By David Moriah
It was exactly 27 years ago when this reporter filed his first story for SCD. It was a rather romantic report of my visit to baseball’s spring training in Florida in 1986. I compared my experience, and the opportunity to meet players and secure autographs, with a childhood visit to spring training some 25 years earlier in the 1960s. During that trip I lucked into the incredible experience of being chosen as a spring training batboy for the St. Louis Cardinals, a miracle I wrote about recently in SCD in a tribute to the late, great Stan Musial (Mar. 8 issue).
The main message of my spring training report in 1986 was how remarkably similar the atmosphere was then to the atmosphere of the 1960s. I was amazed, delighted and reassured that the magic of a fan-friendly spring training still prevailed.
“It’s an autograph collector’s utopia,” I gushed. “The players, even baseball’s biggest names, are not besieged by the fans and are invariably gracious to autograph requests. Usually uncooperative signers (I singled out Boston’s Jim Rice) signed.”
I was so charmed, so won over by my experience that I wrote, “It is as it was, which is to say, it is as it was meant to be.”
As the years have rolled by since 1986, I’ve visited spring training in both Florida’s Grapefruit League and Arizona’s Cactus League many times, reporting for SCD on the autograph scene and the general atmosphere of the “short season,” as it’s been called. I’ve seen dramatic changes, including sparkling new ballparks with twice the capacity of the ones they replaced, as well as a flood of international journalists and “new media” reporters making it increasingly challenging for journalists not connected to outfits like ESPN or Sports Illustrated to secure credentials.
But the most dramatic change I’ve witnessed has been on the autograph front and in the average fan’s ability to connect for even a fleeting moment with the players.
My one-week visit in March to Arizona, where 15 of 30 MLB teams train inside and just outside of Phoenix, provided dramatic evidence that “this ain’t your father’s spring training!”
At several spring camps, hundreds – perhaps more than a thousand fans – showed up early to stake out positions to garner autographs from anyone wearing a big league uniform. It mattered not if the player was an anonymous invitee from the lower minor leagues or a roster player. Fans besieged anyone in uniform to sign, often having no idea when asked whose signature they had obtained.
If the player happened to be the real deal, like Angels phenom Mike Trout or superstar Josh Hamilton, it became a feeding frenzy with screaming, pushing and shoving, all focused on obtaining a prized signature. If one emerged from the scrum successfully, the autograph was often little more than an unintelligible scrawl, as today’s signatures have degraded to the point of being almost unrecognizable.
The gold medal for most heroic autograph performance during this reporter’s spring sojourn went to San Diego Padres centerfielder Cameron Maybin. The Padres camp was less thick with autograph seekers than others and boasted an entry and exit lane from the field officially dubbed “autograph alley” in a not-so-subtle effort to encourage players to sign. Nevertheless, Maybin earned the prize by spending 15 minutes or so signing and conversing with fans on the scene, going so far as calling out, “Is everyone taken care of?” before entering the clubhouse.
The camp of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (surely the strangest name in professional sports today) stood in contrast to the Padres, with a mob of fans arriving early and besieging the star-studded team. The Angels have been stockpiling high-profile stars in recent years through free agent signings, and last season their 2009 draft pick Mike Trout arrived with the big club and put up phenomenal numbers while winning the AL Rookie of the Year award. Add Trout’s magnetism for collectors to that of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and you have a perfect storm of eager crowds and a true autograph frenzy.
Each of the Big Three handled the chore of signing autographs differently. Trout, the object of most attention, had a practice of signing a few in one spot along the railing or beside the dugout, then moving along and signing another few somewhere else. There was no way he could satisfy everyone before game time, but he did make at least a moderate effort to be accessible.
Hamilton’s strategy was different, and consistent with what this reporter witnessed at previous spring trainings when he was with the Texas Rangers. Hamilton was scarce during pre-game practice, seeming to follow his own set of team rules, and then about 10 minutes before game time showed up and spent the entire time moving along the railing signing more than 100 autographs with ferocious speed and intensity.
A noteworthy Hamilton incident occurred after the game as a few dozen fans waited by the clubhouse exit and parking lot. Though several players did stop, Hamilton cruised by without signing and then, with a wave to the crowd, entered a fire engine red Maserati and roared away.
The final member of the Big Three, Albert Pujols, did not sign at all in this reporter’s presence, and autograph seekers who frequent the Angels camp said he rarely if ever signs in spring training.
Another camp swarming with hoards of autograph seekers was that of the Texas Rangers. Stimulated by the team’s appearance in two of the past three World Series, Ranger fans are rabid and knowledgeable regarding their players. Though the team has lost some star power with the recent departure of Hamilton, C. J. Wilson, Mike Napoli and Michael Young, Rangers fans still flock to Arizona to see their team and bag some autographs. On the day of my visit, a patient Elvis Andrus signed for at least 100 fans, and Ian Kinsler wielded the Sharpie for many, as well.
In general, the Rangers are an autograph friendly team, as one young fan can attest. He came to camp with an attractive Rangers logo poster and managed to secure a couple dozen signatures on it in just two days.
Of course, some fans would rather bolster their collections by spending money vs. time jockeying for position and hoping to get lucky. For those collectors, Major League Alumni Marketing (MLAM), a subsidiary of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, has jumped into the game at spring training ballparks, both in Arizona and Florida, with top-shelf signed material available via silent auction or for sale. Items were displayed with both minimum bid and “buy it now” prices through the fifth inning, after which the prize went home with the highest bidder, or if no bid was entered, the minimum listed became the “buy it now” figure. Inventory traveled from park to park throughout the short season, and a share of the proceeds benefited the non-profit MLBPAA and local charities, as well.
Autographed items included an Albert Pujols jersey ($800 minimum bid, $1,200 buy-it-now), a combo Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo 16-by-20-inch photo ($350/$450), a David Wright baseball ($85/$150) and a Reggie Jackson baseball ($140/$225). The piece that triggered the most spirited bidding was a Mike Trout baseball with an “ROY” (Rookie of the Year) inscription that sold for $270.
There are several reasons, in addition to avoiding the sharp elbows and suffocating crowds that can accompany do-it-yourself autograph collecting, why one might choose to purchase through MLAM. The signatures are usually cleaner and easier to decipher than the hastily scribbled versions that all too often emerge from a crowd scene, and a portion of your payment goes to charity.
The Fergie Jenkins Foundation provided another avenue for collectors interested in autographed material. The Hall of Fame pitcher’s tables at Cactus League games have become a familiar site in recent years, as Jenkins has assembled a stable of fellow Hall of Famers, along with notable former stars, who signed during spring games for modest fees. On the last day of this reporter’s Arizona visit, a table at a Rangers game featured Gaylord Perry signing, chatting and posing for pictures for a modest $20.
Leaving the ballpark in the late innings to catch my plane back to the snowy north, I spotted Jenkins himself walking through the stadium concourse unhindered and totally unrecognized by almost all fans at the Cactus League game.
As my plane took off, I pondered the strange state of autograph collecting in the 21st century. That morning I witnessed dozens, even hundreds of fans swarming around fringe players and minor league prospects who may never see the major leagues, hoping to land a hurriedly scribbled autograph which the collector often couldn’t even identify. In the afternoon of the same day, a bona fide Hall of Famer, a Cy Young award winner and author of six consecutive 20-win seasons passed by and no one even noticed.
Crazy? Absolutely! But there’s nothing an old-time collector and memorabilia writer can do about it except to note the irony and file another report from spring training, this time circa 2013.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.