It is a quarter to three in the morning, an hour when cockroaches congregate on kitchen floors and rats have control of the alleys. In drizzly Chicago, while the rest of the city slumbers, the post-All Star Game party at the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel is finally breaking up. Dave Parker, whose Milwaukee Brewers will play the White Sox in about 10 hours, slowly makes his way across the quiet lobby on the way to his room. Suddenly, as he reaches the escalators, there is chaos.
"There's Parker!" says a high-pitched voice. A kid in a red baseball cap springs to his feet.
"Mr. Parker! Dave! Can you sign these?" asks another kid, running up to the big slugger, with a pair of baseballs in his hand.
A dozen youngsters, some as young as 11 years old, pursue Parker up the escalator, pleading, cajoling, whining as they scramble to find his baseball card in the plastic-covered pages of their scrapbooks. A few adults—uncles, fathers, older brothers—watch approvingly, and a half dozen teenagers, bleary-eyed from their vigil, let Parker go by in hopes of landing bigger prey. Parker signs as he climbs, sticking to the ballplayer's golden rule of autographing: Keep moving. Never let them trap you.
Other All-Stars begin to straggle through the ballpoint gantlet: Chuck Finley, Ellis Burks, Cecil Fielder. None of them comments on the lateness of the hour, as if it were perfectly normal for kids to be wandering through a hotel at 3 a.m. in search of autographs. To the players, it is normal. Every city they visit, every hotel, is haunted by these enterprising children of the night. What will they do with all the autographs once they are procured? "Mostly, it's for us," says an 11-year-old who, accompanied by his uncle, has spent a minimum of 7½ hours a day—and night—patrolling the Hyatt's lobby over the three-day All-Star break. "Sometimes we sell the stuff, if we can."
It is past three o'clock when Frank Viola and John Franco, teammates on the New York Mets, walk through a side door of the hotel with their wives.
"Will you sign this, please?" says one of a crowd of boys, holding out his pen and a card.
Viola looks at the assemblage of faces peering up at him and refuses to take the pen. "You guys have got to go to bed," he says, and the two couples walk quickly away.
"Aw, I've got him anyway," says the child.
A lot of people feel it is time for someone to turn out the lights on a new breed of autograph collectors—an obsessive, aggressive, ubiquitous lot. What's worse, a growing number of these persistent souls see only dollar signs where kids used to see dreams. In the past few years what was once an innocent hobby has been infected, and all but ruined, by incivility and greed. Fans who at one time approached their sports heroes shyly and tentatively now swarm at them like angry hornets, elbowing past security guards, overrunning small children, tugging on jacket sleeves in the manner of Calcutta beggars—their tongues ready to lash out with venom should the athlete dare to excuse himself before signing autographs for them.