Tuesday, September 04, 2007

She got the shirt right off his back

You know I’m a jersey nut. So each year the kids and I attend the West Michigan Whitecaps’ final home game, which is called “Shirts Off Our Backs Night.”

After the game, the players line up and pull entries out of a box. If they call your name, you run down to the field and the player takes off his jersey, signs it and hands it over.

The Whitecaps are a well-run team, and have become better and better handling this promotion. It used to be that people were allowed to take entire pads of entry forms and spend the game filling them out to stuff the box. In the last three years we got a form as we entered the gates, limiting each person to one, which is fine with me.

Not that it has helped us. Each year, we’ve gone home only semi-disappointed – we don’t really expect to win, and any excuse to go to the ballpark is a good one.I say the kids and I because my wife attends one game a year, and that’s usually around Father’s Day.

But we were out of town that weekend this year – setting foot on the glorious Field of Dreams – and I joked that she could boost our chances of winning a jersey if she joined us to see the Whitecaps take on the Great Lakes Loons on Friday night.

But my wife said she might not mind, as long as it wasn’t too hot. And with the temps in the 70s, off we went.
OK, as an aside. Jersey collectors are a fanatical bunch to be sure. We are sticklers about certain things, and that means getting the proper lettering. Having a name added to a jersey is big bucks, and you need to be sure it's done properly. This guy actually had a World Series replica, which is not cheap. But whoever added Justin Verlander's name used the wrong letters. The Tigers don't have a white outline on their names, and the letters are much taller and thinner. This is at best a rip-off, and at worst jersey abuse. Don't let this happen to you.

Now, I often say that the best part about minor-league baseball is that games are so affordable that you can bring the whole family. And the worst part is that, well, many people bring the whole family. And if you get stuck sitting near bad kids it can be a not-quite-as-glorious experience as it is supposed to be.

But we had fun watching the two kids in front of us this time. I’m guessing the two boys were four and five, and both were thrilled that the Whitecaps had stationed a player at each gate to greet fans and sign autographs.

Pitcher Matt O’Brien was signing near our gate, but it might as well have been David Wright to these kids, as excited as they were. They made multiple trips to have O’Brien sign things, first their programs, then the free mesh jerseys all kids were handed on their way in.

These items were carefully laid out on the bleacher in front of us, as if they were artifacts in a museum for everyone to appreciate.

But O’Brien was still there, and the kids had run out of things for him to sign. We noticed one of the brothers came back with the back of his hands signed. Seeing this, the younger brother wanted to go back and have his hand signed, too.

We overheard the dad say, “No. Look, it’s just going to wash off.”

Which was followed by the priceless: “Nooooo, it’s a permanent marker!”

Now, O’Brien is a decent player and clearly a man of great patience. But I can’t say I’d want to have his signature tattooed to the back of my hand. But it sure was fun to see the kids so excited.

The game itself had some drama, with the Loons tying the game in the top of the ninth, then going ahead in the top of the tenth when the Caps started throwing the ball around. Apparently I'm a jinx for the Whitecaps as well as the Mets.

But the then the real drama started and the players were called out one at a time to pull entry forms out of a huge box.

Throughout the game, there was much teasing about what would happen if my wife's name was called, and about how she’d have to go on the field to claim her prize – and her wanting nothing to do with taking a sweaty jersey from a guy she doesn’t know or getting any closer to the field than row 21 in section 220.

The game was close to a sell-out, so the odds were not good. And as in every other year we’ve attended these games, player after player would step up and read out a name from someone in Hudsonville or Kentwood. I was mock pouting, and my wife said, “Well, looks like you’re going home empty handed again.”

And at that moment, we heard: “And the jersey from Jeramy Laster goes to…" and we heard my wife's name.

I think the older guy sitting next to us was somewhat startled by my fist-pumping and yelling. There’s a chance everybody sitting on the third base side was startled by my fist-pumping and yelling.

My wife rolled her eyes. No. Way.

We quickly gathered our stuff and worked through the crowd to the gate near the first base dugout. Only the winner is supposed to go out on the field, but no one stopped the four of us from heading out. I already had the camera out and ready as we stepped close to the players.

They had started calling names of other people for other jerseys by the time we were out there, so it was a little confusing. We told the on-field announcer my wife's name, and he asked the players who pulled her name. Laster stepped up, shook her hand and asked her if she wanted him to sign the jersey.

He looked for a marker that would work best, signed the jersey – actually, the batting practice jersey, which the team wears for these games – and handed it over with a big smile.

I was documenting all of this, and tried to dodge the team’s on-field cameraman, who was projecting images to the video board in left field.

I asked Jeramy if he could pose for a shot, which he did happily. He seemed pleased that we were thrilled to meet him and get his jersey.

“It’s still damp,” my wife said as we went back to our seats. “You so owe me.” And I did. We went to a nice restaurant the next night.

Laster, drafted in round 12 in the 2003 draft, might not be the highest-rated prospect to pass through Grand Rapids. That would be Cameron Maybin, who is with the Tigers as we speak.

But Jeramy’s our new favorite Whitecap.


Bob said...

Very nice story, Dave. That would be a big thrill for me too.

Joe said...

good eye on that verlander jersey!

-Just Jeff said...

I was at that game as well. no jersey for me. but i did get Jermany's Home run ball from game 1 of the MWL finals.