(Previously published in The Baltimore Examiner)
You spot him walking down the street like the average Joe, except his name is Cal, as in Cal Ripken Jr. You can’t believe your good fortune in spotting a sports celebrity, or your chump luck that you’re without a baseball. You nudge your kid, “See who’s over there?” as you frantically search for a scrap of paper. You must act fast or he’ll get away.
But how to grab Cal’s attention? You want that autograph! Should you touch his arm? Call his name? Offer a handshake? A tongue-tied oaf with four thumbs stands in your place, confidence transformed, unable to contain his exhilaration in the same breathing space as a Hall of Famer.
Ripken said plenty of fans fumble their words out of nervousness. It amuses him when he hears, “You’re my biggest fan,” when someone means the opposite. Once he calms them with his gentle demeanor, they usually express themselves more clearly.
What’s the best way to approach a player? Most people react without thinking, said Sandy Unitas, wife of the late Johnny U.
“We’d be sitting there [in a restaurant] and someone would obviously recognize him,” said Unitas, “Then right when they served John his food, a fan would decide to approach him.”
Her tip to the knack of celebrity-approaching is to consider the situation. Where he is? How is he engaged?
“Wait until an approachable time,” she said, “don’t just run up and start talking, ‘Oh my, he’s Johnny Unitas!’ and interrupt what’s going on. Be considerate of the people he’s with.”
Unitas said her husband became a tad annoyed when a fan approached him during their kids’ sporting events. “He was there as a father,” she said, “not as a celebrity. He didn’t like anyone talking to him while he was watching a game, including me!”
Fans may claim the attention comes with the territory, yet any territory has its boundaries. And fans sometimes can cross the line … such as when Ken Singleton was asked for an autograph by a hospital staff member while his wife was in labor.
Living close to Los Angeles, Janice Murray, wife of former Oriole Eddie, said so many stars and athletes are in sight, most people don’t give them the time of day. “It’s great out here. No one bothers him. He can even go to get groceries.”
Yet one “how not to approach” incident stands out in her memory. She and Eddie were leaving a game, and “a woman wanted Eddie’s photo,” said Murray. “She shooed me out of the way and said, ‘Oh no, not you, honey.’ That was kind of rude. There was a different way to do that. Maybe if that lady had been nicer, I would have offered to take the picture.”
Murray has witnessed women asking her husband to sign their T-shirts, maybe a tad too close to their you-know-whats.
There are many good stories, too. “The kids are polite,” she said, mimicking, ‘Mr. Murray? Could I have your autograph, please?’ That’s no problem. Adults are the ones.”
Her advice is to assess the situation, take into account people they’re with and what they’re going through (maybe rushing through an airport). Is it the appropriate time to interrupt them?
Brooks Robinson said 99 percent of the people he encounters are “wonderful” and respect his privacy. “I’ve always enjoyed people. I accept it; it’s part of the deal.” His wife Connie has patience with fans as well, he said.
Most are timid in approaching the third-base golden glove, yet he admitted an admirer occasionally may cross the line. “Sitting on the airplane, some guy wanted to bend my ear between Baltimore and Los Angeles … he wanted to talk and talk and talk and I couldn’t get rid of him. Connie was with me.”
Then there’s the restaurant fan who talks for 20 minutes while the Robinsons are eating. “That’s crossing the line,” he said. “But I’ve been around for so long, I can spot someone who wants an autograph. Some look at me and say, ‘You’re Johnny Unitas!'”
He shared Unitas’ story about a guy in a bar who knew Unitas was an athlete, but was incorrect with the name. “You’re Brooks Robinson,” he insisted repeatedly. Unitas had to pull out his billfold to prove otherwise.
By September in the Singleton household, admittedly, I’m weary of baseball. Let’s just get the Yankees to the World Series already, and get Mr. Singy home to make spaghetti.
If I had a dollar for every baseball game I’ve watched (um, sort of watched) being a Singleton, I could have loads of fun at The Dollar Tree. (You thought I was going to say I’d be rich?)
Throughout Ken’s radio announcing days for the Montreal Expos, TV broadcasting for Madison Square Garden and the YES Network, our son Justin’s little league, high school, and Clemson University games, his summer leagues (including Cape Cod), and on up to his Minor League career in the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A system … whew, that’s a ton of baseball for someone who connects with the phrase ants in her pants.
Wait … forgot to count two other sons’ rec council baseball games. Now we’re up to 19 years’ worth of being a baseball mom and wife, loyally sitting through mega-innings of a sport with which I have a love/hate relationship. Good thing the tickets have been free.
It’s not a secret – Ken admits it, too – baseball is a slow, methodical, and sometimes
L-O-N-G game. I’ve been the one in the stands reading a book (hey, a girl has to prepare for rain delays somehow), and I’ve walked around stadiums to stretch my legs and people watch. I’ve hunted for the healthiest stadium food possible and even shopped in team stores to pass time through extra innings, although our household does not need one more jersey, cap, or jacket in the closets. (Wait – do they make high heels yet with team logos?)
I try to pay attention, honestly I do, but the distractions are too great … watching people pig out or guzzle beer, noticing kids more bored than I am fiddle with their dad’s hat or fold their stadium seat up and down 42 times. I contemplate why that girl walking up the aisle would want to show that much cleavage in a male-dominated venue (oh right); and calculate the time we’ll get back to the hotel to catch a “Sex and the City” rerun.
Basically I’ve decided that watching baseball is like going to work with my husband. The sport has been extremely good to the Singletons, certainly, I’d never want to sound ungrateful (that’s the love part). Baseball feeds our hungry teens and my shoe fetish. Yet it separates our family for seven months (that’s the hate part). We miss Ken, and Ken misses out on family life such as birthdays and weddings, meeting visiting cousins from Italy, simply hanging out with the kids – and the most recent, as you may have heard Michael Kay announce on air – the birth of our first grandson September 21.
We can bring Ken’s face into our living room via airwaves, sure, but that is no substitute for the real deal.
Yes, 19 years is a lot of baseball. Excuse me while I run out to the dollar store.
People ask often how Ken and I met, so I may as well tell the story here, too. How Mr. and Mrs. Singy ended up in the same life is accredited to my 9-to-5 corporate days as a communications officer for a bank where I was editor of publications.
After Ken retired as a player, he had signed on with the bank as a spokesman for a product called “The Lineup,” which tied in neatly with a baseball theme. He made appearances at bank branches, taped a TV commercial with the late Clara Peller of “Where’s the beef?” fame, and allowed our department to interview him for a 1985 issue of RECAP, the bank’s newspaper (I still have it).
I remember being somewhat nervous – more excited actually – to meet a real live Baltimore Oriole the morning he stepped into my small lamp-lit office in downtown Baltimore. Yet he quickly placed me at ease with his congeniality and easy smile.
Ken had moved on to his second career, broadcasting games for TSN (The Sports Network) in Canada, which produced games for the Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays, among others; he also anchored sports on the weekends for a Baltimore TV station.
“I enjoy it,” he had said about being behind a microphone instead of behind home plate. “I’m comfortable since I’m talking about something I’ve been doing my whole life.”
On the topic of retiring from baseball, Ken explained it like this, “There are different stages to an athlete’s career. When you make it to the Majors, you make it on talent alone. You have the ability, but the talent and experience aren’t mixed together. The longer you stay, the more the experience blends with the talent. In my case I was a good player, but I wasn’t overly talented. As you get older, the talent decreases, then it gets to the point when the talent is almost gone and you rely solely on experience – which is not good enough. That’s the point I reached.”
The interview goes on for a long page after that (and how I wish I could edit my young green writing) with questions such as “What career would you have pursued if not baseball? (teaching) … “Would you like to manage?” (no) … “Who was your idol in baseball?” (Willie Mays) and other topics.
Our department then began to produce news videos for the branches and satellite offices, and we had invited Ken to host them; I was chosen as co-host (and I still have the videos, too, but I swear I’m not a packrat).
While sitting around waiting for the crew to set up shots, lighting, sound, and make script changes, Ken and I chatted off-camera, and a friendship began. Occasionally he would phone me at work for a chat, or we would meet downtown for a meal, still as friends. I had a stuffy bow-tied banker boyfriend at the time; and neither of us looked at the friendship as anything more.
After resigning from the bank in 1989, I freelanced as a communications/events specialist and was hired to help plan a treasure hunt fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The event called for local celebrities to present clues to the contestants, posted around various departments of Saks Fifth Avenue in Baltimore where the event was staged.
I had invited Ken to participate, and because my frugal boyfriend chose not to attend, Ken and I went together. There was a magical kiss on the escalator at the end of the black-tie evening, eventually I broke up with the banker and hung out with Ken more.
The next summer while renting a house with a roommate, the landlord decided to sell it. We approached our friend Ken with the idea to housesit for him while he worked on the road for Expos radio. He agreed, and we moved in to what was supposed to be a temporary situation. At the end of the baseball season the roommate left, I stayed, and became Mrs. Singy the following October ’91.
And they lived baseball ever after …
When people and organizations ask Ken for an autographed baseball, I politely inform them that we don’t currently own a warehouse of sporting equipment (see “The Singletons are fresh out of autograph items“) yet if they provide a ball, Ken will be happy to sign it.
With certain situations that tug at my heartstrings, however, I’m a little more lenient, so once in a while I scurry around the house in search of a blank baseball to stick under Ken’s nose to sign.
There aren’t many – blank ones, that is. On the last go-round, I stopped upstairs in Ken’s office at a red felt, almost-Santa-like bag filled with over 40 autographed baseballs. One of these days I should buy him a shelf or display case because the baseballs – or rather what’s on them – are fairly impressive even to my amateur eyes.
I wish some of these guys had had better handwriting for me to report what names are on the balls! Ken, without a doubt, could sit here and relay a zillion stories behind each in his collection.
Alas, this is what I see:
? Rawlings official ball of the 1983 World Series signed “To Matthew, Good Luck, Pete Rose.” Unfortunately, our son Matthew, in a creative mood as a kid, tried to decorate the ball further using small rubber stamps so Pete’s scribble has a little company.
? On another ball, Ken’s handwriting reads: “RBI #100 and 101, 8/30/79 vs. Twins in Baltimore”
? “1,000 Major League Hit, pitcher Jim Slaton, Milwaukee vs. Baltimore 7/25/77”
? “First A.L. Grand Slam 5/22/76, 8-4 win over Tigers”
? “1st American League homerun, donated by Jim Perry 4/27/75”
? “Homerun off Juan Marichal 6/13/71”
? “Homerun #23, R.B.I. #100, 9/23/73”
? “RBI #1000 & 1001, homerun Chicago, 8/11/83”
? “9th Consecutive Hit, a club record, 4/28/81”
? “Career Homerun #200, 4/26/81”
? “Hit #1,500 at Baltimore vs. Chicago, double, 1st inning, 8/6/80”
? “American & National 1979 Japan Major League Series”
? “N.Y. METS” with a ball full of faded autographs
? official league ball with Montreal Expos logo and various signatures
? “To Matthew & Justin, Al Bumbry, Padres #4, 1985” (Al is still one of Ken’s good friends; he lives in Baltimore, too)
? “50th All-Star Game” ball
? official ball of 1981 All-Star Game with various signatures
? baseball stamped with “Liga de Baseball Profesional de Puerto Rico”
? many other autographs too numerous to list, however, legible names include Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Jim Palmer and many others
One lone autographed ball not in the red bag with the others, sits amid Ken’s papers and baseball books on his desk. It has one signature – Hank Aaron.