- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
I don't know either of those kids or their father, but I can speak to a memory like this because the same thing happened to me when I was about the same age.
I became a die-hard fan of the Dodgers after reading a book about Sandy Koufax, and two years later, on Sept. 29, 1974, the kids from our Little League in central Vermont bused to Montreal to see a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos. The center fielder for the Expos that season was Willie Davis, who had spent the first 14 seasons of his career with the Dodgers before being traded to Montreal for pitcher Mike Marshall.
I can't recall when I became fixated on the idea of getting an autograph from Davis. Maybe it was in the days leading up to the trip, while sorting through my growing collection of baseball cards, or perhaps it was on that long bus ride to Montreal, past the harvested fields of the Champlain Valley. But it had happened by the time we walked through the gates of the Expos' home park.
That Davis was no longer with the Dodgers did not deter me. His baseball card was among the first I collected, when he still wore the Dodgers' uniform, and whether he played in Parc Jarry or Dodger Stadium made no difference to me. He had been a Dodger and would be always be a Dodger, as far as I was concerned.
But the whole notion of approaching a Dodger was daunting. He was really tall and a grown-up, with all of the accompanying power and knowledge, and I had none. So I waited, building courage beyond the game's first pitch. Four decades later, having seen thousands of games, as well as the habits of players and autograph-seekers of all ages, I now know that the chance of anyone getting an autograph pretty much evaporates the moment the players run onto the field to begin the game. Pining in my seat that day, however, I had no idea that ground rules for collecting autographs existed.
Our group was perhaps 20 or 25 rows behind the Expos' dugout, and inning by inning, I slowly constructed the internal impetus to make a move. I knew I would try. Like a kid hesitating at the end of a diving board for the first time, I just needed some time to process the potential for risk and reward.
That was the summer the custody case for my sister and me was resolved. I had not seen my father for four years and had no interest in seeing him again, because everything I felt about him was built on fear. When I saw the headlights of his car coming down the road at the end of his work day, I'd hide in my room, because none of us had any idea what his mood would be or how his explosive temper would manifest itself. I worried that I wouldn't see my mother or my sister or my dog Blackie again, as he had assured me during my last court-ordered visit, at age 6. I wondered if he would invade suddenly, as he had when he tried to kidnap us at our elementary school when I was 8; we had been whisked out side doors by teachers aware of the ongoing custody battle. When the occasional unknown car came down the dirt road toward the dairy farm operated by my mother and stepfather, I darted into the woods or the barn.
In the spring of 1974, months before that game in Montreal, Judge Ernest Gibson had appointed a lawyer to represent my sister and me in our custody case, something new in the state of Vermont, and at the end of a school day, my fourth-grade teacher yelled out the window to me at recess: "Your Mom called. You won." I never had to see or speak to my father again, although the fear and nightmares lingered into my college years, even after he passed away.
So I always needed time to get comfortable. At that game in Montreal, I waited, inning after inning.
Other stuff happened, of course. In the first inning, Ken Singleton clubbed a grand slam off Ron Schueler, which I clearly recall. I also remember watching Davis in center field, and tracking his movement as he came off the field each inning, to the outfield end of the Expos' dugout.
I would bet now that I didn't mention my plan to any of the kids around me, just in case I turned out to be too chicken to make a move.
The game would last only two hours and eight minutes, a sprint by 2015 MLB standards, but I can vaguely recall that sometime around the sixth inning, there was some talk among the group that we would have to leave. So I had to try.
After the Phillies batted in the top of the seventh inning and Davis began jogging off the field, I made a quick move down the aisle, bouncing loudly down the aluminum steps, toward the end of the dugout that I had targeted. There might have been a security guard there, but maybe he was lulled by the flow of the game, in the last weekend of the regular season. Maybe he let me go.
I timed it perfectly, reaching the railing just as Davis stepped off the field, at the end of the dugout. He was so tall, a giant in my 10-year-old eyes.
"Mr. Davis," I called. I know that because my mom had reminded me time and again: Don't ever refer to an adult by their first name until they tell you do so.
"Can I have your autograph?"
Davis looked up, stopped, tucked his glove under his armpit, took the pen and baseball from my hand and signed, then handed it back.
I turned around to go back up the aisle, which was now filled with kids who had followed me, and the usher shooed them away.
In that moment, I am sure that the smile on my face was very similar to the expressions of those two boys at the instant McCutchen handed them his batting gloves. If I knew them, I would tell them: This is something you will never forget, a feeling that will stay with you the rest of your lives.
Thank you, Mr. McCutchen