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If You Really Want an Autograph, Just Go Buy One, By Chuck Strom

Quote from ceiling mural at McCovey's.

Quote from ceiling mural at McCovey’s.

Last Saturday at the KNBR Giants Fan Fest I walked onto the grass of AT&T Park for the first time. If anyone had told me beforehand that it would be one of the most frustrating experiences of my life, I would have thought that to be impossible. However, I will remove the suspense from this story and confess that I spent almost seven hours standing in lines outside and inside the park hoping to watch bona fide members of the San Francisco Giants sign my official Major League baseball, and the only fruit I received for my labor was a valuable lesson: never wait in line for an autograph.

I don’t regret having tried it. Nothing good happens in life unless you take risks, and in this case I did my best to calculate them and ensure success. The day started auspiciously when I arrived at the Bay Bridge at about 7:45 AM with traffic so light that I barely had to stop at the booth to pay my toll. About fifteen minutes later—two hours before the scheduled 10 o’clock start—I pulled into the lot at AT&T and had no trouble finding a space for the day at no charge. I had seen the lines already forming at the entrances but didn’t find them overly intimidating. As I went to take my place in front of the Willie Mays Gate I looked forward to standing with the other fans, with whom I generally could count on conversation despite being us perfect strangers to one another. At one point the Third Street Bridge raised its massive structure behind us to allow a boat to pass through—an impressive sight for those interested in that kind of thing.

“That is an engineering marvel,” said a fifty-something man next to me.

Another nearby fan took a snide approach. “They’re just testing it to see if it works.”

About five minutes after ten the gates opened, and though a cheer rose up through the crowd I should have realized it to be an ominous portent for the day. The crowd moved in orderly fashion toward the entrance, and after a few more minutes I was through and making my way to the field. When I reached the stands behind home plate, however, it was immediately apparent that my gate had not been the first to open, because the field was already jammed. I was a little annoyed, but I’d known this to be a possibility and wasted no time in setting my jaw and getting down to the action below.

On the field I found that the tight organization that I had come to expect during events sponsored by the Giants was nowhere to be found. Other than the signs on the booths indicating where the players were stationed, there were no directions of any kind as to where the lines started or ended. I managed to find an usher who confirmed one of the lines to be for autographs, then I spent another ten minutes following its serpentine path around the field before I came to the starting point. It was about ten-thirty when I assumed my place in the line, which grew rapidly behind me, and I resigned myself to the prospect of spending my entire day there. I looked around and estimated that of the more than thirty thousand people that had come into the park, about two thirds to three quarters of them were here for the same reason as I was, an overwhelming testimony to the lure of having a professional baseball player sign his name.

I chatted briefly with a man and his son in front of me, silently thankful that neither of my daughters had been available to make the trip. “This is like waiting in line at Disneyland,” he said.

“No,” I said, “they do a much better job of managing people down there.” Having been to Disneyland twice with my family during the Christmas holidays, one of the most crowded times of the year, I could attest to having seen almost every inch of space in the park filled with people and yet never feeling like I had spent an inordinate amount of time standing in line. The Disneyland public relations staff does a good job of educating people how to work their system: arrive first thing in the morning when the gates open, sprint to your favorite ride immediately to get on before a line forms, use the system of Fast Passes to schedule other popular rides with a minimum of waiting, then go back to your hotel around lunchtime to chill for a couple of hours when the crowds reach their peak. Comparing that experience to my current situation, I knew that Walt Disney would have been appalled.

The line was excruciatingly slow, lurching forward a few feet about every ten minutes. After an hour the man and his son gave up to enjoy the other attractions, which included self-guided clubhouse and press box tours and player interviews throughout the day. After they left I didn’t talk much to the people around me. They were a determined bunch on serious business, and with universally sore feet, aching backs, and a surprisingly warm sun not helping matters, the socializing that I normally expected in a crowd of fans was not to be had. On the stadium clock I watched the hours tick by, and because of the line’s circuitousness I could not see at any point how far I really was from the end. Then around one-thirty I started to get tantalizingly close to the autograph booths, and I watched carefully as people milled around in front of me, trying to figure out whether the end was in sight. Just as I thought I was about to reach pay dirt, however, the people ahead of me turned around and started back once again in the other direction across the field, and at that point I knew that I wasn’t going to make it. When an usher came by around two-thirty to inform us that all of the remaining autograph tickets had been distributed and that we were out of luck, I was mostly irritated that he hadn’t come by a lot sooner to put us out of our misery.

Ceiling at McCovey's Restaurant.

Ceiling at McCovey’s Restaurant.

At that point, there wasn’t much to do but go back to the seats behind home plate for Tim Lincecum’s interview and see his new conservative haircut, which was part of his campaign to come back from his disappointing 2012 season and restore his dominance on the mound. When he was done I decided I was, too, and I headed to the parking lot in time to beat most of the traffic. By the time I reached the Bay Bridge I had determined my itinerary for next year’s Fan Fest: skip the autograph lines, take the clubhouse and press box tours, then settle in for the player interviews with a cold beer in hand. As is often the case with travelling, true enjoyment of this destination would start with my return visit.

I had made plans to meet a friend at Willie McCovey’s Restaurant in Walnut Creek, and I was glad to have had the foresight to arrange a more agreeable end to my day. I had never set foot in McCovey’s before, and this time my expectations were amply fulfilled. In addition to the usual autographed baseballs and jerseys on display, the decor included a startlingly impressive circular ceiling mural of McCovey’s number 44, surrounded by black-and-white pictures from his playing career and a variety of famous quotes from baseball history. More to my surprise, the food was good and reasonably priced, and I enthusiastically complimented to the waitress my half-rack of baby back ribs, which were more than enough to fortify me for the drive home.

The next morning, having decided that I would never fulfill this bucket list item any other way, I went online and ordered an autographed baseball from Amazon, choosing a reasonably priced ($66.79) ball signed by Jeremy Affeldt, a late-inning relief pitcher whose clutch performances in the 2010 and 2012 playoffs contributed significantly to the Giants’ championships. As for the baseball I had purchased in hopes of seeing it signed, I put it away for safekeeping as a permanent item to take to future games, just in case I was lucky enough to run into a player in a generous mood. For good things to happen, it also helps to be prepared.

Chuck Strom

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