This past June at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, I didn't want to leave. It would be my last game before moving to Boston, and I didn't want to say goodbye.
I had considered the field my second home for the past three seasons. A day at Wrigley was like a mini-vacation, without the luggage. It provided a needed break from studies and the pressures at my student newspaper. It was a place where I could relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
After the game, my friend and I watched the crowds disperse. We remained in our seats along the first base line.
She broke the silence. ``Do you want to go?'' she asked.
``Uh, not really,'' I said. ``I could stay here forever.''
Then reality set in. The ushers would tell us to leave soon. ``OK, let's go,'' I said.
As we exited the park, I walked slowly past the players' parking lot. It certainly wasn't like it used to be, I thought.
Three years ago, a day at Wrigley didn't feel complete unless it was capped off by my favorite post-game ritual.
When the last out was made and the players sauntered off the field, I would anxiously walk out of the ball park and stand behind a yellow metal gate. This gate served as the boundary line between the players and the eagerly waiting fans. Most of the time, they would stop and sign autographs on the way to their parked cars. I used my 5-foot-11-inch frame to extend my arm over the fence and grab the players' attention.
Before the athletes made their appearance, fans were forced to wait up to an hour. It was sometimes awkward just standing around that long, because I was surround mostly by children below the age of 12. I was 17, and I didn't have much in common with them. But we had a common goal: to get as many signatures as possible.
As I stood there with my black felt-tip pen and baseball cards, I would admire the sports cars parked in the small lot. From silvery-blue Corvettes to sleek black BMWs, most of the cars weren't owned by the players. They drove them for car dealerships, free of charge.
After about 30 minutes, the players would begin to trickle out. Usually, the less-popular players would walk out first. I could hear the fans around me say, ``Who's that?''
Usually, a crowd of about 200 would gather around the fence. On weekends, the crowd was double in size. As time passed, I could feel the anticipation build around me. I could tell when second baseman Ryne Sandberg (who retired this season) was about to come out. The security guards would walk around nervously. They would talk in walkie-talkies and make sure everyone was behind the fence. The tip of Sandberg's head could soon be seen as he walked up the stairs. Children and adults started shouting his name.
While hundreds of fans, young and old, were yelling and screaming, children were climbing on top of each other, desperate to get the popular athlete's autograph.
I even did favors for fellow Cubs fans. One time, a family from Texas was in town to see the Cubs. I talked to them for a short time before the players came out. Their 16-year-old daughter's goal was to get autographs from first baseman Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg.
``The Cubs are my favorite team,'' she said with a Texas accent. ``I don't know what I'll do if I don't get at least one of their autographs.''
Unfortunately, Ryno went to the opposite side from where we were standing that day. She and her brother ran over there, but to no avail. He signed for only a couple of minutes, drove away in his Nissan Pathfinder, and waved once to the fans.
Well, right fielder Andre Dawson, shortstop Shawon Dunston, pitcher Greg Maddux, and Grace were still expected to come out. But none of them stopped to sign. They were probably too upset about the loss or too embarrassed to face the fans.
The family from Texas came over to me when only a couple of cars remained. I couldn't stand the look on their faces. They'd been so elated just a few minutes ago. Now they were going to leave Chicago without one autograph.
I couldn't let them walk away empty-handed. So I asked them for their address and offered to get Sandberg's and Grace's autographs.
``I go to at least 20 games a season, so I'll be around.'' They all smiled, as if on cue. The 16-year-old was especially happy. ``Thank you. I don't know how I will ever repay you.''
A couple weeks later, I got both autographs on a scorecard. The family was so appreciative, they sent me a Texas-shaped leather luggage tag.
But as each season passed, the thrill of seeing the players gradually waned. After I got most of the players' autographs several times on baseball cards, scorecards, and tickets, the ritual stopped.
During the summer of 1993, fans were no longer allowed to wait directly behind the yellow gate. A much higher metal gate was erected. Fans are still allowed to wait, but the chances of getting an autograph are slim.
I didn't realize how lucky I was to be able to gather around the fence, chat with fellow Cubs fans, and see the players within arms reach.I felt a certain connection to the players. A gate separated us, but seeing them out of uniform and communicating with the fans was like seeing an actor out of character. They were real people for a few minutes. Then, when they drove away in their Corvettes and BMWs, the feeling dispersed. But I always looked forward to our next brief encounter.