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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

July 16, 2013 at 1:05 PM

Joe DiMaggio and me: A fan comes face to face with greatness

By Mike Ferreri

Mike Ferreri is the Sports Director at KOMO TV, where he has worked for 13 years. The Connecticut native and graduate of the University of Iowa is a lifelong baseball fan who lives in Snoqualmie with his wife Wendy and two children. He still holds out hope of covering the Mariners in the World Series.

In this Take 2 post, he recalls meeting one of his heroes, the late Baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. Do you have a memory of meeting your sports idol that you’d like to share? Add it to the comments section or email it to sports@seattletimes.com or dshelton@seattletimes.com.

The Associated Press

Baseball great Joe DiMaggio, a pitch man for Mr. Coffee, is shown hawking the product in a 1974 TV commercial.

It was the summer of 1987, and I had a summer job at the Holiday Hill resort in the Connecticut hills, which catered to corporate outings. Small companies would rent the place out during the week. Big companies, many based in Manhattan, would rent out the facility on weekends.

I was 16 and arrived to work on one humid July morning, ready to man my post in a grill house next to a baseball diamond used for softball games.  In an exercise in dehydration, myself and Woody, a pessimistic 20-something cook, would grill burgers, hot dogs and steak sandwiches all afternoon.  On this day, the place was rented out to the Sunbeam corporation, which was affiliated with Mr. Coffee, and there had been rumblings all week that baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, Mr. Coffee’s famous spokesman, would be making the trip up from New York.

If true, it would be the closest I have ever been to greatness since I took my first breath of air in a New Haven, Conn., hospital.

All morning, we could feel the anticipation building across the 30 acres as we eagerly awaited the arrival of Joltin’ Joe. This was before the Internet, so most of what we knew about the great Joe DiMaggio came from our parents or the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

I had a piece of paper and pen in my pocket.  Woody asked me what it was for, and I told him I was going to get DiMaggio’s autograph. Woody doubted my ability to secure a signature from one of the greatest players of all time, and I disagreed.  So we bet $20. Considering I made $5 an hour as a grillmaster, $20 was half a day’s work.  If I landed DiMaggio’s autograph, it would be an even bigger payday.

Late in the morning we heard DiMaggio had arrived.  The manager of Holiday Hill went to pick up DiMaggio and his security guys with a golf cart.  I kept my eyes peeled. They would have to pass right in front of the ballpark grill to get to the main pavilion.

Then he appeared. Through the smoke of grilling burgers and hot dogs I could see DiMaggio was the passenger on the golf cart, sporting a pair of slacks, leather shoes, a dress shirt and checkered blazer.  One of the greatest players of all time was right in front of me! I couldn’t believe it!

But what now? How would I get his autograph?  Surely, after driving up from New York, he would probably have to use the restroom, right? So quickly I ran out of the ballpark grill and left Woody on his own. As I ran I realized I had forgotten my paper.  Shoot!  I had taken it out of my pocket because I was sweating in that July heat and didn’t want soggy paper for DiMaggio to sign.  I still, however, had my pen.

I cut through the kitchen and was scrambling to find something else for him to sign when I saw a Perrier box sticking out of a garbage can.  I ripped the end off.  I also grabbed three towels to take into the bathroom. We didn’t have bathroom attendants, but I was betting the only way I could linger was if I looked like one.  Clad in my white uniform, like all employees at Holiday hill, I went to the bathroom and used a towel to start drying off one of the five sinks attached to the wall.  As if on cue, the security guys came in and cleared the bathroom except for me, the “bathroom attendant”.  Then DiMaggio came and chose of one of six urinals.  I let him pee in peace.

Joe DiMaggio lines a single to left field during his record 56-game hitting streak in 1941.  The Associated Press

Joe DiMaggio lines a single to left field during his record 56-game hitting streak in 1941.
The Associated Press

He then walked to the sinks where I was working hard to make things clean.  I had two towels on my arm.  As Joltin’ Joe soaped up and rinsed off, I offered him a clean towel to dry the hands that elegantly handled a wooden bat for all those years.  Handing him the towel I said simply, “Mr. DiMaggio.”  He said simply, “Thanks.”

As he dried his hands, I figured this was my big chance.  When he handed the towel back, I grabbed the end of the Perrier box and the pen out of my front pocket and said again, “Mr. DiMaggio.”  He begrudgingly took the pen and the box and signed his name. No “thanks for being a fan” or “good luck with the rest of your life” stuff, just the simple, classy signing of his name.  On the end of a cardboard Perrier box.

Time stood still. The “bathroom attendant”, Joe DiMaggio and a security guy from New York, all shared an awkward moment.  But it was my moment with greatness, and one I will never forget.  Still, as a 16-year-old kid, I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of the legend whose hands I had helped dry.

DiMaggio turned and walked out; his duties as Mr.Coffee were calling.  I sprinted up to the ballpark grill, autograph in hand, and told Woody to pay up: 20 smackers and an autograph from a legend, to boot.

I was feeling good about my caper until Barry, the manager, showed up at the back door of the grill, wiggling his finger and saying he had to speak with me.  He asked to see the autograph and told me I did a nice job, but that I had also ticked off DiMaggio’s bodyguard.  Joe didn’t like to sign autographs, especially in a bathroom, and on the end of a Perrier box, no less.

Luckily I kept my job, and DiMaggio went on to enjoy an afternoon in the Connecticut hills as Mr. Coffee.  My autograph from the Yankee Clipper took a place on the shelf in my basement bedroom, right between my signed 1978 Yankees team ball and my autographed Elston Howard baseball.  It stayed there for years, the ink slowly fading on the end of the Perrier box.

At some point, while doing play-by-play broadcasts for minor-league baseball at the start of my career, my parents cleaned out my room.  DiMaggio’s autograph disappeared.  I looked for it in closets and boxes and heat vents for years, but I never found it.

Joe DiMaggio’s autograph may have disappeared from my shelf, but my moment with greatness will live on forever in my heart and my mind: a one-on-one moment for me and Joltin’ Joe in the Connecticut hills – and twenty bucks from Woody. What a day!

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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