Like vassals at the castle wall, the autograph collectors--they don't like being called hounds, and most of them swear they're not sellers--stand on the sidewalk across from the Westin Michigan Avenue in Chicago, awaiting the departure of the Cincinnati Reds for a day game at Wrigley Field. They are barred from either entering the hotel or congregating outside the revolving doors. "No use trying to sneak over there," says Bob Johnson. "They know who we are." � Separated from their prey by a busy thoroughfare, the dozen collectors mill about while keeping a vigilant watch on the doorway. There's an eight-year-old boy as well as fiftysomething veterans Johnson and Jim Mann, who snagged his first autograph in 1960 at Comiskey Park. Mann estimates that he has 100,000 autographed baseball cards. That's one ... hundred ... thousand. � The group also includes a generously endowed woman with a low-cut Ryan Freel jersey; she is blissfully unaware that the Reds' leadoff hitter had taken a cab to Wrigley earlier. Most athletes have a story or two about being asked to sign a woman's breast or undergarment, and you might think that the male collectors would resent a distaff presence. They don't. "She can be an advantage," says Johnson. "Players will stop if they see a good-looking woman." � The younger autograph hunters wear hopeful, starry-eyed looks, but the vets pursue their avocation with a certain dispassion. They've been around the block a few times, enduring disappointment, rejection, even outright humiliation. But they know a few things, too. Particularly about writing implements. They know that a supply of blue and black Sharpies is a must for signatures on cards, magazines and photos. They know that Sharpies bleed on baseballs, so the old-fashioned ballpoint is also valuable. They know that silver or gold paint pens work best on jerseys or dark-colored items, such as hockey pucks. They know that some of their peers favor the Vis-�-Vis marker over the Sharpie because of its dark-blue ink, though others feel that the Vis-�-Vis tends to blotch, and then when you hold the autograph up to the light, you can make out a gold tinge and.... How much time do you have?
They are also plugged into the circadian rhythms of athletes. They know that young ballplayers will probably emerge from the hotel early and hail a cab to the park and that wily vets will hunker down in the lobby and dash out only after the doorman has secured their ride. They know that only a few players will take the team bus to the park for a day game, though in this case the Reds' driver arrived early and parked near a side exit, which some of the players will use to sneak out.
And so the collectors wait and watch.
"Basketball is the worst for getting autographs," says Bryan Petrulis, 32, who has come to the hotel directly from his midnight-to-eight shift as a telecommunications specialist at SBC, "but baseball is a close second. Then football." Petrulis has about 50,000 baseball autographs. If he stays at it, he may one day pass Mann, whom he calls "the father of us all."
"Hockey guys are the best," opines Johnson.
"But you get the sloppiest autographs from hockey," says Petrulis, "which is their way of telling you that...."
Suddenly, they take off en masse across Delaware Place, thumbing through their loose-leaf binders for the appropriate card or photo and screwing the tops off their Sharpies. It is serious multitasking and literally a dodgy business--they must maneuver through steady traffic. As they approach their target, one pleads, "Would you sign?" Their quarry looks at them with disdain, then wordlessly accommodates a few, ignores the rest and climbs into a cab. When they return to their post, the hunters identify the Red as backup shortstop Ray Olmedo.
"Hispanic guys usually don't sign," says Johnson, "but he's young." When it comes to signing, youth, apparently, trumps Hispanic-ness.
"See, there's a progression with these guys," says Petrulis. "When they first come up, they'll sign about anything you hand them. Then it depends on who they lend their ear to. If it's the biggest jerk on the team, then they start getting ideas about what people do with autographs."
"One jerk can pollute the whole team," says Johnson.