10 February 2008

Show Me A Sign

One of baseball's unique voices was silenced Thursday. Karl Ehrhard, the Mets' unofficial sign guy, was 83. For many years at Shea, in a lower box between third and home, he wore a small brimmed felt derby that made him look like a leprechaun, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or a quirky German art major, which is apparently what he was. His signs were of commercial grade quality, often clever and topical.

Almost forty years ago, I was at a Met's game when Ehrhard hauled out a placard with a great big "A" on it. There was not much reaction from the large crowd. After he put the sign down, a different sign appeared, this one with a capital "G". Before long, Ehrhard alternately pumped each sign in the air, one in each hand, and pretty soon 57 thousand people were chanting "Ay- G, Ay-G", which was a good thing because Tommie Agee had just flipped his donut into the circle and was approaching the plate.

Now, that doesnt make the sign guy Tim Berners-Lee, but he was a cut above today's ubiquitous middle-aged loser baseball fan, like me or you, echoing "Let's Go [ Insert team here!!]" from deafening scoreboard instructions, proudly donning our Guatemalan MLB apparel.

At the end of that game, which was, by the way, Game 5 of the 1969 World Series, Ehrhard eschewed signs like "Yes!" or "Champs!" or "They did it!" Instead, this man of few and carefully chosen words captured the vibe perfectly with:

There are no words

At eight years of age, from my upper deck perch, as thousands of long suffering, delirious fans stormed the field below me, from the bright yellow field boxes surrounding him, Ehrhard taught me a lesson that's aged exceedingly well: even if you're funny or smart, there are times in life when it's best just to shut up.

I wonder if a wild card like Karl Ehrhard could even exist in today's ballparks? Sure, people still have signs, but Ehrhard could be critical of the home team and its players from time to time, and being so close to the dugout with those large, crisply made posters, he simply couldnt be ignored. For example, after Met Jose Cardenal whiffed, "Jose, Can You See?" would often rise above the dugout in big block letters. How would that go over today? I'm not just talking about the play on the name "Jose" and Chicanos Por La Causa. But how would a current major league club react to a highly visible, independent fan spontaneously dishing on the home club? No profanity, just a witty guy three rows behind the owner's box, sharing his joys and frustrations with the rest of the stadium.

I imagine a heavy handed front office like the Diamondbacks, intent on manipulating information just so, would have an absolute cow - working overtime to marginalize such a visible and unvarnished fan/critic. I'm no Derrick Hall, but I imagine something like this:

The Diamondbacks received complaints from loyal fans whose enjoyment of the game was diminished by Mr Ehrhard's posters. Specifically, the commercial ink used by Mr Ehrhard reportedly caused nausea and some vomiting. After refusing to comply with Diamondbacks' specifications, Mr Ehrhard's season tickets were revoked. The Diamondbacks remain committed to our fans, their experience at the ballpark, and their overall well being.

(photos courtesy of AP and The New York Times)

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