"That guy's nervous," Kiesler says under his breath. "He's sweating. He's ready to fall apart. He's gonna be an aggressive schmuck when he gets up there. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he'll just fall apart quietly. But my guess is, he's a problem waiting to happen." A couple of minutes later the guy gets his stuff signed, says, "Thank you, Willie," and walks away quickly. Mays never even looks up. Kiesler takes a deep breath and eyeballs the rest of the line, ever-watchful, like a Doberman pinscher patrolling the grounds, nose to the wind.
Unlike the unprecedented feeding frenzy in baseball cards, which is clearly profit driven, the autograph craze is apparently driven by sentiment—a guy thing, linking a man to his own childhood ghosts. Steve Sidransky helps work the Mays autograph line all afternoon in return for $100. which he immediately spends on yet another item to add to his collection of autographed baseballs. Sidransky is 38 years old. He is an autograph junkie.
Ironically, Sidransky says he is not a hard-core baseball fan. "I'm not like 'Sorry, I can't go to the unveiling. The Mets are on.' I don't wear Yankee underwear. But this autograph thing is like a drug. It's out of control. Financially, it's a tremendous drain. It's never enough. It never ends."
It's the nightmare of autograph addiction. The Mets win the '86 World Series, for instance, and Lenny Dykstra is signing autographs a half a mile away from Sidransky's Forest Hills apartment. He gets Dykstra, then figures he'll go to a show in the city, get a Mantle to go along with it. "Meeting Mickey was the greatest thing since my bar mitzvah," he says today, a year later. "And it ended up costing more, too."
Sidransky, who sells rock memorabilia and concert shirts at flea markets to support himself and his autograph habit, has spent $10,000 on autographs in the past year and a half. "I live in a one-bedroom apartment. My building is going co-op and I need to come up with the money to buy a two-bedroom apartment because I need to make a baseball room. I want to get AstroTurf carpeting and a showcase for my 1,500 baseballs. But I'm stretched for cash.
"I'm a maniac. I can't play my stereo because I've got baseballs all over the turntable. My whole refrigerator is so heavily magneted with upcoming shows that to get to the freezer you have to open the door very carefully or they'll all fall down."
How did things get so out of hand so fast? "My father and I never went to a ball game together," Sidransky says sadly. "Not once. Mantle and the old Yankees should've been our father-and-son thing, our tradition. But we never went. We never played catch. We never even talked.
"So I invented a memory. I created a past for us. It's like I want Mantle's autograph because it reminds me of the times my father and I used to watch him play in the Stadium. That never happened, but it should have. So it feels right, it seems American. See?"
The long day at the card show slowly draws to a close. Sidransky drives his '79 Impala—the one with 90,000 miles on it—home to Forest Hills to figure out how he's going to afford that extra bedroom for his baseballs. Mays flies out of town on wings of silence. Mr. Mint returns to his home in Montvale, where, naturally, the phone rings in his inner sanctum.
Guy named Mark wants to buy a case of baseball statues from Mr. Mint but balks at the $4,750 price tag. Mr. Mint is pacing at a goodly clip. And while he paces, he sets Mark straight: "I don't discount, Mark. These statues are white. Cream statues cost you $3,500. Yellow cost $2,000, maybe $1,500. But white is $4,750. We don't play the discount game where I say $5,500 and you say can't you do better and then I say $4,750 and you say fine.