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"Like Mark Messier," says Petrulis. "In hockey he's gotta be the worst, and believe me, he spread his philosophy throughout the team."
Out comes Reds superstar Ken Griffey Jr. The young supplicants dash across the street, but the veterans don't budge. "You got a better chance of getting Bin Laden," says Petrulis. Sure enough, Griffey blows by the youngsters.
The door opens, and the veterans dash across Delaware. They come back with autographs from two of the four Reds who had emerged. One of the guys who didn't sign was bullpen coach Tom Hume. How did you recognize him? "You do this long enough," says Johnson, "you recognize everybody."
He laughs ruefully. "Sick, isn't it?"
People have been collecting signatures for centuries. In ancient China an autograph from an emperor was considered priceless, though selling an item bearing the signature was a crime. Somebody knew enough to save the signatures of William Shakespeare and John Donne, which are preserved in the British Library. In 1857 the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary that he had answered 70 autograph requests in a single day. The billionaire industrialist J.P. Morgan was an inveterate hunter of autographs, scouring Europe for the signatures of kings and queens and generals; he was particularly proud of acquiring Napoleon's. A 1939 Disney cartoon called The Autograph Hound shows Donald Duck running afoul of a security guard as he seeks signatures at a movie studio. Pancho Villa reportedly had a baseball autographed by the New York Giants.
Sports has long been a hotbed for the hunters; the stars must frequently come in contact with the public, and teams' schedules are readily available. Some are gracious signers-- Cal Ripken Jr., Arnold Palmer and Billie Jean King, to name a few--but even their patience can be taxed. An athlete has only a finite amount of time to sign, whether he's asked to do it on the field, outside the locker room or in front of a hotel (often without a please or a thank you). "That's the frustrating thing," says Reds first baseman Sean Casey, generally a cooperative signer. "You walk over to sign, and there are so many people that you can't get to everyone. And it's always, 'One more.' You can't do all the 'one mores.'"
There's often tension, too, because many (perhaps most) athletes feel that their signatures are objects of commerce rather than collection, that frantic bidding wars occur every time they scrawl their John Hancock. (Which, incidentally, never resembles John Hancock's.) Some will ask an adult seeker for his name and offer to personalize the signature, in effect quashing a future sale, since nobody except a Charles wants a To Charles autograph. "I've done that," says Casey, "then I look over and see the guy wiping off the personalization. 'Dude,' I'll say, 'that's cold.'"
Mark Allen Baker, an autograph-collecting expert who has written several books on the subject, doesn't believe most hunters are sellers. Based on interviews, personal experience and data in trade publications, he estimates that 97% of the 15,000 enthusiasts in the U.S. don't peddle their wares. That figure is impossible to verify, but one glance at eBay reveals that the majority of signatures, particularly on trading cards, aren't very valuable. Yes, mint-condition autographs of the immortals can command thousands--at the high end, a Shoeless Joe Jackson ball could fetch $30,000--but objects signed by everyday players yield only a few bucks. At the Westin only one hunter, a young man named Mike Gomez, admitted to being a seller, saying that the signatures he gets on glossy photos earn him about $10,000 annually.
Why, if not for lucre, do the resolute collectors invest such time and endure such frequent rejection? "For me there are three sides to it," says Petrulis, a former outfielder at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minn. "The thrill of the chase, seeing who will sign that day. Second, the collecting aspect, trying to put together one of the best autograph collections around. And, finally, feeling more connected to the game because I actually meet the guys playing it instead of just seeing them on television."