I recently found this well-written blog by a minor league baseball pitcher. Even the self-deprecating title, "Non-Prospect Diary" gives you an idea that he is not your average professional athlete. Some great insights and angles in this entry in which he muses on the relationship between fans and athletes:
"I can't explain to you what its like to avoid someone on purpose. When I write about the concept it just seems too rude and heartless. Maybe it is, but I still do it all the time. In my line of work, sometimes you have to ignore people. You have to tune out the noise of the game. There is no shortage of kids who want balls just because some other kid got one. No shortage of folks who want scraps signed with illegible autographs because everyone else is doing it. No shortage of begging, and pleading for stuff they don't really need, just want because someone else has. "
This brought back some memories I have related to the brief interactions that some fans crave with their favourite players. I never gave this aspect much consideration while growing up and the few instances of meeting hockey players were of the incidental nature.
Years ago while attending Winnipeg Jets games, we would occasionally amble into the lower level after the game where the entrances to the team dressing rooms were located. There was little security and no one seemed to mind that a small crowd would gather and politely wait for players to emerge. There wasn't any aggressive behaviour from fans as I recall and many of the players would stop and provide a few signatures before moving on.
One day after a game as we loitered outside the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room, Guy Lafleur strode out, walked past a group of fans, carried on down the concourse and disappeared through another door. Apparently no one considered pestering him for his autograph. Even at that age I was struck by his relatively small stature and the jarring sight of a pack of DuMaurier cigarettes hanging out of his shirt pocket.
On another occasion, the fact that others were getting signatures from a group of receptive Jets players prompted us to get in the spirit of things. Unfortunately we didn't have anything for the players to write on. Some discarded cigarette packets in the corner solved the problem (the inside sleeve of those 25 pack Canadian brands were perfect for the situation) and we promptly braced Dave Babych for his pen stroke. My friend at the time incorrectly addressed him as Dave Christian which is odd considering Babych's trademark handlebar mustache made him one of the more recognizable players. Babych didn't correct the slip-up, smiled, scribbled his name and carried on.
At a game between the Jets and the Los Angeles Kings, we were at ice level about an hour before the game as players were warming up. Wayne Gretzky was a few feet from us, leaning over with his stick on his knees and awaiting his turn as players took shots on the goalie. Next to us on the other side of the glass was a middle-aged doughy looking oaf with the stereotypical look of arrested development. He started haranguing Gretzky in a steady, monotonous, insanely annoying voice: "Wayne, can I have your stick Wayne. Wayne, please can I have your stick, Wayne...Wayne..."
The shamelessness and nothing-to-lose sense of desperation was cringe-worthy to witness. Gretzky was no doubt used to such bizarre situations and didn't even glance in the oaf's direction. There was also a little kid of about 7 years old near us, pasted up against the glass, staring at Gretzky's iconic mug. As the oaf's absurd pleading continued on, Gretzky turned and looked at the kid, smiled and nodded in that universal style of recognition that even a child understands.
If I remember such a simple gesture all these years later, I'm sure that kid, now long since grown, also remembers.