Friday, Nov 1 at 3:12 AM
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning in Surprise, Arizona. The dry air is warming up quickly. A line begins to form outside the main gate to the Rangers practice facility. By 9:45, there are hundreds of autograph hunters, young and old, first-timers and crotchety veterans, ready to stalk their game. Pens cocked, notebooks open, shiny white baseballs ready to be held at arm’s length to lure players.
Precisely at 10 o’clock, the gates are unlocked. The hunt is on.
“Who’s that?” “There’s Darvish!” “Ian! Ian!” Kids run. Grownups trot. Parents just try to keep up.
The players are spread out all over the facility. Pitchers over there. Outfielders over there. The A-players on that field. And Minor Leaguers way back there.
Luckily for the players, fans aren’t allowed to go everywhere. They’re practicing, after all. But every once in a while, a big-time player ventures into the hunting grounds. And into the crosshairs of anticipating fans.
Here comes Yu. And 30 of his best friends. He’s making his way toward the clubhouse. And he’s open game.
Kids, old folks, pro hunters – all have him surrounded. Yu tries to walk and sign at the same time, creating quite a strange sight. All you hear is, “Yu! Yu!” And the ever-polite kid, “Mr. Darvish!” The element of stealth never factors in. The commotion just attracts other hunters.
He just needs to get past the red line where sanctuary awaits – where fans can’t cross.
Whew! He’s safe.
With autograph hunting, you hear everything to get an advantage. Folks who can speak Spanish roll their r’s to entice the Latin players. Someone goes to synagogue with Kinsler. Someone’s brother knows Murphy. Someone has a charity that’s putting together a fundraiser. You hear, “It’s my son’s birthday!”
Use it. Throw it out there. Try it. You never know what will get their attention.
A.J. Pierzynski pops out of one of the fields. He’s willing. For a good solid 20 minutes, A. J. signs. He maneuvers awkward bats. He scribbles on hats. He signs balls and baseball cards. He changes pens. You see, the expert autograph hunters want everything signed with blue ballpoint pens.
A. J. has to go. “Thanks, A. J.!” “Welcome to Texas, A. J.!” There’s a lull.
Then, just across the sidewalk from where A. J. was signing, Kinsler makes an appearance. Folks who have been standing in the same spot for the past hour get rewarded. Elvis follows. It’s a frenzy of baseball memorabilia. But everyone is having fun.
As Kinsler and Elvis sign, the size of the crowd ebbs and flows. Kids magically pop out of the crowd with their signed treasure. Smiles adorn their faces. “Dad! I got Ian! I got Ian!” Two more kids run in under grown-up armpits and underneath legs to take their spots.
Ian and Elvis please the crowd for a good 25 minutes. They’re not playing on that particular day so they have time.
I speak with one of the security volunteers. He says he sees the same folks day after day, year after year. The pros. But he said the players are onto them. Many of them go as far as to show up in disguise. But like any good prey, the players begin to adapt. According to the security volunteer, the players look at … the shoes. Sure, you think to change your clothes, hats, hairstyle, even wear a fake mustache or beard, but most likely, you’re going to wear the same shoes. The players know this.
So for several weeks in February and March, the autograph hunting is good. The players play along. The mood is relaxed. And the ink flows freely.
But as with any hunt, you need a little strategy, the ability to adapt quickly and have a little luck on your side.
Evidently, my 9-year old had a lot of the above. He snared some good signatures. Yu. Kinsler. Murph. Elvis. Feliz. And now he has some great stories – about the ones he bagged and about the ones that got away.
And there’s always … always … next year.