The Unbearable Heaviness of Celebrity

Last weekend, my daughter Jamie and I got a taste of another world. It is a world in which normal values and priorities do not apply, and in which social standing has nothing to do with age, intelligence, or culture.

We attended spring training.

To get an opportunity to meet members of her beloved SF Giants, Jamie was beyond thrilled, and I was thrilled for her. I was also fascinated to observe this parallel universe to our own, where the schedules, demands, and whims of overtalented young men take precedence over just about everything else.

First, some background. As winners of the 2010 World Series, the Giants were the talk of the town and the objects of extraordinary attention. We just never could have imagined how extraordinary. The photo below was taken before 7:00a, over four hours before the team was to take the field for workouts and drills, the week before exhibition games were to begin. The doors to the right lead into the clubhouse and these throngs of people are waiting and hoping that players arriving at the facility will stop and sign autographs.

So they’re all fans, right? Wrong. A healthy majority of this group is made up of grown men (and some women) actively seeking to create marketable memorabilia. A $10 baseball will sell for $25 if Aubrey Huff signs it; a $15 photo will fetch $35 after Cody Ross adds his name to it; and a $50 Tim Lincecum jersey will be worth over $100 if the man himself takes felt pen to polyester. Jamie is in the middle of that pack somewhere, but she is dwarfed and overwhelmed by a sea of businessmen who care only that the Giants are world champions. Next year, in the likely event that the team does not repeat as champions, most of these peddlers will be elsewhere.

This is not a story of cynicism, although admittedly it is easy to succumb to the feeling. Didn’t these players know that most of these autograph seekers cared only about the profit in it? The answer would be yes, if they had the luxury of being able to discern. But most of them just needed to try to get through the process and could focus only on signing, signing, and signing some more. They put their heads down and signed anything placed before them. It was largely a depersonalizing experience for them, made that way by the crowd of hawkers who depersonalized the ballplayers by caring only about the value of their signatures.

There were exceptions. Andres Torres, described by all who know him as one of baseball’s nicest guys, saw Jamie as the obvious fan she was, decked out in black and orange, and made sure to sign her shirt. And when he got to her, he was happy to stop and pose for a photo. Note that in said photo (below), all of the people around Jamie are men with balls, bats, jerseys, and binders full of carefully-cross-referenced baseball cards.

However, cynicism did not rule the weekend — exuberance and exhilaration did. I never would have believed that ballplayers could bring such joy to fans with the smallest things. Once inside the stadium, we went right to the rail, in the hopes that Jamie could get a close encounter with her beloved, the 2010 rookie-of-the-year catcher Buster Posey. As he was heading out to the outfield for warm-up, she was barely able to muster a “Hi Buster” through her runaway nerves. In response, he turned in her general direction and waved his catcher’s mitt.

You would have thought he came up and kissed her. This 23-year-old put Jamie over cloud nine with a vague wave of a blunt hunk of leather. About an hour later, she summoned the courage to ask him for an autograph as he walked by, and he demurred in his deep-south accent, saying “Sorry, I’ve got something to do.”

Well, that became her catch phrase for the entire weekend — I’ve got something to do. Buster Posey actually spoke to her. Never mind that he blew her off — as far as she was concerned, he opened a window into his soul with that little rejection. He made her day, no, her entire weekend. Later on, when she actually did get his autograph, and their fingers touched during the pen exchange, her reaction reminded me of the crazed Beatles fans who refused to wash their hands because they came in contact with a pillow case that, three weeks earlier, Ringo Starr was reported to have used in Room 715 of the Hilton Hotel.

The phenomenon of stardom plays out in many ways and I can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for these athletes, however overpaid and overindulged they are. I think of all of the activities that we take for granted that are implausible for them. It rained Saturday afternoon so Jamie and I walked to the Denny’s a block away. Buster Posey couldn’t have done that. The following evening, we walked to the famous Sugar Bowl dessert shop in Scottsdale and browsed Old Town. Could the enigmatic relief pitcher Brian Wilson have done that? Only if he were willing to sign hundreds of autographs along the way. I imagine I would like the idea of earning $12 million dollars per year and I bet I could get used to receiving free stuff on a daily basis. But would I be able to give up my freedom? I bet most of us couldn’t really imagine what it would be like, but watching the way autograph hawkers pounced on these ballplayers last weekend, I got a glimpse of life in their bubble.

I give up my freedom for four days out of the year. At the Presentation Summit, I am public property and 200 people have unfettered access to me 18 hours out of the day. I’m sure that this is nothing like what the celebrities experience because I welcome it, I indulge it, I enjoy it, and I know that it is very temporary. The more relevant point of comparison is some of our keynote speakers who are like the rock stars of our industry. People like Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, Nigel Holmes, and Julie Terberg. Patrons regularly tell us ahead of the event about how excited they are  to get a chance to meet their idols and heroes. They seek autographs, they hang on their every word, and they watch how they conduct themselves in public.

Here is the important distinction, and forgive the implied sales pitch, but it is one of the qualities of the conference of which I am most proud: our rock stars do not act like rock stars. Very few of our presenters blow in, give a keynote, and depart. They hang out with the patrons, they eat lunch with them, socialize with them, talk shop with them, sometimes get drunk with them. And I get to see how much the patrons value and appreciate that. (Garr Reynolds appears via Skype from his home in Osaka, but even from a virtual stage, our patrons enjoy the privilege of feeling as if they really get to know him.)

Professional presenters understand the value of showing genuine qualities and not indulging in pretense. They know that they cannot depersonalize encounters with people the way that athletes are forced to. One of these days, perhaps the Summit might attract a true A-list celebrity to deliver a keynote and then it would be fascinating to see how these two worlds collide. How would someone accustomed to being mobbed deal with our environment which urges high-fliers to come down to sea level? Perhaps it would be refreshing for her. Maybe she’d become a regular.

Well, I can always dream…

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