When I was a kid, I was a baseball nerd. I played ball all year long, went to dozens of Mariners games, watched Baseball Tonight religiously, knew every player in the bigs (seriously), and collected cards like a klepto poker player. I was chubby and dorky and devoted myself to that accumulation of cardboard artwork like it was my baby.
My collection was thousands deep, spanning an era when baseball cards would essentially become worthless over time. Card companies were flooding the industry with new brands, new sets, new subsets, new inserts, new everything. Demand was high, but supply was even higher. The baseball card industry broke the first rule of economics, oversupplying their consumers with the goods, devaluing their product to the point of running their businesses into the ground.
For me, however, it wasn’t about the money. I cherished my collection. I curated it, sliding my most valuable possessions into plastic sleeves, organizing my anthology alphabetically. Even as I grew up and began moving from place to place, I often toted parts of my collection with me, a reminder of a childhood I had pledged to paper heroes.
Around about the time I was fourteen, I got into autographs. Autographs, to me, were the coolest thing ever. Owning the handwritten signature of a big league ballplayer seemed like such an absolute rarity. This was before the advent of social networking, meaning even the scrubbiest of scrub athletes was a distant superstar twinkling on some team’s bench. Athletes were mythical figures back then. No one knew what they thought, knew what they did away from the playing surface, knew how bad their grammar could be in one-hundred-forty characters or less. And as a kid who idolized these demigods, I wanted to get my hands on those Sharpie-embellished collectables.
I first learned about obtaining autographs through the mail online. There were websites that posted the mailing addresses of every major league club, including Spring Training sites. On top of that, there were numerous pages out there (think Geocities and Angelfire) that listed which players were likely to sign and return materials sent to them, as well as instructions on how to get autographs by mail in the first place.
The process was simple, really. All you had to do was obtain the team’s postal address, then send off a self-addressed stamped envelope with a brief letter and whatever you wanted signed. I always sent two baseball cards of the player I was contacting, along with the cheesiest note you’ve ever read. I found the template for what was deemed a “good” autograph request letter on one of those Geocities pages. The text read along the lines of this:
My name is Alex Akita and I’m a huge fan. You’re one of my favorite players of all-time and it would be an honor if you’d sign these two cards for me and send them back in this envelope. Thanks a lot for taking the time to do that, and good luck on the rest of your season!
Straight provolone. And yet the shtick couldn’t have been more effective.
In the summer of 1999, I sent out probably twenty or twenty-five requests for signatures. I targeted younger players because that was the thing to do. Veterans received hundreds of letters each day and were prone to ignoring their mail. Up-and-comers, however, were ready and willing to open every envelope that passed through their locker. Most were more than happy to make some goofy kid’s day by inking a baseball card or two. And so it was that I built my autograph collection.
The first player to ever respond to me was former Mariners outfielder Shane Monahan. Yes, that Shane Monahan. The very same Shane Monahan that would go all Benedict Arnold on his teammates a decade later. On the day I got that first self-addressed stamped envelope back, I couldn’t have been happier. Monahan was one of my favorite players from that day on as a result. So what if his career in pro baseball was short-lived? Dude had made my whole year by sending back my cards with his name in cursive splashed right there on the glossy parchment. I was thrilled.
After that, envelopes began to roll in every few days. There were some notables names in the bunch — Luis Gonzalez, Carlos Lee, Mark Grace, Mike Lowell — and many more not-so-notable names. In retrospect, obtaining the John Hancocks of Rolando Arrojo, Tony Armas Jr., C.J. Nitkowski, Manny Aybar, Peter Bergeron, and Chad Hermansen may not have been the best use of resources.
There were a number of Mariners who hooked it up. Dan Wilson and John Olerud were kind enough to sign three cards for me. Aaron Sele personalized his autograph, then added the blessing of God as a bonus. Jamie Moyer lived up to his nice-guy reputation by returning my cards with his endorsement. David Bell came through, as did a right-handed pitching prospect by the name of Gil Meche.
In between the big names, the no-names, and the hometown heroes were a handful of interesting stories.
There was Oakland A’s catcher A.J. Hinch. His career as a player was shorter than his second line of work as a coach. He would later become one of the youngest managers in the majors when he took the reins of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009. These days, he’s the vice president of scouting for the San Diego Padres.
Michael Barrett was a catcher with the Montreal Expos. As one of the game’s top prospects, getting his signature seemed like a major coup at the time. He would later be best known as the guy who started a brawl by clocking A.J. Pierzynski.
Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville autographed two cards for me. I would later discuss journalism with Glanville when he became a writer after his playing career ended. As nice a guy as I’ve ever had the pleasure of corresponding with.
The aforementioned Carlos Lee apparently found his first name to be troublesome; he signed both his cards “C. LEE”. Yes, in all caps, too.
Carl Pavano (he of Alyssa Milano’s romantic past) penned his name for me. He’s one of only five players still active in the majors that happen to be a part of my collection.
Of course, there were times when I got stiffed. Jorge Posada and Terrence Long stand out as two notable guys that neglected to return my cards or my envelope. More often than not, however, my cards were returned. With ink. Occasionally with a letter.
Looking back, I’m glad I took those few weeks between my eighth and ninth grade years to do something as geeky as I did. Any kid could go to the store and buy a pack of baseball cards. Few kids ever got the chance to interact with the players on those cards, even in remote fashion.
It’s not the most beautiful collection in the world. It certainly doesn’t have much monetary value. But those cards will stay with me for the rest of my life, without a doubt.
And as for all the players that ended up being a part of what I did that summer, they’ll never be forgotten. No matter what their career stat lines may look like, regardless of what their lives have become or will, in spite of any transgressions that may dot their paths, they’ll always be more than just your average ballplayer, more than just a common card, more than just numbers on paper to me.