Autograph Fever: My Top 10 Spring Training Memories

By Daniel Isenberg

“Penis!!!!!!!!” That’s how my first trip to Spring Training started — my uncle rolling down our rental car window as we exited the Tampa airport, screaming the word that symbolized our freedom as Isenberg men. The women in our families were home in New York, so for the next week, it would be nothing but boner jokes, burgers, and baseball. Just me (8 years old, above left), my cousin Chris (13 years old, above right), my father Jim, and his older brother aka my uncle Steve.

March of 1987 was the first time we took our yearly Spring Training trip. I was a 3rd grader whose obsession with baseball was just beginning, whereas my cousin’s was already in full bloom. And our fathers were life-long diehards, of course. This trip was a chance for me to see what being a true baseball fan was all about — up close and personal. Over the course of a week, we’d drive from Tampa to Ft. Lauderdale, stopping in every small Florida town in between to watch as many MLB Spring Training games and practices as we could squeeze in. And along the way, I learned how to keep score, the science of buying and collecting baseball cards, and the most important skill of all: how to get autographs. Here are My Top 10 Spring Training Memories.

My cousin Chris (left) and I with Paul O’Neill.

We went out to dinner with a young Paul O’Neill.

Paul O’Neill was still a fresh face with the Reds back in the mid-’80s, and his sister Molly happened to work at the time with my uncle at New York Newsday. Back then, the Reds Spring Training home was in Tampa, so we linked up with Paul right at the start of our trip. I had no idea who he was at the time, I don’t think I even had his baseball card yet. We went to the Reds game to watch him play, and then that night, we all went out to Tampa’s famous Bern’s Steak House for dinner with former Reds general manager and Yankees president Gabe Paul, and he brought my cousin and me autographed balls that everyone on the Reds signed, including their manager Pete Rose (on the sweet spot) and young superstars Eric Davis and Barry Larkin. Yup, we were down with Paul O’Neill, early. I can’t tell you how exciting it was for us when he got traded to the Yankees. We were like, “Our boy’s coming home!”

Dealings with The Boss.

We hung out with George Steinbrenner.

My uncle was friends with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, so on a couple occasions, we went back to his trailer office after Yankee games in Ft. Lauderdale to say hello. I was too young to realize what was going on, but my father always tells me that during our first visit, we walked in, and The Boss was in the middle of ripping one of his employees a new one. Then, when he saw us, he stopped screaming on dude and completely shifted. “Stevie! Chris! Hey fellas!” We got a chance to talk about the game with him, and he gave Chris and I some pretty fresh warm-up Yankee jackets, too.

Getting Don Mattingly’s autograph after the game.

We got my favorite player Don Mattingly’s autograph.

We chased down a lot of autographs during our Spring Training trips — which I’ll get into more — but the one that was most exciting for me personally was getting Don Mattingly’s signature on a baseball. He was the closest thing I had to an idol back then, and by far my favorite player in all of sports. My cousin’s too, I believe. We were both determined to track him down.

Following an afternoon game, we camped out next to the players entrance behind the stadium. Slowly but surely, all the Yankee stars started rolling out. Willie Randolph. Mike Pagliarulo. And we were right there to greet them with balls and pens. Then, it was him. The Hit Man. Donnie Baseball. I had never been so starstruck. I was probably holding in a crap the size of Florida as he signed my ball. It was incredible. We actually got Don Mattingly’s autograph. I still can’t believe it.

Dodgers Spring Training program, 1988.

On a trip to Vero Beach, my cousin proved he’s the G.O.A.T. autograph-getter.

One of the most historic spots on the Grapefruit League circuit is Vero Beach, which was the spring home to the Dodgers for decades. My dad and my uncle grew up in L.A., and I was born in Oakland, so even as New Yorkers, we always had a special connection to Californian sports teams. Visiting Vero Beach felt like part of our family history.

There was no game the day we stopped in Vero Beach, so we took a ride over to the Dodgers’ practice facility to walk around. It was awesome just being able to stroll through all the fields as the players took batting practice and ran drills. We watched a few guys take some swings, then I came out of a daze to find that my cousin had disappeared on me. But it was fine, I hung around and ended up getting Chris Gwynn’s autograph. He was Tony Gwynn’s younger brother, and one of the top prospects that year. I was pumped.

Minutes later, my cousin emerges from the Dodgers clubhouse, running towards me holding a ball, smiling like a kid who just found a hundred dollar bill on the floor. “Check this out.” I look closely, and realize that this fucking guy somehow snuck into where all the legends were hanging out and got Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale’s autographs on the same ball. And here I was like a little runt ready to rant and rave about getting Chris Gwynn’s signature. I was such a gip. And he was the G.O.A.T.

Yankees minor league practice.

We went on a search to find Yankees prospect Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens.

Speaking of prospects, back in the late ‘80s the Yankees had a young Curaçaoan player in their farm system by the name of Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens. He was billed as the next big thing in pinstripes, so we took a day trip over to where the minor league teams practiced to hunt him down. After all, what would be cooler than getting Bam Bam’s autograph before he blew up?

The problem was, none of the minor league practice jerseys had names on the back, only numbers. Since we didn’t really know what he looked like, we just started approaching any Caribbean-looking dude in a uniform who we thought might be Bam Bam. It was hilarious watching these no-name players sign their first autographs, and us waiting for them to hand us back the ball so we could examine the signature. “Nope, not him.” “Not him either.” “That’s definitely not him.” Unfortunately, we never found Bam Bam. All good though, he didn’t really blow up like that anyway.

Sick ‘stache.

Texas Rangers catcher Geno Petralli farted on my cousin.

Yup, that happened. I was unfortunately too young, but my cousin was lucky enough to be a batboy for the Texas Rangers during one of their Spring Training games, thanks to my uncle’s friendship with their skipper at the time, Bobby Valentine. The story goes that my cousin was sitting in the dugout next to Gino Petralli during the game, and he supposedly lifted his leg up and farted on Chris as a joke. But then, one of the players told him that my cousin was a family friend of Bobby V’s, so he got shook and apologized. Better than an autograph, right?

Teddy baby!

Ted Williams signed my program right on the sweet spot.

I know. Ted Williams. Arguably the greatest hitter of all time. The legend. I was only an elementary school kid, but still, there were some names I knew meant a lot. I was smart enough to know when my cousin got Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale’s autograph that I missed out on something super special. And I was also smart enough to know that getting Ted Williams autograph was insane. Especially the way we got it, and where he signed it.

We were walking out of a Boston Red Sox game in Winter Haven a little early and heading towards our rental car, when two guys in a golf cart came cruising by. My uncle and my father quickly spotted that it was Ted Williams, so we ran him down to say hello, pay our respects, and hopefully get his autograph. All I had on me was the Spring Training program from the game, so I handed it to him, and he signed his name right on the sweet spot — across the girl in the red-striped bikini’s legs.

My cousin and I with Astros rookie Craig Biggio.

We met Craig Biggio when he was a rookie (and I found his broken bat).

In ‘88, Craig Biggio was just a young prospect fighting for a spot on the Astros roster. He made a name for himself that spring though, and he was on our radar. Discovering the next big players was something we took pride in, like the time we saw unknown Mets 3rd baseman Kevin Mitchell hit three home runs in one game. Anyway, we were walking around the Astros practice facility one day, and we randomly ran into Biggio. He talked with us for a while, signed our baseballs, and took a flick with us, too. A few minutes after, just off the dirt road we were walking on, I stumbled upon a broken bat with Craig Biggio’s name stenciled into it. So I snatched it up, real quick. And now he’s in the Hall of Fame!

Not the actual card I got signed. It was a Fleer. I have it somewhere, but can’t find it. Looked everywhere. SMH.

I went swimming with Mark McGwire (and got his autograph).

We spent the last two years of our Spring Training run out in Arizona. It was a fun shift after a few years in a row down in Florida, and my mom and younger sister were finally added to the roster the last year (my cousin and uncle didn’t travel with us to AZ). The cool thing about our Arizona trips were that we stayed in the same hotel as the Oakland A’s, who at the time were the hottest team in the league. We would see the players walking around the grounds, and would eat breakfast with the whole squad. We were on the buffet line with Reggie Jackson!

One afternoon, we were taking a swim at the pool, and who rolls up to take a dip but Mr. Forearms himself, 1/2 of the Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire. Being a first baseman also and an Oakland native, McGwire was quickly becoming one of my favorite players, so I was psyched. But I was in my bathing suit with no ball or anything on me, so how was I going to get his autograph?! Quick thinking, I ran back to my room and grabbed one of my McGwire cards, and came back just before he hopped in the pool. He signed it, and then we all went swimming together. Crazy!

Sick wheels.

I took a picture with Jose Canseco’s Jaguar.

There was a lot of talk around the hotel about Jose Canseco. He was coming off his 40/40 season, and he had been in trouble with the law, most recently for speeding in his sick Jaguar convertible. I made it my mission during the trip to find him. But unfortunately, he stayed low-key, and the only time I saw him was at the actual games on the field. However, one day coming back from a trip into town, I saw his Jag parked outside the hotel. Man, it was the coolest car I had ever seen up close. Taking a picture next to it was almost as thrilling as meeting the man himself.

My Uncle Steve with George Steinbrenner in Ft. Lauderdale.
My cousin Chris with Steinbrenner.
Peeking in the Yankees dugout.
On the field in Ft. Lauderdale.
Rickey Henderson stance. Checkered Vans.
Harold Baines. What.
My Dad and I in Arizona for Cactus League action.

Looking back at these Spring Training trips 30 years later, I can see how impactful they were on my childhood. The uncut exposure of life on the road with my elder Isenbergs was eye-opening to say the least, and filled with more fun and excitement than I knew existed. It helped shape my ascent to manhood, and gave me a deeper appreciation for what it truly means to be a baseball fan. Now that my cousin and I both have sons of our own, I look forward to continuing our Spring Training trip tradition with them, and their grandfathers, too.

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