DAY EIGHT: Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati

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Friday, June 8: CARDINALS 7, REDS 6 (10 innings)

Autograph seekers are an interesting bunch. I was wandering around downtown Cincinnati, slowly making my way toward the stadium on a warm afternoon when I walked past a bus in front of a hotel. On the sidewalk in front of it a few important-looking people were speaking with a police officer, using the animated tones that suggest more than just pleasantries. I, of course, walked more slowly to try to figure out what juicy happenings I had bumbled into, but it wasn’t until I was a bit further that I realized it was the Cardinals team bus, idling while waiting to take some of the players over to the park a few blocks away.

The only reason I knew this was because I asked. Four autograph-hounds had staked out an area on the sidewalk (the hotel staff had courteously cordoned them off). I asked the first guy what was going on and he mumbled something incoherent but clearly angry. So I asked again. “BASEBALL,” he yelled. “Oh. Okay,” I replied, thrown off by the venom of the first impolite person I’ve encountered on the entire trip. “Well, I like baseball too.” I really said that. I’m kind of an idiot.

Feeling as if there was a story here but also feeling confident that this guy was unlikely to provide it, I moved onto the next fellow, a older man in a bright red shirt and a Topps hat [ed. note: this is different from a top hat], holding a stack of a hundred baseball cards in one hand and a sharpie in the other.

“Hey there, how you doing?” I asked, as politely as I could.

“Fine thanks.”

“Getting some autographs, huh?” I was struggling.

“Yep.”

It picked up a little from there, slowly but surely. Brad, a lifelong Reds fan who really didn’t want his photo taken, has collected an estimated 5000 autographs over the years. His personal favorite is Hank Aaron’s. In recent years he’s gotten Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols to sign. He was staking out (I’m fairly confident that’s exactly the right term here) one corner of the hotel to make sure that no players were coming around the back way. His buddy (surprisingly, I didn’t catch his name) was poised nearer the entrance. They spoke back and forth in a code that I didn’t understand.

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Cincinnati autograph-hounds wait patiently for members of the St. Louis Cardinals to head from their hotel to the team bus. Here’s Cards’ reliever Jordan Hicks, who can throw a baseball 105 mph and enjoys iced coffees from Starbucks. All I can do is take creeper photos of major league players. But I also like coffee.

I mentioned my blog to Brad and talked a bit about my journey, which helped loosen him up a bit. I asked if I could interview him, and he didn’t exactly say no. I just had to stop asking questions as soon as anyone resembling a ballplayer emerged from either door. A few times I started to say something and Brad would say “Wait a minute! Hang on!” and shuffle over to his friend. Pretty soon, sure enough, a few players emerged from the hotel, one at a time, both from Brad’s direction and from the front entrance. They were well-dressed and walked with a swagger common to 22-year-olds who have suddenly come into millions of dollars. Three pulse-pounding things were clear at once:

  1. It was time for all of us to spring into action!
  2. It was a full-out autograph-seeker assault of the senses!
  3. It was time for me to mostly try to stay out of the way because I was sure they all despised the fact that I was there!

Truly, though, my adrenaline was pumping and I was rooting for the group with everything I had.

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Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader heads for the team bus. You know how you sometimes hold up your phone, pretending to text, but actually you’re trying to take a photo of a famous person? Yeah, that never works.

But each player sauntered right by our group and got on the bus. Nobody was surprised, and nobody felt slighted; it’s all part of the thrill of the hunt. One player, reliever Jordan Hicks, who recently became the first player in major league history to throw two 105 mph pitches in the same game, asked if the group was going to the game and said he would try to sign then. Everyone nodded hopefully. Yesterday I had witnessed Hicks pitch a scoreless eighth inning against the Marlins, during which he struck out two, walked one, and threw two pitches past EVERYTHING, directly into the backstop on the fly. It was an electrifying performance but he only hit 101 mph on the Busch Stadium gun.

Anyway, today he was pretty focused but also polite.

“Man! This is exciting!” I said to Brad. He actually laughed, for the first time.

“Not really,” he replied.

I asked Brad if he recognized most of the players in the league and he said it’s maybe half of them. “Some guys are way better at it than others.” I think his friend is one of those guys but I was still too scared to talk to him.

The other two members of the autograph posse were younger, and very accommodating. I think they thought it was cool that I was taking notes on what they were doing and were happy to chat after the bus left and Brad and Scary-Guy took off shortly after. I don’t think they were related to the other two but they clearly knew them; they seemed to almost apologize for the first guy I met. “Yeah, the reason we sometimes aren’t very nice is because we have these spots and we really want to keep them,” explained 14-year-old Dylan (@that_autogaph_kid on Instagram, in case you want to check out his sweet collection). Nick, 17, agreed. Neither of them really wanted me to share the hotel’s location with all of my vast followers, so I agreed to keep it out of the blog post. If you ever decide to become a Cincinnati Reds autograph hound, kindly stay off their territory; they’ve earned it.

I again asked my go-to question for autograph-seekers: what’s the best one you got?

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Dylan, 14, and Nick, 17, are friends and fellow autograph-seekers.

“I’d say probably Bryce Harper,” Dylan told me.

“I have Aaron Judge,” Nick offered.

“That ain’t your best!” Dylan chided his older friend. “Aaron Judge sucks now!” We all had a laugh at that. Stupid Yankees.

[Nick is @cincygrapher, btw. These kids and their Instagram. His is also an awesome collection: his most recent entries are of Sean ‘The Mayor’ Casey and he’s got a cool one of former Michigan State and current Bengal cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Cincygrapher also boasts an impressive 1500 followers.]

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Darqueze Dennard from Nick’s autograph collection.

I was wondering if they sold their autographs or just liked collecting them. I was really hoping they’d say they just enjoyed collecting, and that’s pretty much what I heard. Dylan did explain that sometimes a player won’t sign a ball quite where he was hoping they would, so he’ll sell it and try to eventually get another one. “Anything I sell, though, any money I make, goes directly into the hobby.”

Solid work, boys! Dang, I should’ve gotten an autograph.

 

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There’s a cool story about this. It’s here.

I didn’t realize until I started this trip that every stadium has its own collection of statues. I mean, it really isn’t that surprising, but it strikes you when you start seeing them in every baseball city. Cincinnati wins the statue competition, though.

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This was the first game of the trip during which I hung out with someone I knew; my MSU buddy Kevin was gracious enough to go with me to the game AND let me sleep in his house (and use the shower! I’m clean again!). We also had some of the most delicious tacos I’ve ever eaten at Condado Tacos. You have to fill out a scorecard with your taco choices (sort of like at a sushi place), which was a little nerve-wracking because it seems really easy to order something dumb. But man, they were solid.

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This is my taco. Well, what’s left of it.

Thanks, Kev: had a great time!

This was also the first rain delay I’ve had; there were sporadic downpours throughout the game but they kept truckin’ until the bottom of the ninth, with the Reds trailing 6-4. Assuming, like just about everyone else, that the game was over and the Reds were headed for another loss in a forgettable season full of them, we left. We missed what would have been an incredible comeback: the home team scored two in the ninth to send it to extra innings. Where they promptly lost.

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PREVIOUS GAME: @St. Louis Cardinals vs. Miami Marlins

NEXT GAME: @Chicago Cubs vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

MILES TRAVELED TO GET HERE: 380

MILES TRAVELED TO THIS POINT: 7059

 

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