Growing up in the pre and early-Marlins days of South Florida, young baseball fans like myself had one thing: Spring Training.
It was huge to us. A bunch of teams within reach: the Yankees, Mets, Braves and Expos were all a short drive away. The Rangers and Orioles had also spent time in the tri-county area that makes up the region.
Two of those teams, Atlanta and Montreal shared a stadium in downtown West Palm Beach. It was an older facility, no glitz, no glamour; but for me—just about 20 minutes from home—it was clutch. One stadium, two teams.
The Braves last worked there in 1997, but I’m guessing this story takes place a few years prior to that. Maybe ’93 or ’94 or ’95. I would have been 10 or 11 or 12.
My friend’s dad dropped my friend and I off at the stadium and we had an entire afternoon to take in a game and of course try and grab as many autographs as possible. That was my buddy’s MO, at least. I vividly remember him running up to Every. Single. Player asking for an autograph.
“Number 68! Number 68! Will you sign my ball?”
Neither of us were Braves fans. And the guys milling around and signing weren’t exactly everyday Major Leaguers. We knew none of them. He wanted all of them.
“Number 77! Number 77!”
I had one baseball and a Sharpie. I was waiting for a guy I at least recognized. (I was a discerning kid, apparently.) Maybe I had his baseball card or he looked familiar from TV—anything that made me feel like I should take the time to bug him for a signature.
So my friend is running around “54! 54!” and I’m sort of walking around with my head down just waiting it out. I ended up in what was a more quiet area off to the side. And then a big guy bumped into me.
He was immediately apologetic. I didn’t bother to look up—as a kid in a sea of people you sort of expect to get knocked around a bit—and told him no problem.
He asked if I wanted him to sign my ball. Still sort of looking down and around—everywhere but up—I told him no worries.
He asked if I was sure and after apologizing again, and offering again, walked away.
That’s when I finally looked up.
I looked up and saw him, with a couple of official looking people around him, walk through a chain link gate and out of view. It took about a half a second at that point.
It was Hank Aaron.
I looked back down. At my ball. Blank. I could have had a Hank Aaron signed baseball, with no marks from 77 or 54 or even a young Chipper Jones.
I was crushed. Obviously. But, in retrospect, it may actually be a better story this way. And, hey, if I ever get to meet him, I’ve got a great way to break the ice.
Happy 82nd birthday, Hammer.
Catch Jesse Agler all season long as he broadcasts San Diego Padres games, along with Ted Leitner, on The Mighty 1090.