At the time of my eighth birthday my family lived in a suburb outside of Milwaukee. Our neighborhood was one of those booming, up-and-coming areas where all the homes were built to look different from one another but couldn’t have been more alike. My house sat atop a large hill across from the church we attended on Sundays. Many of my friends were part of the congregation, and the service our parents forced us to sit through felt like the tax we had to pay for being able to play together afterward.
Baseball was our passion back then, and the sport consumed us from the still melting snow in the spring to the crisp, cool autumn air. Nearly every summer day, 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 each player on the 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 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, 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 avid steroid users). They both 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 sluggers had a routine of celebrating their dominance by bashing their forearms together like tag team wrestlers.
For months that summer, I saved my small weekly allowance to buy autographed baseball cards of the two mounted on 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 Bash Brothers’ plaque immediately became one of my most prized possession and displayed prominently in a trophy case with 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 pregame ritual. 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 larger than life scene of major league ballplayers taking batting practice and shagging fly balls on the perfectly cut outfield grass. A thick, sudsy 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 nine.)
My journey continued down the aisle, bypassing rows and rows of seats, until I settled into a spot as close to the dugout as possible. This was my chance to yell, beg, and plead, 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, strolling down the steps and into the tunnel without so much as a glance.
Prior to 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 mitt that I used for practice with my dad and Little League team.
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 helped).
Utterly starstruck, I didn’t have a ball and the thought of bringing a card of his to sign had never entered my mind (I mean, what were the odds?), so I stuck out my glove in-between the sea of bodies as far as I could reach.
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 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 were scribbled illegibly behind. The C was overly slanted to the right, while the rest of his last name faded into an indistinguishable line. 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.
Eventually, I placed that glove in the trophy case next to the plaque. Over the years, I showed off that autograph to my friends numerous times, 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) 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.
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 legging 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.
The A’s maintained their five-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. Most of the home fans had already given up and made their way toward the exit, attempting to beat the traffic. My mom and dad had promised that we could stay until the very end (they soon came to regret this).
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 four. 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 player 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 Dennis Eckersley (one of the greatest relievers of all time), 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 sitting in the upper deck along the first base side. I was at the end of the row next to Mom, and my brother had fallen asleep on Dad’s lap. 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 the one thing that had always eluded me at a major league baseball game—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 rolled to a stop 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 in celebration—a large, menacing 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 hooded sweatshirt he wore flapped like a villainous cape. He enthusiastically high-fived his buddies while my newly turned eight-year-old emotional state completely frayed.
Slowly, I shuffled back to my seat fighting off a flood of tears. 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 all the good I experienced during the baseball game.
Rather than be angry with the man though, I recall being 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.
Every major league baseball game I’ve attended since, for a brief moment before the first at-bat as the umpire dusts the dirt off home plate, I do the same with that birthday memory.
Even after all these years, I can’t help but 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 and wonder if this will be my chance to redeem the eight-year old in me.