Kevin Cullen

Shameful squeeze plays

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / February 28, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - She went down like a sack of potatoes, on the gravel, next to the shack where they sell souvenirs, behind the people who were waiting for autographs.

Red Sox workers were at her side quickly, seconds really. Two guys reached under her armpits and dragged her, her heels making ripples on the small white stones, and they let her down gently on the grassy area surrounded by a plastic white fence.

Coco Crisp was about to do an interview. When he turned around and saw the old woman laid out on the grass, he froze, concern etched on his face.

After members of the Red Sox medical team surrounded the woman and started talking to her, they determined it was, thankfully, just a fainting spell. The woman said she was 78 years old, from Maine.

Satisfied that she was not seriously ill, the medical team prepared to return to their duties, and one of them bent down and asked the woman if there was anything else they could do for her.

"Yes," she replied. "There's a ball in my pocket. Could you reach in there and get it signed?"

I wish I could tell you that story is apocryphal, but it's not. It happened last week, and it illustrates the little slice of madness that has transformed what used to be those halcyon days when spring training was merely a sleepy, sunny respite from the short, bitter days of winter in New England.

As adults and kids alike lined up to wait for players to stop on the way back to the clubhouse at the minor league training facility where the first week of spring training is held, there was a frenzy whenever one of the recognizable major leaguers approached. Whenever one of the players stopped, some of the adults - not a lot of them, but too many - pushed and squeezed kids aside.

How any supposed grown-up could consciously use their reach and size to beat out a kid for an autograph is beyond me.

My 14-year-old son's enduring memory of spring training is the middle-age woman who stood next to him, whooping and hollering at the sight of any Red Sox player. He had trouble hearing out of one ear the rest of the day. And when one of his favorites, Mike Lowell, appeared poised to take his ball to sign, the woman lustily pushed him and another kid aside.

Now, call me idealistic, but I'm guessing Mike Lowell would rather sign for a kid who lives and breathes baseball than some blowzy who lives and breathes Marlboros.

The situation has become positively Darwinian, and the kids are at a distinct disadvantage. It puts the players in a tough position, too.

The Red Sox, it would seem, can do one of three things. They can just shrug and chalk this up as the price you pay for having the most rabid fans in baseball. They can ban adults from seeking autographs, which, given that we live in an era when some lawyers see no problem in going to the wake of the recently deceased to seek clients, means a lawsuit.

Or, they could do something that even some players would prefer, and that is create a separate space for kids to line up for autographs. The adults could stand elsewhere and jostle each other as much as they want, and the players could decide whether to sign for one, both, or neither group.

The other day, a Red Sox prospect jacked a ball over the left field fence of one of the practice fields.

A heavyset man in a loud shirt sprinted past a couple of kids on the gravel, slipping in his haste and nearly falling as he got to the ball. He grasped the ball, high above his head, in triumph.

A few of us watched this from the aluminum bleachers above, in total silence. We just stared, and the guy lowered his arm, tucked the ball into his pocket, and walked away.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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