Monday, September 24, 2012

The Story of When I Hugged Chipper Jones

by Ben Howard

When I turned 18 years old my dad took me on a birthday trip to Pittsburgh to watch the Atlanta Braves play the Pittsburgh Pirates. Though it sounds weird for a kid who spent his entire childhood in central Ohio, I’ve always been a massive Braves fan and this weekend of baseball was the perfect present.

The Saturday morning after the first game my dad and I went down to the restaurant in the hotel to check out the breakfast options. While I was waiting, looking around the restaurant, I spotted the grizzled, but unmistakable face of the Braves first basemen Julio Franco. Then I looked to the stairs in time to see equally grizzled Braves manager Bobby Cox walking down to the lobby.

It quickly dawned on me that we were staying in the same hotel as the Braves. I was giddy, but I was also nervous.

My dad, who is much more outgoing than I, kept trying to get me to go up the players, to ask for an autograph, maybe even a picture. But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t. These people were famous! They played baseball! I can’t treat them like mere mortals, can I?

Eventually, my dad took charge when Chipper Jones entered the lobby. He went up to the future Hall of Famer and politely asked if his son, me, could take a picture with him. Sure, no problem.

In this moment, I was so nervous, so giddy, so overwhelmed with childhood memories and emotions, that I’m pretty sure I gave Chipper Jones a bear hug. It might have been a little uncomfortable for him. My bad Chipper.

I’m always awkward in the face of celebrity. It’s like I’m not convinced that these people are actually real. When I met Chipper Jones, it almost felt like I was meeting Mickey Mouse at Disney World, but I know that it’s not. I know Mickey is a character and that Chipper is a person. I know there is a person inside the Mickey costume playing a role that doesn’t exist in reality.

I think this is the price we pay for the one-sided contact of mass media. I know you, but you don’t know me. I’m meeting the celebrity version of you, which is a character that I’ve built in my head, and you’re meeting a stranger.

Now, contrast that with the story of when I met Nicole Kidman. I was getting coffee in Nashville, sitting with a  friend of mine, when I saw a tall blonde woman come over looking for a seat.

I looked up, made eye contact, smiled and possibly (involuntarily) winked at her. She made eye contact, smiled and waved. I didn’t realize until after this interaction that the person I just (involuntarily) winked at was Nicole Kidman.

But this was normal. We were both strangers, in a public place, acting like normal friendly people.

I’m not sure I would have done the same thing if I recognized her first. In fact, I’m almost sure that I wouldn’t have and that’s a little disappointing.

This is the danger of viewing real people as characters. It’s the deep and often unspoken problem of mass media and popular culture. People begin to symbolize something instead of being able to be human.

In a recent interview with author Michael Lewis, President Obama told Lewis that one of the things he’s had to learn as President is that there is this guy out there with the same name as you, who has done the same things as you, and he is on the news every day and that no matter how close the resemblance is, that guy on the news isn’t you. That’s the character, the role of Barack Obama, not the actual person.

I don’t know how to overcome this problem in culture, and as we’ve seen in the above stories, I’m pretty bad at it. But I think it’s important to remember that the people we are so quick to criticize from a distance are actual human beings with actual lives and emotions. Not everyone is synonymous with the caricature of them that we’ve built, in fact I think it’s safe to say that none of them are.

I’ve attempted to not get too political here, and maybe I’ll keep that going and maybe I won’t, but either way, take this message to heart, especially over the next 6 weeks or so. Barack Obama is not a symbol, he is a man. Mitt Romney is not a character, he is a person.

It’s just so much harder to hate and demonize something that’s real and not imaginary.


When he isn’t awkwardly hugging professional athletes, Ben spends his time watching them through a magic box in his living room. Yeah, TV sounds uber-creepy when you describe it that way. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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