Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Ken Griffey Jr. Bobblehead

One of the great things about being a parent is that you can rely on the hard-earned lessons of your youth to become a wise-beyond-your-years sage, always knowing the most appropriate, thoughtful ways to deal with each crisis to spare your children the demons and angst you yourself faced as a child. Or so you tell yourself.

And then you actually have kids and it becomes fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and hang-on-tight. You put out day-to-day fires as they pop up and before you know it, the kids are grown and gone and you realize you never had time to say and teach all the little important things you wanted to. And you just hope that the good stuff somehow soaked through by example.

I was up in my son's room recently. He moved out to start medical school not long ago. Looking at a once-prized shelf of dust-covered, treasured mementos from  his childhood--things much too valuable to throw out, but that didn't quite make the cut for a crowded grad-school apartment--I saw a small plastic figure, about two inches tall. It was sitting among several baseballs from long ago games, the significance of a few of them forgotten, a tiny plastic dinosaur that brought great joy when it was won at a grade school carnival, and a small football helmet from his favorite team. The emotional turmoil and pain that this seemingly insignificant little piece of plastic brought my son would be lost to time were it not for the oral history that is passed down, and relished (by his siblings), each year when the kids gather for holidays.

Eerily like my own experience with the Harmon Killebrew 3-D card of my youth (see my post from December, 2014), this one started with great expectation and avarice at the breakfast table. One year, I think it was around 2000, some cereal company put tiny baseball player bobbleheads in their boxes. I didn't pay too much attention, but it was a big deal to the kids. Or I should say, it was a big deal to my middle child, Matt. My oldest son, while remaining a baseball fan, was nearing adolescence and, since the hero of his early childhood (Nolan Ryan) had retired, he no longer had a particular favorite player. My daughter, about five at the time, only would have cared about baseball if the players rode horses while playing.

But Matt, at nine years old, was in the middle of ravenous, all-consuming, baseball fanaticism. Not yet jaded by years of toil and disappointment, he was thrilled when he saw on the cover of the box that the object of his idolization, Ken Griffey, Jr., was included in the players immortalized by the small, very-unlifelike, plastic bobbleheads. He just knew he would get the one he desired.

Not having learned a thing from my own childhood, I announced what I thought was a reasonable plan: the kids would take turns regarding who got the loot from each box. My older son went first and scored a Luis Gonzalez--no big deal. Then Matt's turn came and he got a Mike Piazza. Disappointed, but not devastated, he thought maybe he could last until the next round (not yet comprehending that the boxes with bobbleheads would all be gone a week later). And then in a few days, Stephanie opened her box. You guessed it--a Ken Griffey, Jr.

Matt immediately underwent painful spasms of gnashing of teeth (they actually gnashed, I heard them) as he watched his little sister hold and examine the precious object--the stuff that dreams were made of--with a mixture of barely-controlled rage and jealousy. He was able to pull himself together to come up with a plan, however: she was a little girl, she didn't care about baseball, maybe they could work out a trade. But Matt, who we've warned to never play poker, had already seriously overplayed his hand. Stephanie realized how much her big brother burned with desire to have this innocent-appearing token and she knew that she was very much in a position of power in the negotiations.

"Do you want to trade?" Matt asked, trying to put on his best loving-concerned-big brother face.

"No, I think he's cute," Stephanie replied. Her pigtails swirled as she flicked the tiny tab on the back of Ken Griffey Jr.'s head over and over with her dainty little fingers, making the head bobble. Matt's stomach churned painfully each time Ken Griffey Jr.'s head went up and down.

Up and down.

Up and down.

Stephanie rebuffed all of Matt's overtures, including, I'm sure, the rights to his first two or three future millions. She continued to torture him with it all week, as if playing with the little bobblehead was the most fun she had ever had. She carried it with her everywhere, continually bobbing the little head while we ate, rode in the car or watched television. All while her big brother's insides slowly turned to mush and he gave up the will to live.

All week, I reminded myself to stay at least a half step between the two of them, lest Matt's pain-twisted mind finally snap and give in to the temptation to reach for his little sister's neck with sinister intent. Fortunately, some lesson from Sunday School, or maybe threats from his mother, caused Matt to resist the urge and Stephanie lived on.

Finally, when I could take the sight of my son's pitiful suffering no longer, remembering my own pain years earlier, I sat down with my daughter for a serious, and well-rehearsed, heart to heart. "Stephanie, Matt really wants that Ken Griffey Jr. bad," I began, trying to channel my inner Mike Brady. "It would be really nice of you if you could trade with him,"

"Oh, he can have it," she cut me off as she played with her little plastic horses--resuming her normal routine, as if the whole sordid episode had never occurred.

Amazed that I had convinced her so easily with my wisdom, I just stared.

"Besides," she continued while making her horses gallop, "it's broke. The head doesn't bobble anymore."

Even though it was no longer officially a "bobble" head, Matt was nevertheless ecstatic and relieved beyond all human comprehension when Stephanie presented him with the prize. His suffering was finally over. He immediately installed it next to his other most treasured objects on his shelf of fame.

Where it still sits today.


  1. It reminds me of trading baseball cards with my brothers as a kid -- we would do/trade anything for Morgan or Bench or any player in the Big Red Machine. Nice post, Doug. Great illustration of the relationship between family and baseball.

  2. It's one of those great episodes that makes the years melt away when we all get together