Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How my mom was challenged to a fight to meet Yogi Berra

I caught wind in 2008 of Yogi Berra's annual appearance at the stadium named in his honor on the campus of Montclair State University. For the meager price of an $8 ticket to the New Jersey Jackals game, you had the opportunity to meet Berra for an autograph ... if you got there early enough. With show promoters charging upwards of $100 for the same signature in person, I felt it was worth the hour trip from Queens to New Jersey for a few moments with the Yankee legend.

My mother, who also was a big baseball fan, decided to take off from work early that day to come with me. She saw it as her way of supporting her son's endeavors and she was also genuinely excited about the prospect of meeting the Hall of Fame catcher. It wasn't the first ballplayer we've waited in line to meet; during a good chunk of my childhood, she would make an effort to get me to Shea Stadium early for batting practice, or to some local grand opening (and often hang out there with me to the dismay of my sister) so I could get something signed.

I met her at her job around one o'clock and she was delayed a bit from leaving as she had to finish up some last minute odds and ends. We probably left about thirty minutes later than expected and I knew that didn't bode well for our chances, as when it comes to getting to New Jersey during the middle of the day, it seems that travel time grows exponentially in relation to the how late you left after your expected departure.

We made relatively good time, arriving somewhere between two-thirty and three o'clock. With Berra scheduled to sign in the neighborhood of 5:30, I felt that we still had enough lead time to get one of the coveted 300 passes. When we got out of the car, there was a sizable line, so we hurried to the end of it and played the waiting game. While my mom held our spots, I did an informal count starting at the front of the line and after counting 200 people, I felt confident that we would be able to meet Berra.

Our ticket from Yogi Berra Autograph Night in 2008

I brought a folding chair for my then 67-year-old mother and we sat and talked baseball and collecting among the fans near us. The people a few spots behind us drove all the way from Boston to meet Berra. As we got closer to Berra's start time, representatives from the Jackals started walking up the line and giving instructions for the signing. You could feel the anticipation of everyone in the line, as some had started their wait as early as 10AM to get their moment with Yogi.

Just before the Jackals personnel started to give out the autograph vouchers, suddenly the line grew from in front of us. People made their way out of their cars and joined their friends and family members who were waiting in line. Out of the woodwork came wives and small children holding various pieces of memorabilia, each taking up one of the coveted spots in front of us. That 100 person buffer didn't feel so comfortable now four hours after our departure from Queens.

Tension began to build as you heard the people giving out the tickets counting off numbers. A line that was once straight had now become a mass of people wading towards the Jackals employees at different angles, hoping they could get their pass before three hundred. We waited as patiently as we could as we heard calls of, "Two-fifty, two-sixty, two-seventy ..." People began pointing out the line cutters and those that were waiting almost three hours were growing restless.

The count was less than 10 away from 300 when the employees were in reach. There was a lady with some kids that were next to us in line who looked pretty unprepared for the signing. Everyone in line had large photos, artwork, baseballs, and baseball cards, everything one would expect for a player of Berra's magnitude. She and her kids had loose pieces of paper; I don't even think they had one piece of memorabilia.

For some reason just the team employees approached with the last two tickets, that lady wasn't paying attention. My mother, who was closely watching the person with the tickets, walked right up to her and got the last two tickets after identifying that we were together.

Within moments, our elation became everyone else's dismay, including the people we met from Boston, and the lady who was next to us who had a very untimely lapse of concentration. The poor college students that were the Jackals employees began to incur the wrath of the 100 people behind us, while the girl who was next to us in line with the kids grew irate at my mother.

The young lady, who was at least thirty (if not more) years my mother's junior, cursed out my mother for allegedly cutting front of her for the last two tickets, and demanded that we give her one of our tickets because it was the fair thing to do. As much as I am for parity, after that trek, neither of us was going to give up our tickets. We kept our cool, as we had the tickets, but this lady would not relent. She attempted to challenge my mother to a fight, of which I dutifully made sure wasn't going to happen.

The people in line near us, as well as the Jackals employees saw this all unfold, and they quickly got team security to escort this lady and her children out of the park. It was laughable to me that this lady was incensed enough to challenge my sixty-seven year old mother to a fight over an autograph.

Once Berra started signing he was like a machine. Quickly the line in front of us evaporated as we moved into the stadium. As the people in front of us got their autograph, there was a small reward for us in addition to getting Yogi to sign our things. With nobody behind us, Yogi relaxed a little bit and my mother and I each asked him a question about his baseball career. He took the time to answer us both and thank us for coming. We held that experience as close to us as the autographs we acquired on the ride home.

One of the items Yogi signed for us that day
While we were driving back to Queens, my mom turned to me and left me with this gem.

"Nick, one day you will have kids, and you will tell them how your mother waited hours in a line to meet Yogi Berra, and at the same time nearly got in a fight for doing so. Remember that when your kids ask you to do something."

My mom passed away due to lung cancer on September 20, 2014, almost a year prior to Berra's death on Tuesday. While I don't have my own kids to tell the story to now, I felt the timing was appropriate to share it. Maybe she can join the line again to greet him in Heaven and tell him her version of this story.


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