May I Have Your Autograph, Please?

Sometimes, it pays to be polite. (via Peetlesnumber1)

“Excuse me, sir. May I have your autograph, please?”

That was how I was as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, brought up by parents who believed manners get rewarded. Before every baseball game I went to, I’d dutifully prep up a binder of baseball cards, divided by team and alphabetized, based on which teams were playing. Armed with some form of writing utensil and raised to be polite, I’d stand in line either along an aisle or along a row of seats and wait my turn even if a mob had formed.

My first set of autographs came when I was in third grade at a card convention at the Oakland Coliseum after a Milwaukee Brewers versus Oakland Athletics game. The year was 1986. I waited in line for Jose Canseco, whose Donruss rookie card was going for an obscenely high $7.50, which my parents agreed to pony up for even though I felt bad that, according to Beckett’s Baseball Card Guide, it should be only $2.50. I had another five dollars in my fist, ready to pay his autograph fee.

“Excuse me, Mr. Canseco. May I have your autograph please?”

I don’t remember if he smiled or not. All I remember is he signed, and when I tried to hand him the money, he said “Forget it, kid.” But I couldn’t. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day after that. I swooped up Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Juan Nieves and Carney Lansford, riding the autograph high.

I picked up a lot of A’s and Giants autographs in those days. I remember Cory Snyder with the Indians struggling to make it through the players parking lot to the Oakland Coliseum. I remember Will Clark autographing his Mother’s Cookies card for me when I heard a loud “No!” Jeffrey Leonard dashed past with a throng of Giants fans nipping at his heels.

After three years in the Bay Area, our family moved back to Chicago. I was at a Cubs game at Wrigley, binder and Sharpie in hand, on the visiting side watching the Astros play catch along with a ton of other people yelling and maybe a bit of pushing and shoving. Larry Andersen was there, recognizable since his moustache matched his baseball card and confirmed by his uniform number.

“Excuse me, Mr. Andersen. May I have your autograph please?”

He stopped playing catch, signed the ball he had been throwing, and gave it to me. “That’s what you get for asking nicely.”

A ball? Actually touched by a major league baseball player? And he stopped what he was doing for me, just me? I don’t know how I didn’t drop my binder that day, but I’ve kept that ball and the lesson to be polite since.

I loved autographs and I loved baseball, but I only ever “paid” for one. At our middle school in Chicago, my friend’s dad died. A charity lottery was held on his behalf. I was lucky enough to get first choice, and I didn’t care about the consequences. Sure, I was laughed at for not taking signed original Air Jordans. My eye was set on a ball autographed by my favorite Chicago Cubs, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg and Shawon Dunston.

When I was in high school, we went to a game at Northwestern University. I asked nicely and got the scorecard signed by at least ten players. I was thrilled when one of them, Mike Huff, eventually made the major leagues.

I got older and life got more expensive for me and my family. We weren’t able to attend as many ballgames, much less buy as many baseball cards. It became cheaper to just buy a set than multiple boxes to try to make a set out of, and with the convenience, some of the fun also went out of card collecting. However, I managed to keep some of my manners, reinforced by those early autograph lessons, including Canseco and Andersen. I also kept following baseball religiously, devouring box scores and later reading up on the internet.

I lost other parts of my manners. Baseball cards, as well as life, mattered less to me. One day, I told my parents, “This is how much I care about my life,” and ripped the Canseco card right in front of them. My parents Scotch-taped it–and our relationship–back together.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I eventually learned Canseco had abused women, used steroids and has been alternately outlandish and foolish in public and on Twitter since. Yet I still remembered loving him and learning that players can be more than just their headlines and statlines. He’s publicly regretted some of his actions. He’s a person trying to learn. Just as a young, angry kid like myself can learn from that to hopefully become an adult.

Over the last few years, the baseball loving thing turned into baseball writing and eventual access to the clubhouses. Being the fanboy I can be, I even wrote up what my first time was like. The first player I talked with was LaTroy Hawkins, who I remembered as a Chicago Cub and was in the later stages of his career with the Colorado Rockies in 2014. I watched him on TV and knew his career very well. I’d like to say I sought him out, but actually his locker was right near the entrance to the clubhouse, which also doubled as my escape route. I figured a proven vet could help me break the ice and I wouldn’t have to run too far if I shattered.

“Excuse me, Mr. Hawkins, do you have a moment to speak with me?”

I said I enjoyed watching him as a Chicago Cub, which isn’t a great way to start a professional interview. My thirty-eight-year-old self had regressed to an eight-year-old fan. I then had a reality check when he told me he’d graduated from high school in the Chicagoland area, a stat that wasn’t on the back of his baseball card and took me by surprise to the point that I don’t think I participated in the conversation I had started all that successfully. As the saying goes, baseball players are people. I felt like a starstruck kid, which had greater irony as Hawkins was just three years older than me. He humored me well.

After he left, I then turned to the guy next to him, who was texting on his phone.

“Excuse me, Mr. Matzek, do you have a moment to speak with me?”

I hoped Tyler Matzek was a bit prepared for me the way I stumbled talking with Hawkins. I told him I’d written an article about how he was getting a reputation with the ushers for signing a lot of autographs for Rockies fans, and I thanked him for that. He felt it was important to give back to the fans, and from there I began my first real interview about what it’s like to transition to the major leagues. He also was nice and polite and made me feel more at ease.

One of the other journalists informed me later that day I had made a mistake. Matzek was the starting pitcher that day and they don’t talk to reporters when that’s the case. I didn’t know better! And I admired Matzek more for not being surly about it.

Over the next few years, I talked with Matzek and Hawkins more. I asked Hawkins about the taboo in interviewing pitchers on the day they start, and he chuckled and said, “It depends.” We also talked about autographs, and he told me about how at Wrigley Field, fans would block his car at the stop sign and pound on it asking for an autograph. I knew that fenced-in player’s parking lot well, but not the stop sign, and was aghast that fans were so rude. Matzek wanted to know how my writing career was going and asked me often about my daughter. As relaxed and polite as he was with me, it broke my heart that he would leave baseball due to anxiety issues. As the saying goes, baseball players are people.

But many people get busy these days. Players may be on Twitter, and some even interact with fans on there, but it just doesn’t seem to strike home as much as it does when a player in a uniform gives you his time and his signature. My daughter loves baseball, but she goes to games because she likes being with me, not because she has a favorite baseball player. She’s twelve years old and though she tries, she’s still waiting for her first autograph. I know it’s important to her and it is not just because it is important to me, but it’s because she wants that connection.

This August, because of that connection, I was in the press box breakroom at Coors Field and nervous as all hell. Something I didn’t think would ever happen might just happen that day. Would he remember me? Does he realize how important he was to me? I’d memorized what I was going to say if it did; part of it was out of reverence for the moment, that I had recalled the story to friends and family over the years. Part of it was so it could pass as a joke if it sounded weird coming from a forty-plus year old.

Richard’s ball. (via Richard Bergstrom)

I’m not sure if I had a better chance of it working out than winning a lottery or if it would happen naturally, just people being people. I wasn’t sure if I could actively do something because it might be impolite or if I just had to wait. I felt like a stalker fan. I felt I was making too much of it. Paralyzed a bit by unsure protocol, I asked around the room for advice.

A gentleman said, “Come on, I’ll take you to him.”

I don’t think there’s a real prohibition for writers to go to the broadcast suites if it’s not during a broadcast, but I generally don’t go to that area anyways. The doors opened, and my guide went in first. Then I did and said what I needed to say.

“Excuse me, Mr. Andersen. May I have your autograph please?”

Then I pulled out the same ball he had autographed twenty five years ago and handed it to him.

I had found out last year from Tracy Ringolsby that Larry Andersen was a radio broadcaster for the Phillies–but the Phillies had just played their last games at Coors Field for the season. So I virtually circled the weekend in 2017 for the Phillies to come to Coors Field on my digital calendar and waited.

Andersen no longer had his moustache, but his autograph from thirty years ago was still visible on the ball. I showed him where it was and the rest of the ball, along with the stories it had accumulated. Scattered about the ball were additional autographs, most of them still legibile. I had asked nicely at Comiskey Park and was rewarded with an autograph from every American League umpire working that day. Another was from Jack Perconte, who gave back by running a baseball academy I attended in the Chicago area.

Anderson smiled as I told him the lesson I learned about being polite. He said he’d tell a kid to ask nicely if they were being rude. Yeah, I thought to myself, baseball is a hard sport, but players are more than just what they are on the ball field or on a baseball card and should still be treated like people. Even the ones who have done hurtful things or have hurt themselves with their choices, like Canseco, can be nice.

I mean, as an adult, I’m glad my parents stuck with me and told me manners would–that I would–ay off. As a teenager, I might have thought I was the most useless person on earth. If not, I might have turned out rude myself, one more nail in the coffin that no Scotch tape could fix. So I know in the back of my mind that it pays off, but it’s nice to have that acknowledgement from Andersen and from the players who have given their time to answer my questions over the years.

No, I wasn’t the only one to get a baseball and that lesson. Larry Andersen is a nice guy and handed out a lot of signed balls to kids who asked nicely. But rather than being disappointed, it made me feel glad that there were other fans out there who had been nice to players and were rewarded.

I then politely said I knew he had to prepare for his broadcast and I should leave. He told me to email him later, and I did. And now, etched into my memory is the reward of being able to talk to him, as a kid and as an adult, and learning that I was the only person to have the same ball autographed, as a kid and as an adult. We both smiled at that.

Richard Bergstrom is a business intelligence analyst from Denver. He has written for and currently writes for Beyond the Box Score and Purple Row. Follow him on Twitter at @rbergstromjr.
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Michael Bacon
5 years ago

While driving for the Buckhead Safety Cab company in Atlanta back in the 80’s I was called to the 103 West, a ritzy restaurant on West Paces Ferry road, the street where the Governor’s mansion is located. The fare was an older gentleman with a younger blonde. The gentleman, who was snockered, turned out to be none other than Mickey Mantle. I later learned that the woman, Greer, was his agent. They asked to be taken to the Buckhead Ritz Carleton. “You’re Mickey Mantle, my childhood hero,” I exclaimed. “Guess you want my autograph,” the Mick asked. “Not really,” I answered. “You don’t,” asked the flumoxed Mick, adding, “Why not?”
Mick,” I said, “My father took me to a game at the old Ponce de Leon ballpark where the Cardinals were to play the Phillies in a last exhibition game before heading north for the start of the season. He purchased a program, handed it to me, and told me to go get some autographs. I headed down to the front seats. I was samller than the other children and they rudely moved me over to the side. A baseball rolled my way. Dallas Green came over to retreive the ball and, knowing his name from a Topps baseball card, I politely asked, “Mr. Green, would you sign my scorecard?” His reply is indelibly etched in my memory. “Fuck you, Kid.” I vowed than to never, ever, ask anyone for their autograph.”
It was only a short distance to the hotel, just long enough to tell my tale, so we were pulling into the driveway when Mickey said, “I’ll be damned. I never liked that SOB anyway!”
The woman exited the cab as Mick began scrounging in his pocket for the fare, which was only about three dollars, with an aditional fifty cents tacked on for the extra passenger, but Mick’s pockets were empty. “Hey Greer, got any cash?” She reached into her purse and handed Mick a bill, which he passed on to me and then exited the cab. “Mickey,” I heard her say, “that was a fifty dollar bill!”
“Yeah, well,” said the Mick, “that was a hundred dollar story!”
It was one of, if not the best, tips I received while driving a cab.

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

It’s a shame that manners have seemingly gone out of style. But it’s interesting that Michael Bacon’s story shows how players could be jerks even when they weren’t making tons of money. People are people.

5 years ago

You are a brave sole for the retelling of your Air Jordans mishap.

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

Really nice and well-written piece.

5 years ago

Far and away my favorite article of the year

4 years ago

nice piece. Have an 11 year old getting into autographs now, and while i remind him to say “thank you” i havent made a point about asking nicely. Though I’m a Philly guy who dislikes the Yankees, Luis Severino being nice to my son and autographing his ball at Camden Yards earlier this season made an 11 year old, and his dad, a fan.

Jeff McKenney
4 years ago

This story reminds me of how I taught my children to approach players when seeking autographs. As a family this approach has helped us acquire an unusual collection of Tampa Bay Rays autographed baseballs and other signed memorabilia that we also enjoy sharing stories about. There’s no question most players appreciate the way autograph (and selfie) hounds approach them. A heartfelt thank you is almost always appreciated as well.

Michael Caragliano
4 years ago

As a radio engineer in New York, I’ve had the chance to engineer a few Phillies broadcasts the past few years. Larry Andersen is one of the nicest and funniest people I have ever engineers for. Your story impressed me, because that’s how genuine he is.

On a related autograph note, I went to St Louis in 2003 to visit a friend of mine. He collects autographs, so we went to Busch Stadium before a Cards-D’Bscks game. My friend grew up a Brewers fan, and when Robin Yount, who was then an Arizona coach, stepped off the bus almost unnoticed, my friend held up a ball and very politely called out, “Mr. Yount, would you mind signing this, please?” Yount then took the ball and talked to my friend for a minute after signing it, in part because he asked him nicely.

Meanwhile, Randy Johnson stepped off the bus, clearly not in a mood to sign things. That didn’t stop one guy from running around the barrier, sticking s ball in his face (well, more like his neck- Johnson was about a foot and a half taller), and demanding, “Sign this, Big Unit!”. The look on Johnson’s face actually grew more sour, if that were possible, but he calmly took the ball and pen, scribbled a big “X” on it, and walked away. I’ll never forget the stunned look on that guy’s face, who then have the nerve to call out, “Hey, he has my pen!”