Swinging for a Good Cause

Seven hundred dollars is a pretty steep price for a steak dinner, even in New York City, but almost 1,000 people shelled out that amount this past winter at the Times Square Marriott Marquis Hotel in the heart of Manhattan.

Of course, it wasn’t the steak that drew the crowd, even though it was a pretty good cut of meat. It was the opportunity to say you sat down to dinner with nearly a dozen baseball Hall of Famers and more than 100 other current and former major leaguers. And best of all for autograph collectors was the opportunity to pick up a bushel of signatures before the evening ended.

The event was the 20th Annual “B.A.T. Dinner,” a gala fundraiser for the Baseball Assistance Team, a charity sponsored by Major League Baseball with help from the Players’ Association which provides support for members of the baseball family in need. The word “family” is deliberately used to indicate B.A.T. recipients include not only former major leaguers, but minor leaguers, Negro Leaguers, players from the Women’s Professional Baseball League, scouts, coaches, trainers and front office personnel, as well. Since its founding in 1986, B.A.T. has distributed more than $18 million to more than 2,300 individuals, always anonymously, unless the recipient chooses to make the gift public.

The annual dinner is the second-largest source of B.A.T. funds, second only to a voluntary payroll deduction from current major leaguers taking place during spring training, which raises about $1 million per year. Quick math reveals dinner revenue this year totaled about $700,000, in addition to the take from a silent auction of top-shelf autographed material donated by current and former players (see sidebar).

Now entering autograph heaven
Savvy collectors have known for awhile that if you spring for the cost of a B.A.T. dinner ticket it means entry into autograph heaven. Event organizers set aside about 90 minutes for “appetizers and autographs,” prior to the dinner and speeches.

The massive ballroom included six tables at the back of the room seating an impressive lineup of big-name stars and Hall of Famers who gladly personalized autographs or added notations such as “MVP,” “ROY” or “HOF.”

The rest of the room was filled with dozens of former players mingling about and sampling the snacks. It was easy to meet them, converse about their careers and politely ask for an autograph. While baseball bats and other large objects were banned, balls, cards and photos were welcome, and each guest was even given a commemorative baseball upon entry to make autograph collecting even easier.

Lines quickly formed at the designated autograph tables when the doors opened. Though an attempt was made to equalize the star power at each table, with at least one and no more than two Hall of Famers at each, there was a lengthy line for the station featuring hard-to-get Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, and popular player-broadcaster Tim McCarver. One collector who opted for that line spent the entire cocktail hour shuffling forward to access that group, passing up the opportunity to garner any other signatures.

For those a bit less particular, it was possible to visit at least three or four tables during the time allotted. Other Hall of Famers represented included Luis Aparicio, Robin Roberts, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Billy Williams and 2008 inductee Dick Williams. Major stars rounding out the lineup included Luis Gonzalez, Steve Garvey, Bob Watson, Jay Johnstone, Sam McDowell, Mike Torrez, Reggie Smith, Frank Torre, Mark Fidrych, Tommie Davis, Joel Youngblood and current B.A.T. President Ted Sizemore.

In addition, a host of players whose playing careers identified them strongly as former Yankees or Mets were also at the tables, as this year’s event celebrated the history and closing of both of New York’s historic stadiums.

The contingent of New York favorites included former Yankees Roy White, Jim Bouton, Ryne Duren, Phil Linz, Graig Nettles, Jim Leyritz and Ron Davis. Ex-Mets included Bud Harrelson, Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones, Ed Kranepool, Lee Mazzilli, John Franco and Bret Saberhagen.

No bags, please
Though it was something of a collector’s paradise to obtain signatures from the 30 or so players at the autograph tables, in addition to players circulating around the reception room, the rules and security procedures in effect dampened the atmosphere somewhat.

The key rule, enforced vigorously by a legion of burly security personnel, was a prohibition against bags, backpacks or containers of any sort. Thus, the only items permitted were what you could carry by hand or in your pockets, with the exception of bats, which were not permitted under any circumstance.

It is understandable in today’s frenzied environment of celebrity obsession and autograph mania that reasonable restrictions be put in place or an elegant charity event might end up looking like the baggage claim area at JFK Airport.

On the other hand, it seemed a bit excessive when even small plastic bags with a few baseballs inside were treated like live hand grenades and barred from entry. Perhaps a reasonable compromise will emerge for future B.A.T. events. Otherwise, the B.A.T. dinner will continue to be all-you-can-carry (or fit into your pockets) affair.

Dining with the greats
When it came time for dinner, guests were treated to a current or former major league player at each table. More than 100 players were thus arrayed around the dining room, allowing everyone a chance to chat up someone who had been to the “show,” while savoring their expensive steak dinner.

The roster at the tables included still more familiar names, such as Chris Chambliss, Vince Coleman, Ed Figueroa, George Foster, Wayne Garrett, Ron Hunt, Al Jackson, Pat Zachry, Cliff Johnson, Ron LeFlore, Bobby Shantz, Rusty Staub, Jeff Torborg, Bill Virdon, the current player representative to B.A.T. Randy Winn and Frank Thomas. (No, not that one. We mean the original one.)

The presence of so many fan favorites meant opportunities for adding even more autographs to the evening’s bounty. While experienced collectors knew not to interrupt players during dinner, often there were players milling about outside the dining room willing to sign, along with at the conclusion of the program as guests took their leave. Though it was impossible to predict exactly who you might stumble upon, players were almost always accommodating when you came upon them.

Dinner program
The dinner program featured special mention of the “retiring” New York ballparks – Yankee and Shea Stadiums. Each ballpark, and its respective New York team, was highlighted with an on-stage tribute and baseball yarns told by famous players from their team’s history.
Whitey Ford shared a humorous and previously untold anecdote of scuffing a ball in an exhibition game. Ed Kranepool matched that with a few Casey Stengel tall tales, and Bud Harrelson reminisced about “kicking Pete Rose’s butt” in the 1973 playoffs. A special tribute was given to former New York Yankees centerfielder, broadcaster and fan favorite Bobby Murcer.

A good time was certainly had by all, and all in support of a terrific cause – one of the best a baseball fan can support.

By supporting B.A.T., you are generally helping old-timers and members of the baseball family who missed out on the riches of today’s game. Fans with enough disposable income on hand to afford a B.A.T. dinner ticket should mark it on their calendar for 2010. In addition to the sure bet of picking up at least a dozen or so signatures without paying a separate autograph fee, the ticket includes a hefty tax deduction. This year, $528 of the $700 was designated as a tax deductible donation to the charity, providing some payback for your expense.

For further information on the Baseball Assistance Team and the good work they do, along with information on how you can contribute, look for their icon on www.mlb.com or do a search for the Baseball Assistance Team.

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