I'd like to think that most sports fans have players who make it into the inner circle of "favorites" who are obscure to some degree, odd, or just regular, average guys who might be bench warmers, or even guys who never made an impact of any great degree on the game they play. As Brewer fans, I feel like we've probably had more than our fair share of guys that we've had weird attachments to, fan-crushes, and quirky dudes like Tim Dillards, Keith Ginters, and so on. Guys that maybe aren't making commercials and millions of dollars and getting all star and MVP votes, but endear themselves to the fans or one of us individually none the less.
I know my FAVORITE player when I was a young kid was Gorman Thomas. Now *there* was a star. The guy socked homer after homer. He played center field. He had an awesome mustache, and he smoked in the outfield! He even had a great name and a cool as heck nickname. I remember in early 1983 when the Brewers traded him for Rick Manning. I can't even begin to imagine what baseball executive would trade a bonafide superstar like Gorman Thomas for Rick. Manning. I think I must have just rode my red, black and white BMX bike around in a haze for a few days just trying to comprehend the stupidity of such a move. I'm still not over it. I look back at Gorman Thomas' 1983 stat line though, and older me understands the data driven side of why the Brewers did what they did. I still will never forget, even if I am able to forgive.
But let's fast forward to 1986. The Brewers had struggled through a brutal 1985. Not a lot went right. 1986 was going better! The Brewers had a new slugger, with a decent mustache (Rob Deer). I don't know if he ever smoked while patrolling the outfield, but he was pretty cool. They were hovering around .500 in June. Things were looking a little better.
So it was that my younger brother and myself came to be going to the Janesville Mall for the "Grand Re-opening" to see one Ernest Riles, shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers. Now, the Janesville Mall is a little mall, in a medium sized town, and Ernie Riles is not exactly a star draw, so there weren't a ton of kids there. My brother and I both had Topps Sticker albums (remember those? Those things were GREAT!) and Ernie signed them for us. My dad let Ernie know we'd be coming to Detroit to see the Brewers play the Tigers near the end of June, and I think he didn't believe my dad, as he laughed and said "see ya there!"
Fast forward to June 27th, 1986. Our family of four gets walk-ups to the vast, gray, cavernous Tiger Stadium, underneath the right field overhang. Tiger Stadium was so different than County Stadium to a young kid like myself. Just a huge diamond shape, and it had a much more enclosed feel, not quite claustrophobic, but very dark (to me) and I remember it feeling "old". Even as a precocious 11 year old, I remember having a strongly defined understanding of the history and age and just the weight that this park held.
We ambled over into the right field corner where none other than Teddy Higuera was signing autographs. What a great start to the day for us this could be, if we could get Teddy Higuera! My brother leans out, trying in vain to get Teddy's attention, and finally Teddy takes...... my brother's pen, to sign someone else's program! My mom, never a shy one, scolds Higuera and says "If you're going to use his pen, the least you can do is sign an autograph for him!", and my brother got Teddy Higuera's autograph on a square of plain folded brown cardboard.
We wandered over to the Brewers dugout, where several Brewers were milling about, and a few more guys were playing long toss. Ernie Riles is throwing, sees us, and yells "Hey! It's the Janesville kids!", and stops throwing and comes jogging over. It's hard to describe that feeling of being a young kid, and being recognized by a major league baseball player, who stops what he's doing to come say hi to some kids he saw in a mall from two or three weeks ago at a signing event. That's like a top two or three moment in a little kid's life at that point.
We had bought Brewers mini-bats, and he signed those, and something else, and talked ball with us and our dad for a few minutes (it feels longer in my memory, but it was probably in reality 30 seconds), and exclaimed that he couldn't believe we came all the way from Janesville to watch a ballgame. We didn't tell him that this was just one stop on our family vacation to Niagara Falls, and other points. It was a planned stop, but we didn't drive JUST to Detroit to see the Brewers. But Ernie didn't need to know that. If he wanted to believe we drove 10 hours to watch him play shortstop in Detroit, that's great.
I remember the Brewers losing to the Tigers on a Kirk Gibson walk off bomb, 4 - 2. I looked it up, and Baseball-Reference confirms that my memory serves me well. Kirk Gibson hit a one out homer in the bottom of the 11th off of Dan Plesac, for a 4-2 Tigers win on June 27th 1986. I was always a huge Ernie Riles fan after this. I played the crap out of Strat-o-Matic baseball (and a bunch of you guys did too, even if you won't admit it) when I was a kid, and I put a full HOMERUN on 3-8 on Ernie's card. It made him more of a power hitter than he was supposed to be, but I didn't care. Ernie was my guy. He was never more than an average at best shortstop/utility guy, but I didn't care. He was a *good* guy, and genuinely nice and good guys are hard to come by.