I’ve always wanted to be famous. Not movie star famous. Not big-name athlete famous.
Not celebrity apprentice famous — just famous enough for strangers to recognize me on sight. It’s the kind of fame you have when the strangers who see you remember that moment for the rest of their lives while the famous person forgets it the second it happens.
When I was 18, I stood side by side at a urinal with Orson Bean, a well-known actor and comedian of the early 1960s. We were both there to see the legendary comic Lenny Bruce perform at the Village Vanguard in New York City.
I’m sure both of us remembered Bruce’s controversial comedy for a long time. I never forgot standing next to Bean in that club’s bathroom 55 years ago. I am positive Bean never remembered for a nanosecond that I was standing next to him that evening. That’s what distinguishes the famous from the non-famous.
I got my chance to be famous for 15 seconds on April 10, 2000. Please keep in mind that I attribute every second of that opportunity to pure, blind luck. I did very little to earn it. It wasn’t talent, resilience or perseverance that enabled me to experience fame for those brief seconds. I was just in the right place at the right time on the right day in history.
Let me set the stage for you: It is Opening Day of the 2000 baseball season at Coors Field in Denver. My wife and I had been season ticket holders since the Rockies began playing baseball in Colorado in 1993. Our seats were in left field about three rows back from the outfield wall. I tell you all of this in great detail because where we were seated that day was my first stroke of good luck.
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The Rockies were playing the Cincinnati Reds, and in the fourth inning Ken Griffey Jr., the Reds’ star player and future hall of fame center fielder, hit a fly ball to the left of me. I stood up and raised my gloved hand over my head. The ball fell gently into it.
It was a lucky grab made possible because I was even luckier to have two women seated next to me who ducked when the ball came down, allowing me to slide in front of them to make the catch. Had two burly guys been seated there, they would have muscled me into the aisle.
My last piece of good fortune was that the ball I caught happened to be Griffey’s 400th home run. He became the youngest man in baseball history to reach the 400 home run mark. I had caught a ball that, coincidentally, tied me to an historic baseball moment.
What happened next is a total blur to me now. Speculators swooped down and offered me thousands of dollars for the ball. A representative from the Reds was just as fast in getting to me and asked if Griffey Jr. could have the ball back to give to his dad celebrating his 50th birthday. His dad was Ken Griffey Sr., a great player for Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s.
After a lengthy deliberation with my wife, we decided to return the ball in exchange for signed baseballs, jerseys, hats, bats, a contribution on the Reds’ part to a local charity and, as it turned out most importantly for me, the glove Griffey was wearing that day in center field.
The glove became the basis for my 15 seconds of fame. There was a game delay in the sixth inning, and that’s when Griffey Jr. trotted over from his place in center field to hand me his glove. That moment was captured on ESPN SportsCenter. It was the lead story on their program that evening.
My catch and his handing me his glove was replayed endless times as part of their coverage of Griffey’s historic achievement. The only other way I could have made the opening seconds of ESPN SportsCenter was if I had fallen from the top rows in the stadium and impaled myself on the canopy of a hot dog stand on the concourse below.
After the game, the Reds invited us to meet Griffey Sr. and Jr. in the team’s dressing room, where father and son flanked us for a memorable photo. It sits proudly on a night table next to our bed.
Why am I telling you this story 18 years later? I couldn’t have at the time because only recently has it occurred to me what my final bit of luck was that day. I realize now that I was lucky to be financially secure and well off enough so that several thousand dollars wasn’t irresistibly tempting. If I was inundated with debt or had kids to put through college, then I might have felt compelled to take the money and forego the joy of a few fleeting seconds of fame.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.
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