stadium club

words & art: mark mulroney

George Bell told me to get lost. Kirk Gibson told me to go fuck myself.

Ozzie Smith’s wife called me a parasite and accused me of profiting off her husband. Ozzie Smith was very nice and signed 4 cards. Dennis Eckersley yelled at me and let me know that if my pen got anywhere near his (equally loud) silk shirt there would be a problem. Cal Ripken, Jr. was incredibly nice but made all of us kids get in a line and then and only then would he sign our cards. Gary Carter would only sign cards from 1983 back otherwise you’d have to give him $25 for his charity. Daryl Strawberry was cool. Doc Gooden was cool. Randy Myers was not cool.

For three years I camped out at stadiums, hotels, card conventions, restaurants and bars waiting for players, pen ready, asking for autographs. Most of my time was spent at Anaheim Stadium, where the then California Angels played. Players would begin to arrive at one o’clock for a seven o’clock game and come in through Gate 1. They’d generally arrive in a van from either the Doubletree Hotel or the Marriott. Occasionally they would arrive in their own cars, so you had to keep your eyes on the parking lot; and of course the players weren’t in uniform, so it was important to try and memorize their faces because whoever could identify the player first stood a better chance of getting his autograph. Some players would stand around and sign for every- one, but most would walk and sign at the same time so that once they got to the door they were done.

As long as I didn’t get arrested, do drugs or come home with a tattoo, my parents didn’t seem to worry what I did while I was out getting autographs. Did they know that I stole, trespassed, forged, lied and didn’t eat a bal- anced diet? Probably not; but then, they didn’t ask, and I didn’t feel compelled to confess.

Bo Jackson was a big deal. At the height of his career, his celebrity exceeded that of a typical baseball player; he was a genuine superstar. So when the Kansas City Royals came to town, there were more people than there would usually be waiting by Gate 1 for player autographs. At 4:30, the team bus arrived and players began to get off the bus. Brett Saberhagen got off the bus with little attention, as did Frank White, Kevin Seitzer and Tom Gordon. George Brett pulled a few fans away, but most people were still holding out for “Bo.” He was the last to get off the bus. He was wearing Oakley Blades and looked terrifying. He walked as fast as he could without actually running. People were tripping over one another trying to maintain their ground in hopes of getting his autograph. Bo would sign a card and throw the card and pen high into the air over his shoulder so fans had to scramble to try to catch the card without damaging it before it hit the ground. I managed to trip a few kids in front of me, jam my card into his hand, and catch the signed card seconds later before it reached the ground. I never did get my pen back. Bo Jackson might still have it.

When you’ve observed players in their plain clothes, you learn a thing or two about their habits. For example: relief pitchers love cowboy boots.

When Tony Armas signed a card, he would often crush it before handing it back to you. I guess when you win the 1981 American League home-run crown you can get away with things like that.

Most starting pitchers that are not pitching on a given day will generally leave the game early. Usually around the sixth inning they leave the stadium and go back to the hotel or out to dinner with friends. Once, my friend Sean and I were at a game between the Angels and the Rangers. We knew that Nolan Ryan wouldn’t be pitching, so we left the game in the sixth inning and headed to Gate 1, only to see him get into a car with a few people and drive off. We decided to chase him on our bikes for as long as we could keep up. His car stopped not far from the stadium, at Belisle’s Restaurant. We weren’t fast enough to catch him before he entered the restaurant, and we thought it would be rude to interrupt his meal, so we waited by the front door and let him finish eating. We could see him through the window. He was eating a bowl of chocolate pudding that appeared to be about the size of a football helmet. Eventually he finished his pudding, came outside and very nicely signed everything we had.

The 1989 All-Star game was held at Anaheim Stadium. For three days the place would be full of baseball’s greatest players, past and present. There were lots of opportunities for someone that knew the in and outs of the stadium, starting with tickets for the game. Each fan was limited to buy only four tickets per day. I was already spending every day at the stadium, so I made a deal with a ticket broker to stand in line every day and buy four tickets. He paid me $40 every time I bought him four tickets. To a 15-year-old kid, $40 was a good deal to do basically nothing.

The greatest benefit of the All-Star game would go to whoever could access the player areas, the best of which was known as the Stadium Club and was generally reserved for team management, skybox holders and special guests of the owners. There was a way to get into the Stadium Club without being connected, rich or talented. It was very simple. When an ordinary fan left the game and wanted to gain re-entry, his or her right hand would be stamped with ultraviolet ink that showed up only under a black light. The very same stamp was used for re-entry into the Stadium Club, with the only difference that the Stadium Club attendants stamped the left hand. The trick was to leave the game and get the normal re-entry stamp on my right hand and, before the ink dried, smear the stamp onto my left hand. This had always worked for me in the past, but I had never tried it for an important event like the All-Star game.

I figured I would give it a shot. I got my re-entry stamp, smeared it onto my left hand and approached the attendant for the Stadium Club. I waved my hand under the light and a bright purple blob of ink appeared. I walked through without a word, even though I was wearing a ratty Yankees hat, a book bag and shorts. I pushed the button on the elevator to go up to the Stadium Club, and when the doors opened, I saw Monte Irvin, Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio. It was a thrilling elevator ride; they were all very gracious and signed whatever I handed them. Inside the Stadium Club I was surrounded by a buffet of immense proportions and what seemed like nearly every Hall-of-Famer that was still alive.

Tom Neidenfuer had by far the most attractive wife of any baseball player of the late ’80s. If you aren’t familiar with Judy Landers, the actress who played Stacks on “B.J. and the Bear,” look her up. When I saw the two of them at a hotel in San Diego I got her autograph on his card and forgot to ask him to sign it as well.

If you want an autograph from a player at a card show but can’t afford the cost of the signature—or just don’t want to pay—you have two options. You can either just walk up to the table, put down your item and smile, or you can wait for the player to leave the show and meet him in the parking lot. That’s how I got the chance to talk to Tony Gwynn at the Holiday Inn in Tustin, California. I followed him out of the convention hall and to the front of the hotel where he was waiting for his ride to come get him. I’m sure I was a nuisance to him, but he was very nice to me anyway. When I told him that my little brother had a life-sized poster of him on his wall he laughed and said, “Oh man that’s the one where I had the ’fro, isn’t it?” I told him it was indeed the one where he had the ’fro. I miss Tony Gwynn.

There’s a lot of down time waiting for players to arrive at the stadium. We’d play stickball in the parking lot, fling cards into trashcans, pick on outsiders, and practice our forgeries. We would practice the signatures of Mark Mc- Gwire, Will Clark, Nolan Ryan, Jose Canseco and others for no reason other than to establish who could do the best versions of each players autograph. I was good at Nolan Ryan and Tony Gwynn, while my friend Sean could do Will Clark and Jose Canseco better than anyone else. There was never a goal of selling or trading our forgeries; initially it was just something to do to pass the time. We were approached by a dealer at a card show who’d gotten word of our abilities. He asked if we would be willing to sign some photos for him, offered us a room at the Doubletree Hotel, and let us buy anything we wanted from the liquor store, which amounted to sour worms, Mountain Dew, ice cream and porno mags. We were also given a bunch of photos for ourselves to keep should we decide to try and sell our own forgeries as well. It was a pretty amazing deal for a couple of teenagers with nothing more than bicycles and a few sharpies.

We arrived at the hotel room to find a table piled high with stacks of photos that we were to sign. Mark McGwire, Tony Gwynn, Nolan Ryan, Will Clark and a few other players that we weren’t very good at imitating but decided to try anyway. About every fifth photo we threw away cause we messed up or spilled food on the image but we signed all the photos in a few hours then had the rest of the night to watch TV, vandalize the ice machine and go swimming.

After that, it was far too tempting not to try and sell our fakes as the real thing to other dealers. Most local dealers knew that we were always at the stadiums, hotels and bars getting autographs so it was easy for them to assume that we were selling them the real thing when we weren’t. I knew we had pushed things too far and saturated the market when we tried to sell some Nolan Ryan autographs to a dealer named “Bob-O.” We went to his store and asked him if he was interested in some Nolan Ryan signed photos and cards. He expressed an interest but said that he had to get some other Nolan Ryan sig- natures from the back so he could check ours up against his for authenticity.

Our forgeries were good, but not good enough to pass when compared to the real thing by someone with any expertise. Nolan Ryan has a difficult “hitch” on the downstroke of his R. You wouldn’t notice it unless you compared it to the real autograph, a scenario that suddenly became a real possibility. Bob-O came out from the back room with a large frame containing three signed cards and a signed 8x10 photo of Nolan Ryan. We relaxed when we saw the signatures; I had done all four of them.




Works by Mark Mulroney in this article are courtesy of Park Life Gallery, San Francisco, California.