Willie Stargell, ready for bed, heard the knock on his Philadelphia hotel room door last weekend.
"I thought it was the bell captain," he said.
Instead, it was a fat man with two children in two.
"Sign these programs for my kids," he told Stargell.
At dinner in a restaurant that night, a woman had grabbed Stargell's forearm just as he was about to put a forkful of meat in his mouth. "Sign for me," she said.
So, with the memory fresh in mind, the captain of the world champion Pittsburgh Pirates wasn't in a mood for postmidnight autographs. But, for the umpteenth time in 18 seasons, he clenched his jaw, held his tongue and signed.
"If there were one thing in all of baseball that I'd change if I could," Stargell said the next day, "it would be the whole orientation of autographing.
"Gimme an autograph' is the most depressing part of our profession. It's so empty.
"If you could spend the same amount of time actually talking to 100 kids, instead of signing your name 1,000 times with a blank stare on your face, you could do so much good. You could be a teacher," said Stargell.
"Sometimes, out of desperation, I'll ask a child, 'Do you have your school teacher's autograph?' Well, maybe you should, 'cause that teacher has done a lot more to try to help you than I'll ever be able to do.'"
Stargell paused, disbelief passing over his face.
"It's him," murmured Stargell, looking at a fat man with two kids.
"It's him -- the same guy who got me out of bed last night. He's in our dugout 20 minutes before a game. How did he get in here?"
The man, with as much recognition of Stargell in his face as if he had been a large tree, shoved more programs at the Pirate, saying peremptorily, "Sign these."
Stargell signed implacably. The man left, in search of more bounty. "Seen it a million times," Stargell shrugged. "It's useless to fight."
One of the ugliest, yet most ambiguous scenes that is repeated eternally during any baseball season is the eddy of humanity, half-adult and half-child, that swirls around almost any player -- be he Stargell or starless -- when he steps out in public.
If baseball had a Top 10 of players who volunteer time for senior citizens' homes, charities, troubled neighborhoods or free school appearances, Stargell would make the list every year.
Yet Stargell says, with real dismay, "Man, as soon as I get off that elevator every morning on the road and take that first step into the world, here they come. I mean, they're right at you."
As might be expected, ducking autographs or refusing them is an art -- a painful one. Some atheletes -- Bill Russel of the Boston Celtics perhaps the most adamant and famous -- make it policy never to give an autograph, no matter to what lenghts of iciness or rudeness they must go.
Nevertheless, when a person makes hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a game -- no matter how difficult and worklike that game may be -- isn't there an obligation, paid off in menial aggravation, that he owes to the fans who pay the freight?
Anthony Gala of Silver Spring thinks so. After his experiences the last two seasons in trying to get autographs with his 9-year-old son from the Boston Red Sox after games in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, he wrote to the Sox president in a rage.
"We waited for an hour after the game, pen and program in hand, just as Steve Garvey suggests week after week in televised tips called 'Baseball Fever,'" wrote Gala.
"What followed was 'Baseball Nausea.'"
The details are all too familiar to anyone who has stood outside hundreds of player entrances: stars pushing through the crowd growling "Get our of my way, kid," and finally, the star-of-stars (and last man out of the clubhouse), shoving aside the little boy who has worshiped him for half the 10 years of his life.
Twenty-some years ago, Roy Sievers, then the American League home run champion, waited 20 minutes after his autograph signing session at the Hecht Co. so that a lost little boy could be found and retrieved by his mother and get the last two autographed pictures of the night.
One Sievers picture went on the bedroom wall -- and had pencils, darts and penknives flipped at it every time he struck out in the clutch until the photo was a tatter. Sievers struck out a lot.
The other Sievers picture was kept in a drawer -- in reverential mint condition, the only autograph of a life-time. In fact, it could probably be unearthed to this very day.
The first-class irony which compounds this whole matter in that baseball players themselves all prefer the rabid kind of fans who are just the sort who hound them most.
"It seems like the better fans you have, the more obnoxious they can be," says the Baltimore pitching coach, Ray Miller.
"I was talking to Earl (manager Weaver) about a pitching change in the ninth inning of a one-run game this year and a fan leaned over our dugout roof, stuck a piece of paper six inches from his face and said, 'Sign for me, Earl.'
"That may have been the only time I ever saw Earl speechless. Well, momentarily speechless."
That could happen in Baltimore, but never in baseball's hotbed of courtesy and consideration: Canada.
"You don't have to sign many autographs in Toronto, because they haven't really got a feel of the game yet," according to Miller. "They're standoffish and almost afraid of the players. They come to the ballpark like they're going to church. It takes 'em five or six innings just to work up the courage to start clapping."
Last month, those well-mannered Toronto fans -- 30,000 of them -- finally began to clap in unison as the Oriole manager walked to the mound to confer with her troubled pitcher.
"As I walked back to the dugout," Weaver related, "I looked up into the seats behind our dugout, which was the only place really starting to make any honest noise. I stopped, put my hands on my hips, glared at 'em, then screamed, 'Shut up,' at the top of my lungs.
"And I'll be derned if the whole ballpark didn't shut up, just like you'd turned off a switch. We almost died laughin.'
"Now, I ask you, is that a big league town? Do that in New York or Boston and you wouldn't get out in one piece.
"Don't get me wrong," said Weaver, realizing the parodox. "They're wonderful people. I guess they're just not baseball fans yet."
If they were, they'd probably have come knocking on Weaver's hotel room door at midnight.