Wayward Shots — Meeting My Brother’s Famous Foe

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to meet many celebrities and sports figures. I’ve met musicians Glenn Frey, Branford Marsalis and Huey Lewis, to name a few. Professional athletes Penny Hardaway, Joe Theismann, and Drew Brees. And actors George Lopez, Andy Garcia, and Josh Duhamel. I’ve even met President George H.W. Bush – he shoved me in jest on the 11th tee at The Memorial one year. I’ve also been fortunate to cross paths with my favorite athlete growing up. For me, it was watching Michael Jordan play pool with my old pal, David Duval.

That being said, there’s always a chance you’ll unexpectedly run into your nemesis. Could you imagine being a Red Sox fan and running into Billy Martin or Reggie Jackson?  While I have yet to run into someone that would qualify as my archenemy, I did get the next best thing. In 2011, I met my brother’s all-time nemesis. The one guy that would make his blood boil, and it was awesome!

Paul Goydos and I were in Tampa for the Transitions Championship, and were paired in the first round with Charlie Wi. After everyone hit their drives on the first hole, we walked off the tee and Charlie asked us if we recognized his friend walking along the ropes. It was Tom Niedenfuer, former relief pitcher for the LA Dodgers. As soon as I heard the word “Niedenfuer,” I spastically turned toward Charlie, started howling with laughter.

In the early 1980s, my mother remarried, and my stepfather’s son, Bryan, came from Los Angeles to live with us. He was an all-LA sports fan, and knew every player on every team in every sport. He was particularly fond of the Dodgers, and in 1985 they made it to the NL Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. He was stoked!

Game 5 of that series was nip and tuck, and by the ninth inning it was tied at 2-2. The Dodgers had Tom Niedenfuer in to face Ozzie Smith. Bryan and I both knew Niedenfuer threw hard, but with limited movement, and Bryan wasn’t particularly excited when Tommy Lasorda brought him in. Sure enough, Ozzie, who had 28 career homers in almost 20 years, inexplicably jacked one out for a walk-off home run. St. Louis was going crazy, I was laughing hysterically and Bryan was cursing Niedenfuer for being on this earth. Two days later, with my brother screaming “NO, NO, NO!” as they were bringing Niedenfuer in from the bullpen, Jack Clark hit a three-run shot off him to essentially win the series, and my brother’s nemesis was born.

At some point during the round, I said to Goydos that I had to get Tom’s autograph and have him personalize it to my brother. It would be hilarious! So I watched him all day to make sure he didn’t leave.

I couldn’t wait for the round to end, and all but forced Charlie to introduce us when we finished. After being introduced I told him my brother was a “huge fan,” and it would be wonderful if he could sign the back of my pin sheet for his birthday. Tom said he had a better idea. He was going to put a small box in Charlie’s locker with some autographed memorabilia for me to give to my brother. This just kept getting better and better.

So Friday I checked with Charlie … no box. Saturday … no box. Sunday … no box. I was so disappointed, particularly because I didn’t even get the autograph on my pin sheet. So I just chalked it up to a former pro athlete with good intentions who forgot. It happens a lot.

The following week we were at Bay Hill for Arnold Palmer’s tournament, and Paul and I were on the putting green. Charlie Wi walked out of the locker room with a small box under his arm and handed it to me. Needless to say, I was very excited!  After we finished, I rushed to a UPS store to send it to Bryan. I had to see what was inside though, so I opened it up and there was an official Major League baseball with his signature, and a handful of beautiful laminated baseball cards, also with his signatures. I sent it off with a birthday card, and couldn’t wait to hear from Bryan.

When he finally called me, we laughed and laughed and laughed. I asked him what his reaction was when he opened the box. He said it was a mixture of happiness, sadness, anger, elation, laughter and tears. I expected nothing less.

I will say this, Tom Niedenfuer was nothing but a wonderful, generous man who took the time and went out of his way to be gracious to someone he had never met before. We had a great conversation that Thursday in Tampa, and I will always hold him in high regard. As far as my brother goes?  Well, he’s not ready to call him his favorite player of all-time yet, but he was touched that Tom’s generosity would reach all the way to him…almost as much as it reached Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark back in 1985.