,” Mom said after I asked when I could get that done (she still doesn’t
think I’m old enough).
In addition to the local Brewers—my young, fleeting fan allegiance also drifted out West
that summer as the Oakland A’s had become the biggest, baddest, and most fun thing I’d ever
seen on a diamond. The Bash Brothers dominated Major League Baseball in ‘88 with magazine
covers, cheesy posters, and Sports Center highlights. Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire looked
like muscle-bound baseball gods stepping up to the plate (both were proven to be avid steroid
users). The two took turns in the batting order crushing tape measure home runs with swag and
arrogance. And after each towering bomb out of the stadium, the two sluggers had a routine of
celebrating their dominance by bashing their forearms together like tag team wrestlers.
My younger brother and I copied and repeated the move an infinite amount of times
during our pretend games or when crossing paths in the hallway that connected our bedrooms.
For months that summer, I saved my small weekly allowance to buy autographed
baseball cards of the two in a wooden plaque from the local baseball card shop.
Most Saturdays, my parents would drive me over to the strip mall across from the
YMCA, so that I could browse the new arrivals of my favorite players and fantasize about
someday owning the rare, expensive cards of Mantle, Williams, and Mays. I always left with a
pack or two, hoping to discover a new gem to add to my collection (The popularity of baseball
cards back then was nearly the equivalent to what fantasy sports are today.)
Immediately, that plaque became one of my most prized possession and displayed
prominently in a trophy case with all of my other memorabilia. It also just so happened that
season the Oakland A’s were playing the Brewers in Milwaukee the day before I turned
eight—and of course, my parents got me tickets.
While living in Wisconsin (we moved to Iowa two years later), my family attended a
dozen or so games each season. Because of my obsession for all things baseball, my mom and
dad indulged me in a ritualistic routine on game days. Before the gates opened, as everyone else
tailgated across the County Stadium parking lot—grilling brats and lounging next to their RVs,
we’d be in line, hours before the first pitch. The moment the usher ripped my ticket in half, I
sprinted as fast as my little legs could carry me. I darted around the vendors selling programs and
up the dank, cement ramp until I laid eyes on the remarkable, larger than life scene of major
league baseball players taking batting practice and shagging fly balls on the perfectly cut outfield
grass. A thick, suddy aroma of draft beer from the nearby Miller Brewery always invaded my
nostrils at that point (My dad gave me my first sip of beer at a baseball game—I think I was
I continued my journey down the aisle, bypassing rows and rows of seats until I settled
into a spot as close to the dugout as possible. For two hours before the first pitch, I yelled,
begged, and pleaded, annoyingly no doubt, for a personal memento of any kind. A signature,
ball, or batting glove, anything that gave me more of a connection to America’s pastime.
Occasionally, players made the short walk over to the young, adoring fans—some a bit
older—but most of the time they ignored us, strutting down the steps and into the tunnel without
so much as a glance.
Up until that game versus the A’s, I always staked out claim near the Brewers’ dugout
along the first baseline—however, that night I secured space on the other side of the field,
searching and scouring for any recognizable players. I had just my glove with me—a blue,
perfectly broken-in mit that I used with my Little League team and for practice with my dad.
But the unique color came back to haunt me.
Standing among the dozens of kids and adults near the A’s dugout, Jose Canseco finished
his BP session, and after a chorus of shouts, unexpectedly veered in our direction. At that age, it
was surreal to see an idol of mine up close and in the flesh. With his flashy grin and imposing
physique, he had the appearance of a come-to-life animated superhero (the steroids probably
Utterly starstruck, I didn’t have a ball and the thought of bringing a card of his to sign
never entered my mind, so I stuck out my glove in-between the sea of bodies as far as I could
All-of-the-sudden I felt a slight pull. I let go, and my eyes just about fell out of their
sockets as Canseco scribbled his signature on the mitt’s middle finger. He placed the new
souvenir back in my small hand like he’d just completed the most mundane of tasks while at the
same time giving me the happiest moment imaginable.
The grin on my face must have been one of pure joy.
It was like my ultimate birthday wish had come true.
But the bliss was relatively short-lived as I looked at the newly minted autograph and
realized … he’d signed with blue ink.
I squinted, bringing the glove closer to view. Two distinct thin ovals were diagonal from
each other, forming a cursive J. The other three letters of his name were scribbled illegibly
behind. The C was overly slanted to the right, while the rest of his last name faded into an
indistinguishable line at the end. Like a raindrop landing in a puddle, the color of the glove
nearly drowned out the signature as his name was about as faint as could be.
But it was there.
Eventually, that glove was placed in the trophy case next to the plaque. Over the years,
I’ve shown off the autograph a number of times to friends, and they’d always ask—where is it?
“You just had to be there,” I’d tell them.
Though as memorable as that moment was—that’s not what I recall most from my eighth
birthday. Coming into the game, Canseco (the AL MVP that year … and future presidential
candidate?) was two steals short from becoming the first player in MLB history to hit 40 home
runs and steal 40 bases in a single season (I kept track of players’ stats in the box scores of the
“Milwaukee Sentinel” each morning while eating a big bowl of Rice Krispies.)
And in the very first inning, Canseco added to his stolen base tally by swiping second
after a single to right. McGwire was up at the time and subsequently drove in two runs with a
base hit to give Oakland an early 2-0 lead.
That remained the score until the top of the fifth.
Canseco led off the inning, surprising the Brewers’ infield by laying down a perfectly
placed bunt along the third baseline and running out a single. With McGwire again at the plate,
Canseco took an extended lead off first. All eyes in the stadium were on him, anticipating a
seminal moment in baseball history.
The pitcher looked over—and the second he lifted his leg toward home, Canseco took off
like a thoroughbred out of the gate. Dirt from his cleats kicked up with each step. The throw
from the Brewers’ catcher was late, and Canseco slid safely under the tag for his 40th steal of the
season. All of the Milwaukee fans stood and cheered the accomplishment as he removed the base
from the holder, raising it overhead in celebration.
However, even with the autograph before the game and witnessing baseball lore, the
night was far from over. At the top of the seventh, the A’s had a 4-2 lead when McGwire came
up and crushed a solo home run to right. And never one to be outdone, Canseco did the same in
the eighth, taking a 2-2 pitch from a Brewers’ reliever over the fence for a three-run bomb to
push Oakland on top 8-3.
Other than use the bathroom a time or two, I don’t think I moved more than an inch as
my focus zeroed in on every pitch, hit, and play.
One day I hoped that would be me (I never came close).
The A’s maintained their five-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, so the game
was all but done. Most of the home fans had given up and made their way toward the exit,
attempting to beat the traffic. My mom and dad had already promised that we could stay until the
very end. But with one out in the inning, two Brewer players singled back-to-back. The next
batter walked—and a throwing error allowed a runner to score from third, cutting the lead to
Another walk loaded the bases, and then Rob Deer, a free-swinging slugger with a
red-headed mullet and mustache, injected new life into the remaining crowd, driving in two runs
to make the score 8-6. The Brewers’ prospective comeback dimmed slightly after a strikeout, but
that was just a momentary blip as the next batter stepped into the batter’s box and knocked in the
seventh run with an RBI single to right.
Milwaukee’s last hope was designated hitter, Joey Meyer, and he quickly found himself
down 0-2 in the count. With fans on pins and needles, and Meyer facing one of the greatest
relievers of all time (Dennis Eckersley), the heavy-set rookie dug in, and much to my parents’
dismay, he slapped a clutch base hit to right to send the game into extra innings.
The Bash Brothers’ home runs along with the Brewers’ comeback definitely added to my
birthday experience, but what sticks out most of all came next.
My family and I had been watching the game in the upper deck along the first base side. I
was sitting at the end of the row. My brother had fallen asleep on my dad’s lap, and as the game
moved into the 10th, 11th, and 12th innings, the clock finally struck midnight, and officially, it
became my birthday.
Up until that point, I couldn’t have asked for a better night. Even if I’d been given
another wish on top of all the wishes I’d already been granted, I wouldn’t have known what to
ask for … except for the one thing that had always eluded me—a foul ball.
And lo and behold, in the bottom of the 13th and sitting in an emptied-out stadium, a
right-handed batter, I can’t remember who exactly, hit a high-arcing shot that landed with a loud
thud in the next section over.
Not a single person was in the vicinity, and I took off like a dart, moving that direction
with all the abandon I had in me. My heart raced in a way that I could barely breathe. The
baseball had struck the seats in the middle of the row, two in front of mine. I peeled down the
aisle and was met with an open lane to my final treasure.
I propelled myself forward with a thrust and reached to place my little palm on the
threaded seams, but just as I began to raise the ball up in celebration—a large, claw-like hand
snatched it from my grasp.
My eyes peered over, and a balding man with glasses and face full of beard held up the
stolen memento. His chest puffed and belly jiggled as he fist pumped repeatedly with inebriated
joy. Skipping back to his seat, the black racing t-shirt he wore flapped up and down. He
enthusiastically high-fived a buddy while my newly turned eight-year-old emotional state
Slowly, I shuffled back to my seat fighting off a flood of tears. My dad yelled something
at the guy, but my brother began to stir, and his attention turned back to him.
Mom shouted something as well, but her focus was on making sure I was okay.
Not even close.
Discreetly, I pulled my Brewers cap over my eyes and lifted my glove to cover the rest of
my crying face, trying to hide the hurt and forgetting (momentarily) all the good I experienced
during the baseball game.
To miss out on a souvenir is certainly less than nothing compared to just about
everything else in the world. But the physical shock to my system left such an intense, distinct
impression that to this day I can put myself back in the stadium and see the ball underneath the
red seat with the yellow foul pole and right field bleachers in the backdrop.
Rather than be angry with the man though, I was mostly upset with myself. I felt like I
was the one who screwed up. I didn’t want to believe any person could have that kind of power
over me. Somehow, I wanted to have been stronger, moved faster, or shielded him from the ball
in a way that could have made a difference.
I was just too young and small to do a damn thing about it.
Growing up, I suppose moments like that are sort of like birthdays in the sense that
everyone has them. Some are trivial (i.e. lost foul ball), others can have more of a long-term
But no matter what the circumstance, I think it’s important to take stock in the fact all
children have a tendency to remember and that’s something nobody should ever forget.