This is a True Story

About the time I met my hero.


April 3, 1993 (22 years ago today) was a pretty exciting day in my life. As a 13-year-old baseball fanatic, still convinced a MLB career lurked in my future, I got to be a bat boy during a spring training game between the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox, in Las Vegas, NV. This meant unfettered access to some of my baseball heroes and, if all went well, a slew of autographs to add to my burgeoning collection. Living legends like Ryne Sandberg, Carlton Fisk, and of course one of my heroes at the time, Bo Jackson.

A day like this requires some serious pre-game planning and judicious clock management. You don’t just meander onto a baseball diamond, surrounded by ball throwing men, and wander aimlessly until game time hoping someone would walk up and offer a handshake and an autograph. My plan during the warmups was executed with perfection.

First up, scour the White Sox dugout for Bo. Nowhere in sight. Do I dare venture into the clubhouse and look for him there? Oh hey, what’s up Carlton Fisk? Don’t mind me, just perusing the dugout snack spread and narrowing in on some Bazooka Joe like I’ve done it a million times. Mmm, you guys have sunflower seeds too, let me just tuck a pack into my pocket for later.

Let’s go see what’s up with the Cubs. Well hello Mr. Sanberg, my what a handsome smile. “Go get ‘em today Ryno — can I have an autograph?” Wow, a high-five too?! Sweet Moses what a spectacular day, but I have to track down Bo. This brand new 6 dollar baseball is screaming for his signature.

To call Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson a cultural touchstone during the early 90's is like calling George Washington a bystander during the Revolutionary War. Bo was so much more than a sports icon at that time. Bo was a ubiquitous global marketing campaign. He had a coveted shoe. He was a morning cartoon and a dual-sport human highlight reel. Bo was a sugar-laced breakfast cereal, for crying out loud.

Bo’s autograph was the prize to be won this day. My golden ticket. The holy grail. My plan was to place the signed ball on the trophy shelf in my bedroom, right next to Bo’s iconic black and white baseball card that I mowed 6 lawns to purchase—football pads strapped to his burly back, baseball bat resting on his ample shoulders.

Game time was approaching just as I seemed to get comfortable in this foreign climate. No longer Balki Bartokomous—a stranger in a strange land—I felt firmly planted in Cousin Larry territory, unwarranted self confidence abounding. These were my people. My tribe. I felt comfortable enough to laugh a little too hard, and with a little too much familiarity, at Mark Grace teasing some unknown outfielder during batting practice, last name Sosa.

It wasn’t too long before I finally spotted Bo. He was chopping it up with Tim “Rock” Raines in the corner of the White Sox dugout. This was my moment to strike. With a newfound gusto, I made my way across the field towards the duo, quite certain they were just waiting on me to round out the roster. Just three amigos, sipping gatorade, spitting seeds, being awesome.

During my approach I pulled the ball and sharpie from my JanSport, just to make my intentions entirely clear and not miss the chance to lay claim on my soon-to-be prize possession. Excellent foresight, I thought to myself. This is why they made you green team leader on the Swainston Jr. High kickball club. It was all feeling just so very right.

Timmy and Bo were clearly engaged in some familiar jocularity and both seemed to be in good spirits. My trepidation, however, swelled a bit as I began my assent down the dugout steps directly behind Bo. Now within earshot, it was immediately clear the chiseled Greek god of sport was experiencing displeasure due to some seasonal allergies and the dry desert climate. I believe the exact words were, “damn these motherf&#%ing allergies are killin’ me!”

Bo knows Claritin-D.

Now I was alarmed. Perhaps #8 was in no mood for my pestering appeal. Cries of retreat pinged my conscious, but the legs, ever willing and steadfast, pressed forth. I decided to position myself just behind Bo, off to the side, and wait for a conversation lull.

I slid into my predetermined mark, prepared like the Magi of yore, to present my genuine leather authentic MLB baseball to the chosen one. Bo abruptly swung his head in my direction in an all-too-familiar posture, thumb to nostril, eyes reflexively closed, unmasking the foolishness of my proximity and foreshadowing eminent calamity.

Without recourse, I just stood there, immobilized by the anticipation, as Bo Jackson blew a giant snot rocket directly onto my shoe.

I don’t think Bo noticed his uncanny marksmanship, but he was certainly startled to find me lurking in his blind spot. Just little ol’ me tucked up behind his sinewy bat snapping thighs.

My clammy paws gripped the sharpie and ball — a familiar and loathsome pairing to any superstar athlete — without processing the comedy or the cruelty of the moment, and most certainly thrown off my game, I blurted, “um, can I have your autograph, Bo?”

Timmy chuckled. I probably scared smiled (kinda like when you ask a 4-year-old to hold a smile for longer than 3 seconds during a family photograph), and Bo—resplendent, robust Bo—met my humble request with, “I ain’t signing no more motherf&#%ing autographs today.”

Wait, what? This was not how I played this out in my head. You’ve just blown your mucus all over my shoe? Also, did you not notice the back of my shirt says “Bat Boy”? I belong here, dude. You and I are meant to be fast friends.

How does one respond to such a scenario? Thank you? I’m sorry? Can I borrow that towel real quick?

Turns out I wouldn’t have time for any of those responses. Without fanfare, an unfamiliar shadow now loomed over this awkward trio. A 6 foot, 5 inch, 350 pound, behemoth of a shadow. Georgia born, Auburn schooled—he himself knowing a thing or two about dual sport dominance—rookie slugger, Frank Edward Thomas.

Undoubtedly witness to the forlorn chain of events just transpired, this gentle giant, without guile or ulterior motive, reached down, retrieved my sharpie and ball. He signed the ball, handed it back to me, smiled at me with his entire soul and set the record straight, “you didn’t really want his autograph anyways.” Frank patted me on the head and departed with a hero’s swagger. The proverbial gunslinger, off into the sunset.

I departed with a new set-up in mind for that trophy shelf when I got home.