I have only myself to blame, for this all began when I asked my sister to make me an aunt and specified the form of a nephew. She complied twelve years ago with my godson James, who grew in favor before God and man and then begged to attend Redsfest.
For those of you unfamiliar with Redsfest, it is a conglomeration of baseball memorabilia merchants, interactive displays, stage shows, and autograph sessions with Reds players, which feature the excitement of standing in line at Walmart Customer Service, combined with speedwalking to catch a malodorous bus to reach a job you despise, all vaguely
interrupted with a sense of standing around a used car lot awaiting word from your salesman’s manager that your car loan on the Honda Accord has been approved. It lasts fifteen and a half hours and it’s one giant cynical commercial for The Cincinnati Reds, Inc., and it’s still better than winding up with a niece at a One Direction concert. Parking is not validated.
This is the first Redsfest I’ve attended as a guest; since returning home from living in various cities which host such a revolving door of minor league teams that they don’t even bother linking the name to the home organization and just aim for vague preposterousness (“LET’S HEAR IT FOR YOUR HOMETOWN STONE CRABS!!!!!”), I had no real concept of the length and breadth of it all. In the three years since my return to Cincinnati in the wake of my father’s death, I was corralled to my job at the Reds Hall of Fame booth, so as far as I knew, Redsfest was an unending two-day Q and A session with Jack Billingham about Game 3 of the 1972 World Series.
I agreed to this because James, as a twelve-year-old boy, is reaching a stage in his life at which I’m not precisely sure how to interact with him on a human level. I’ve never been a twelve-year-old boy and I hated being a twelve-year-old girl. We communicated beautifully when I could hold a reindeer puppet up to his face and then throw it over his head; this began failing to amuse him approximately a decade ago and I have been at a loss ever since. His understanding of Boomer Esiason is that of a large man behind a large desk. He has no concept of timing a mix tape’s final song to end before the side runs out. I had to Google his Halloween costume. He shaves.
We stand together at nearly-thirteen and nearly-forty, simultaneously passing into adulthood and out of the early stage of it. He has well and truly discarded toys on his Christmas list in favor of Under Armour tees, and I walk into 2017 on orthotics against my right foot after managing to injure it while standing still. His parents have had A Discussion with him about when he is allowed to have a girlfriend at the same moment I, still awaiting the right moment for motherhood, resign myself to watching my doctor add the words “perimenopause range” to my chart.
And yet, despite the vast expanses of my childhood spent at Riverfront Stadium cradling my father’s worn Pete Rose model baseball glove, James is at one with baseball at a time when I have begun to regard professional sports with bitter weariness, largely unmoved by the triumphing Cubs and unaware of what the Bengals’ record even is right now.
“Sorry if he drives you crazy,” my sister texted me, as James phoned my mother with the announcement that Redsfest was now a mere twelve days away and she should prompt Aunt Beth to sign up for text alerts about autograph station times.
“I do understand what it’s like to be an obsessed child,” I replied.
It would have been well for me to replace “child” with “person,” because that is what I carry forward with me from twelve—the unfortunate, blessed tendency to fall into utter emotional consumption: by gymnastics, by New Kids on the Block (shut up), by horseracing, by Ohio State’s marching band (shut up), by space exploration, by whatever’s coming next. This predilection for infatuation sustains me on thimblefuls of sleep even as it exhausts everyone around me. This little girl pleaded with her parents to allow her to spend her allowance on dialing a 1-900 number… to listen in to Mission Control’s conversation feed with astronauts on the space shuttle. This woman drove eight hours one way… for a 4-minute performance by a single drum major. My godson and I stand at opposite ends of adulthood, but we are facing one another.
What do you do, then, with a person whose very soul has been entrusted to you and whose life you would, if it came to that, gladly ransom with your own?
You take him to Redsfest.
4:00 PM: Redsfest takes place at the Cincinnati Convention Center… downtown… beginning at rush hour… on a Friday… at Christmastime. I arrive at my sister’s home already on the clock, for she and my brother-in-law have their limits, and that limit is extracting their son from school 90 minutes early so we could arrive when the doors open.
This is the first gauntlet of Redsfest, and it didn’t even involve my orthotic. Driving my nephew is forever a terrifying prospect, and I felt this way even before Cincinnati added a streetcar as a large expensive useless potential crashing partner, and also before I managed to burn a car, Top Gear-style, right down to the ground without even being in it.
Elvis Presley’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” is on the radio, and I inform my sister’s firstborn that he is listening to the definitive version of this song. “Do you know who’s singing?” I ask.
We’re changing lanes, and despite this, I turn slowly around until our eyes met. “I have failed you by every possible metric.”
4:34 PM: This child has not been placed in my care; I have been placed in his. In the past ten minutes I have been chastised for walking outside the parameters of a crosswalk and accidentally into the camera range of another person’s picture. He has also, seeing me waddling along while juggling a swagbag, my coat, a program, a bottle of water, car keys, my phone, and a camera, said, “Aunt Beth? You can just put your backpack on your back.”
Every baseball card he owns of every player in attendance has been cataloged in plastic sleeves, possibly in order by amount of creepy facial hair. All pockets on his own backpack are fully zipped, contents carefully distributed for equal weight distribution. Meanwhile I have no idea where the car keys I literally just had in my hand to lock the car 45 seconds ago have gone. This, then, is what happens when an MFA is paired with the eldest child of two eldest children, who themselves are both the product of two eldest: A twelve-year-old boy out-adults the person starting to receive junk mail about estrogen supplements.
4:57 PM: We run into James’ paternal grandfather,“Poppy,” along with his uncle and cousin. I am distracted by a prize wheel sponsored by Busken which offers the opportunity to bring home a cookie—or many.
But James has precious little time to waste on icing. He strategically positions us in the center of the main room, my phone in his hand, initiating uncomfortable flashbacks to hovering over dorm room phones which never rang with males of the species on the other end.
“Aunt Beth,” he says, “they’re going to text you the next autograph times and the places the players are going to be. And we have to get in line before they cut it off. And you have to be ready to go.”
“So we can run to stand in a line for forty-five minutes?”
“That’s the fun part.”
“Ready To Go” does not, sadly, involve a visit to the bathroom, which I must stop in very badly, but such luxuries might conflict with a pending announcement, and thus we are visited by the specter of a child peevishly reminding an adult that she just went.
5:12 PM: In the most West Side thing ever, we are now joined by my cousin Michelle, her family, her brother-in-law, and two of his children. A Mass may break out at any moment. I post news of this on Facebook.
“Tell Michelle I said hi!” comments one of my high school classmates, who once worked with her at P&G.
5:13 PM: Michelle and I clutch at one another, little islands of feminine comfort.
“This is very stressful,” she says, glancing over her shoulder at her sons, also Ready To Go.
“Did they let you go to the bathroom?” Because I’ve attended life-saving surgeries containing less tension.
Over Michelle’s shoulder is a bar, but, as alcohol is not known as aiding speed, I reject this out of hand. Baseball is no game.
5:24 PM: Over on the main stage is a 2016 season video recap. I do hope there’s a DVD with a director’s cut of it available because man am I sorry I missed that.
5:27 PM: Word gets around that the next puff of autograph white smoke won’t issue for a while, so we decamp to the sports memorabilia area. James has been saving for months. Although I am entrusted with his swagbag and his sweatshirt (this crude matter serves naught but to slow him down), James makes zero mention of asking me to carry the money.
5:29 PM: My friends, now comes the seat.
During my tenure at the Reds Hall of Fame, I watched offseason stadium workers yank every single seat out of Great American Ball Park, hurl them into enormous cardboard boxes, and replace them with stacks and stacks of new ones. I saw them come in; I saw them come out. The seats made their way to Hamilton County, which auctioned them off in blocks; they then travelled to memorabilia dealers, and now this cafeteria table in front of my godson.
“This is a good deal,” he says. “They were going for a lot more last year. It’s both parts of the seat.”
The history minor in me loves this decision—this purchase is authentic, unusual, and unpretentious, christened as it is by the sweaty buttcheeks of untold thousands of
strangers. The job of an aunt is not that of ceasing and desisting the purchase of a stadium seat, and so I guide James only in the manner of which one he should get.
“Which number was Pete Rose?” he says, not having been warned that for reasons of mental health, Pete Rose, like The War, is never to be mentioned around me.
“Oh, but look, here’s Johnny Bench,” I say, waving my arm, Barker’s Beauty-style, before a seat bearing the number five.
“Nah,” says James, wandering down the line of shopping bag-encased seats. “I want Pete Rose.”
“That’s fourteen,” the unhelpful woman behind the booth says, and James carefully counts some bills from his Officially Licensed Major League Baseball Cincinnati Reds wallet, the ironic existence of which almost prompts me to get a wallet of my own.
5:29 PM: “Oh ___, how much was it?” texts my brother-in-law after I also post this triumph on Facebook.
“$35.00, completely unwashed,” I reply, the shopping bag handles already drawing blood in the middle three digits of my right hand. It’s been a while since I helped move displays at the museum and I’d forgotten how heavy history can be when there aren’t at least four other people around to drag it across the room with you.
5:40 PM: First autograph schedule comes through; the two teenage boys behind us get the text a nanosecond before I do, and, yelling “GO! GO!” at one another, streak across the Convention Center, possibly into a waiting chopper about to lift away from a fireball.
5:40.01 PM: It occurs to me that this is the best SAT prep for James that a $12.75 entrance fee can buy: He’s forced to sort through several options instantaneously, recall which player cards he owns, calculate distance from autograph line, factor in the speed of a chair-hoisting, orthotic-wearing aunt, and gauge the rarity of the player’s appearance versus the probability he’ll have another crack at the same player in the next session. The consequences of Redsfest, however, are far more weighty than his college of choice.
5:40.02 PM: “Brandon Phillips,” says James. Phillips is scheduled to appear at the autograph station closest to us, and we slide into line before it’s shut off. The seat balanced between my legs, I lean forward in relief: I’ve managed not to screw this up for my godson yet. Perhaps one day I may once again eat, or even sit, although at the moment chairs are not among my favorite furniture items.
“Yeah, this is the fun part,” says James happily.
6:04: Brandon Phillips is now four minutes late to the signing, and consternation is growing, as there’s no guarantee everyone here will file through before he has to move to the next station. This is the kids-only autograph session, and there is much speculation in the line as to whether or not he is in the bathroom.
6:10 PM: JAMES: I just saw George Foster!
ME: Honey, there’s crap to be signed here. Everybody’s going see George Foster whether they want to or not.
6:11 PM: Mr. Phillips has arrived. Seeing him make his way through the crowd, James says, “He’s wearing a top hat!” It turns out to be, in reality, a sun hat, but the top hat would have surprised me less. It’s a step down from last year’s entrance on a hoverboard. I’m not the only one getting old.
6:34 PM: Brandon Phillips achievement unlocked. This is accomplished in total silence, James gazing up at the shortstop on the dais, me clicking the camera, James saying “Thank you, Mr. Phillips,” Mr. Phillips not looking up from his text message to reply.
In the Crosley Field days, the Reds used to issue an off-season program containing the players’ home addresses so fans could mail off cards to be signed, a practice I heartily now endorse.
James has a question. “Did Poppy Ron”—my father—“did Poppy Ron get autographs when he was alive?”
“Maybe a few,” I tell him, using the seat as a battering ram to clear a path to the next autograph line.
I felt my left eye twitch. “I guess. But we didn’t have Redsfest when I was your age.”
James looks at me with great pity. “What did you have to look forward to then?”
Well now I feel sorry for me, too.
6:58 PM: After directly deflecting into the line for the minor leaguer next door and visiting a pizza stand—I decline in an attempt to find food that won’t make me absolutely abhor myself so soon as it’s swallowed– Poppy points to an eating area. “We can take the drinks and pizza there,” he says.
“Oh, no,” says James, “Aunt Beth and I need to get more autographs. I’m going to eat in line.”
Poppy looks first at me, then at James, then back at me, cradling the seat like a shrink-wrapped child. “We’ll catch up later,” he says.
He is never seen again.
7:02 PM: Through channels I shall not disclose, I have obtained an autographed baseball for my cousin’s husband, Matt, and have a four-minute window to deliver it to him in his line before the Text of Doom arrives with the locations of the next set. It’s like living in Game of Thrones, only with less nudity and more Lance McAlister.
With James now alligator- wrestling the seat, I see Matt a good twenty yards away and make eye contact. I hold the ball up and feign throwing it at him. Matt, well aware of my vast athletic limitations, wears an expression so horrified that it’s well worth enduring the security officer yelling “Ma’am…MA’AM!” as I duck in the line, deliver the ball from a safe distance of four inches, and run away again.
The adrenaline has made me daring in my old age. I’m practically a Bond girl.
“Come on, Aunt Beth!”
7:28 PM: I don’t even know the name of this guy (this was the Official Theme of the Back
Half of the 2016 Cincinnati Reds Season, by the way: “I Don’t Even Know the Name of This Guy”) currently signing the game ticket James has placed before him, but he takes extra time with my nephew. As I snap a picture, it occurs to me that I perhaps should have worn makeup instead of dressing for hand-to-hand combat as I have, but then I remember that this dude is pretty much exactly half my age and also I got married already.
“What’s going on with the ticket?” I asked James as he triumphantly replaced the crumple-free paper in the backpack.
“Well,” he says, zipping carefully, “I was at his major league debut this summer, and I thought, ‘Hey, Redsfest isn’t too far away,’ and I figured he’d be here tonight, so I saved the ticket, and he inscribed it ‘MLB debut.’”
I stare at this young man, of my genes but not of my genes, who has displayed the foresight and patience to preserve a little scrap of a printout that someday might be worth a mint or never reach a $.99 reserve on eBay. And he won’t care either way; he has shaken the hand of a man who has shaken hands with the game, and he now possesses, priceless and uncreased, right in his backpack…a tiny piece of Baseball. The entire foundation of his musical education is Todd Frazier’s walk-up music and yet he has orchestrated this.
“You can eat now,” James says magnanimously.
7:38 PM: “Let’s find some salad,” I say, but, as it happens, these are my choices:
-Whole entire pizza
-Chili in all its major forms (bag, box, wrapper, and hot dog bun)
-Wads of cheese
-Sugar in round form
-Sugar in flat form
-Almonds, rolled in corn syrup, dipped in carbs, coated with butter, deep-fried in fructose and dusted with lard
-Lemonade! (this is a form of fruit, so…healthy)
Across the room I notice a stand titled “Cincy Fresh!,” and which prominently features not one, but two, tomatoes.
“I’m getting a salad,” I say to my nephew, who will evenly distribute his pizza-fuel in regular intervals so as to maintain properly regulated energy over the next five and a half hours. I make my way across the entire Convention Center to the menu board, deliberating between grilled chicken and salad.
“I don’t think they have salad,” says James.
8:05 PM: The Reds Team Awards are taking place behind us as James clutches the same freaking Kahn’s Todd Benzinger card his mother and I somehow once had in our possession. Todd is taking his time, so the seat and I shuffle past various video feeds showing Joey Votto receive his second consecutive Ernie Lombardi Award as the Reds’ MVP.
“Does Joey have a beard?” James wants to know, eyes trained on Benzinger’s World Series ring.
“Joey does not have a beard.” He does, however, look like he wants to murder every living thing in a forty-mile radius as he hoists his trophy in the air. Joey Votto is the Harrison Ford of this entire organization.
8:22 PM: Todd Benzinger is having seat epiphanies of his own. The woman in front of us hands him a yellow Riverfront Stadium seatback for him to sign. This is very exciting for Todd.
“I’ve signed blue ones and red ones,” he says, “but this is my first yellow.” He looks over James’ head at me in line. “There were only four rows of them. Right?”
“With the padded seats,” I confirm, because Todd Benzinger has included me in the conversation and there’s no backing out of this.
Here is what happens when idiot aunts attempt to take a picture of a godchild and Todd Benzinger and she doesn’t understand how a flash works:
Here is what happens when idiot aunts attempt to take a picture of a godchild and Todd Benzinger and doesn’t understand how a flash works but gets a second chance because Todd Benzinger is awesome:
8:31 PM: James catches sight of Cowboy and Tracy Jones from afar and politely runs them down. The seat and I follow at a great, great distance, and I finally wind up grabbing him by the backpack so we don’t separate, thereby running the risk of losing him forever amidst the Eric Davis line melee, although that might comparatively mitigate any lingering anger my sister might have over this one time I stole-borrowed her best banana clip. “What do you want!” Tracy Jones hollers, because he is Tracy Jones. “I’m just kidding. How ya doing?” he says.
James returns with another signature on the little bat he keeps in a special section of his backpack. “Tracy Jones yelled at me,” he beams.
8:37 PM: “Aunt Beth?”
“Are you having fun?”
“How can you not have fun with a fantastic seat like this around?”
“Okay. No offense, but if Poppy Ron were here, I think I’d ask him to come to Redsfest instead.”
“I think he would have liked that.”
“Come on, Aunt Beth.”
8:40 PM: The seat and I are permitted 45 seconds in the white and leathery VIP lounge, where Marty Brennaman is interviewing Reds general manager Dick Williams. Marty wants to know if anyone has any questions for Dick.
The room goes silent, because everybody has questions for Dick, but an underage child is now in the room and they perhaps cannot voice them as planned.
“Really? No questions?” Marty says as I am pulled out the door.
“Please ask questions,” I hear as we take off down the hall.
8:47 PM: We stop by the Hall of Fame booth, that I might mingle with my former co-workers. Gone is the Mystery Ball Booth, which consisted of rows and rows of signed baseballs in brown paper bags. Sometimes the signature was Billy Hamilton’s. Sometimes the signature was bench coach Jim Riggleman‘s. You took your chances and—when I was working there—you yelled at the Hall of Fame employee about bench coach Jim Riggleman and demanded your money back. It was my little Christmas burst of Bobblehead People in a wintertime world.
This year, the baseballs were replaced by mounds of giftwrapped bobbleheads, possibly because—when I was working there—the master list deciphering the scrawled autographs usually went missing at least two-thirds of the shift.
“How’s it going with the bobbleheads?” I say.
They glance briefly at the child beside me and say, “So what are you up to? Still writing?”
8:51 PM: Here’s the thing with the seat, people. To accommodate the 225 chili-fed Cincinnatians massing before each autograph station, the Convention Center has set up a red tangle of stanchions. This means that the physical distance from End of Line A to Player B is pretty much quadrupled even if the line is nearly empty.
James often doubles me as he dashes through the line to meet as many players as possible, calling, “Come on, Aunt Beth!” because he is well aware that I will 1) murder him or, worse, 2) take him home if he darts out of my sight. Hampered by the seat weight, my general oldness, and the bone-to-shopping-bag handle contact going on, this has become the Festivus Feat of Strength which shall be told to generations yet unborn.
9:02 PM: Jumbo Diaz line. We have to stand a surprisingly long time, given the fact that the last time he had contact with my family at Redsfest, it was when my sister sent her five-year-old to get his autograph because no one was in his line and Julie felt sorry for him.
9:14 PM: James is permitted a ten-yard leash to collect the signature of Freddie Benavides, not because he particularly cares about Freddie Benavides but because “PYT” came on over the sound system and I gotta dance.
9:32 PM: Aunt Beth pauses to register to win a margarita maker. Aunt Beth will need to use one quite heavily.
“Come on, Aunt Beth!”
9:47 PM: In the neverending Jose Peraza line, James has a moment to reflect on his life choices.
“What am I gonna do with this seat?” he says.
9:52 PM: A college friend lets me know that at this very moment she is squiring her niece around the mall. “We had to stop at Hot Topic, Claire’s, and Pink,” she texts. “We are fantastic aunts.”
10:04 PM: James sees Adam Duvall roaming the premises, unchaperoned, and races off with his card. He needs to cross half the hall to undertake this mission without me by his side and I 100% let it happen. At this point in the evening I don’t care if he wanders back over to the VIP lounge to down tequila shots with Marty and Dick.
10:31 PM: I have parked the car here. Or here. Or here. Somewhere. James has taken over seat-hoisting duties, a gentleman caring for his own. He spots the little Pontiac long before I do, remembering just where we left it. He leads the way, just as he has all evening, line after line, maze for maze, receding from my line of sight, further and further away.
10:47 PM: Belted into the car, clutching at the hateful handles of the hateful seat bag, James calls my mother with a full post-action debrief. “Tracy Jones yelled at me!” he says. “And I saw Todd Benzinger’s World Series ring. And, you know how I have the Pete Rose glove that used to be Poppy Ron’s? I got a seat! A real seat with his number on it. Fourteen.”
I miss the turn to the interstate and James does not understand why. He thinks I am being his usual misdirected blonde non-throwing aunt. I let him.
11:14 PM: The grand cul-de-sac estate of my sister and brother-in-law. No one and nothing have burst into flame.
“I got a seat!” I hear my nephew say as the door closes behind me.
12:17 AM: I report in to my husband, Josh The Pilot, and describe in great and gory detail the wounds left upon my hands.
“Were there a lot of seats?” he says.
“Yes, a whole table,” I tell him.
“Why didn’t you tell James to wait until the end of the night to get one?”
“When you are an aunt,” I said, “you carry the chair.”
Proud aunt Mary Beth Ellis is a freelance writer and college teacher who lives in Cincinnati, OH. Her home site, BlondeChampagne.com, has existed in at least some form since 2003, and Mary Beth has been a regular columnist with one publication or another from the age of 16. Her first book, Drink to the Lasses, was published in 2006. She currently teaches college, runs personal wine tastings, gives literary readings, and stares into the middle distance.