Still, getting autographs at the park seems more in keeping with tradition, and before a game at Wrigley, I saw the other side of collecting. It was a beautiful summer evening, the banks 14 flag flapping gently on the top of the foul pole in left. Before every game, fans gather along the leftfield line, Sharpies in hand. They call out to any player who drifts into the vicinity, and quite often a player will toss a ball to them. Not many players come by--vets rate the Cubs as poor signers--but on this day the mood among the autograph seekers is still upbeat and festive.
Finally, Chicago relief pitcher Ryan Dempster ambles over. A youngster named Cal Muramaru, visiting from Oahu, hands Dempster a string of beads, and Dempster signs a slip of paper for him, then puts the beads around his neck. Bill Richert has brought his son, Bill Jr., to Wrigley, and Dempster signs a ball for the little boy. "It's his first game, and we wanted to get one autograph--just one--as a keepsake," says Bill Sr. as his son stares at the ball with a smile. "Years from now I don't know whether my son will remember the autograph. But I will."
Keith Kurlansky, an upbeat 15-year-old visiting from Sharon, Mass., filled me in on his autograph adventures. He had the obligatory Ramirez story--he spotted Ramirez at Copley Place one day, chatted with him for a few minutes, then was stiffed when Manny refused to sign a card--but he's had lots of positive experiences, among them getting an autograph from his favorite player, Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller. On this night he will get only Dempster's. But he's not discouraged.
"It still seems more--I don't know--real coming out here to get autographs," says Keith. "And if I don't get any, I'm still at a ball game, right?"
After spending considerable time in front of hotels, in bleacher seats at ballparks and in the throng at card shows, I have a fresh perspective on autographs. I believe that collectors vastly outnumber sellers and that any nonsuperstar athlete is misinformed if he thinks a majority of the autograph-collecting populace is making a living auctioning off his signature. And I'm glad that autograph shows have given the underpaid superstars of the past, men like Banks, who missed out on the big bucks, a downright amazing revenue stream. With one stroke of the pen and a few seconds of conversation, a player like Banks can fulfill the lifetime dream of a fan.
Still, my essential opinion of autograph collecting is unchanged. There is something geeky about chasing down an athlete for an autograph, particularly when grown men are doing the chasing. (At least I receive a salary for chasing them.) And though I partly buy Rosenberg's point about card shows--"Athletes who sign at shows are doing exactly what they do when a corporation pays them to use their name or their likeness, only in this case the consumer actually gets to get close to the athlete"--there is also something unsettling about paying for someone to sign his name. In any case, no autograph in the world has any intrinsic meaning to me.
I relate this opinion to Steve Young at the Tristar show as he steadily signs footballs that have already been sold for $100.
"Well," says Young, "everybody collects something. Me? It's golf clubs. I can't throw them away. Even the old ones mean something."
"I don't collect anything," I tell him.
"You collect something," Young says. "Everybody collects something. Especially if you're in sports."