|THE EXPRESS WAS ALL BUSINESS BUT MADE TIME FOR FANS.|
|THE ONE AND ONLY.|
Because spring training is underway and it's the best time to acquire autographs, I want to share my greatest single day of autograph collecting.
In the early '90s during the first week players reported, I'd drive to various spring training sites along Florida's Gulf Coast. One day I visited Port Charlotte, where the Rangers trained. Nolan Ryan was all the rage then and the team actually would post a sign on a fence stating, "Nolan Ryan (will or won't) sign autographs today.'' If you caught the day he did, the team would set out a folding table and a line would start. When Ryan finished working out, he'd sit at the table and sign for everyone.
He was signing this day, so I was in luck. But instead of getting in line, which wasn't that long, I walked around to watch the workouts. Among the usual baseball drills, I saw Nolan in an open-door gym, sweating like a madman, while working out.
Near the back of the complex, I saw a "coach'' showing a pitcher how to smooth out his delivery. There was something strangely familiar with him. He was graying and wore a plain blue windbreaker zipped up but no cap. An older man was watching, too.
"Sandy Koufax,'' he said, motioning to the guy on the mound. "He's in town as a guest instructor.''
The Rangers manager at the time, Kevin Kennedy, was good friends with Koufax and asked if he'd help some of his young pitchers during the first few days of camp.
I'd seen Koufax at Dodgertown a few springs ago, but he was almost like a ghost; you'd seen him from a distance and then he'd disappear so quick it was almost like you imagined it.
But this time he was right there, a few feet away, and you could hear him share some of the finer points of the craft. It really is a special memory of spring I'll always carry.
Anyway, there was never a chance to ask for his autograph, and I'm not sure I would've had the courage to anyway, so after about 20 minutes, I got into the Ryan line, which had quadrupled in length. He sat down about 30 minutes later and patiently signed. He greeted everyone in his Texas drawl and looked you in the eye before autographing one item.
While in line, I heard the Rangers were going to have an intersquad game in the stadium, so I figured I'd catch a few innings. I sat down the left-field line, near the bullpen; nobody was near me. Eventually, that familiar figure walked from the dugout toward the bullpen. It was Koufax. And he sat on the bench, right in front of me. Nobody from the stands noticed. It was just him and me.
My heart began to race. It's now or never. I waited until a middle inning and squeaked, "Mr. Koufax, could you sign a baseball for me?''
He turned around, looked up and said, "Sure.''
I handed him the ball and pen.
"Thank you very much.''
And that was it. Even telling the story now, I get excited. Silly, I know. He's just a man, same as you or me, and I shouldn't get this carried away over someone whose big contribution to humanity was tossing a ball, but I can't help it.
Sandy Freakin' Koufax.
Nolan Freakin' Ryan.
All in a day's work at spring training.
It never would get any better than this.