From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

A Binding Contract

Reputation is what you have when you come to a new community; character is what you have when you go away.

William Hersey Davis

He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but this was about to change. It would change with the simple act of a major-league player rolling a beautiful grass-stained official American League baseball across the top of a dugout to a ten-year-old boy.

The year was 1971. I was that ten-year-old boy, and Vada Pinson was that major-league player. I had taken up my position behind the visitor’s dugout at Kansas City’s old Municipal Stadium. It was two hours before game time and the Cleveland Indians were a bad team taking batting practice. But Vada was not a bad player; no, he was once a great player. In his younger days with the Cincinnati Reds, when he played alongside Frank Robinson, Vada had been a star in his own right. Twice, he led the National League in hits. Once, he won a Gold Glove for his shining play as a center fielder.

Honestly, though, when Vada came jogging toward the dugout that day, I didn’t know all that. I only knew the name and had this vague sense in the back of my young mind that he had enjoyed more glorious days in another time and place. Not that it mattered, because he was a big-leaguer and that was more than enough. I simply wanted—needed—a baseball from a real big-league ballplayer so I summoned my courage, and asked No. 28 as politely as I knew how, “Vada? Could I have a baseball?”

His eyes met mine, but he didn’t say a word. He just disappeared into the dugout.

I sighed, my shoulders slumped, and I decided I was a fool for even asking. And that’s when Vada popped up the steps and rolled that gorgeous baseball into my waiting hands.

“Hey, Vada, can you sign it?” I yelled as he started to turn away.

“You want me to sign it, too?” he said with a smile.

He signed it like this: “To Donald ‘Always’ Vada Pinson.”

Vada didn’t realize it, of course, but with those five words he had signed a binding contract between player and fan, friend and friend.

I started checking the Cleveland box score every morning, sure, but I wasn’t content with that. I kept in touch. I wrote him letters. I called him at the team hotel.

When Vada was traded to the California Angels, I tossed my big inflatable Cleveland Indians beach ball into a closet and bought one of those plastic batting helmets with a halo on it. I was loyal. But here’s the too-good-to-be-true part: So was he.

As luck would have it Vada would be traded from the Angels to the Kansas City Royals, and would play his last two seasons in my hometown. On the team scorecard, he was listed as another outfielder. But his true position? Personal hero.

Vada gave us free tickets to all the games, and for two summers I had the prestige of being recognized on sight by all the middle-aged ladies who worked the will call window and all the ushers who cleaned off the seats behind home plate. Every night we’d get to the ballpark right when the gates opened, I’d sprint for the Royals dugout and chat Vada up for a few minutes. Sometimes, he’d give me another baseball—which I always had him sign and which I never would have dared to use in a game of catch. Always, he would look up to where my mom and dad were sitting and wave.

Vada could have tired of talking to me about baseball— he probably did—but instead included me. He admitted he wished he were playing more, explained why his manager sometimes drove him crazy, let me know that even when you’re in the majors you’re human and get frustrated like anybody else. Though I’m not sure either of us was consciously aware of it at the time, he came to trust me as much as I idolized him.

Now, I suppose, in that day and time, the color of our skin could have been enough to make one, or both of us, uncomfortable. But to me, he was always a ballplayer, not a black ballplayer. And to him, I was always that young fan, not that young white fan.

At the end of his first season with the Royals, we invited Vada over to our house for dinner. He understood it was important that he come. Not just for me, but for my mom and dad, who had no other way to show their appreciation. For years, the underneath side of one of our dining-room chairs bore the words, “Vada sat here.”

But as fantastic as his visit to my house was, at least I was expecting it. I wasn’t prepared at all the next summer when I was deep into a game of Strat-O-Matic tabletop baseball, and the telephone rang.

“Donald,” the smooth voice said, “this is Vada. I couldn’t remember if you needed two tickets tonight or three?”

I couldn’t believe it. He took the time to make sure he left enough tickets. Actually kept my phone number and then used it. I was scared to leave the house the rest of the summer. It was the best summer of my life.

Unfortunately, Vada’s baseball-filled summers would end way too soon. He died in October 1995, at age fifty-seven, following a stroke. We had last seen each other in the summer of 1994 in St. Louis. He was a coach for the Florida Marlins and I was a sports columnist who’d come to town to write about the Cardinals. And so we sat in front of Vada’s locker and talked about old times and present times. Among other things, Vada said he had been visiting a young boy in a Florida hospital, and I smiled and thought to myself, Vada hasn’t changed a bit.

I also figured we would talk again the next season. Maybe I’d come to a game off-duty, as a fan, and introduce my oldest son, Stephen, to him. That never happened, of course, but every time I walk into a ballpark, I check to see who’s wearing No. 28.

I still see Vada, still hear his voice over the telephone, still see that baseball rolling across the top of the dugout.


Don Wade

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