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In the world of autograph collecting, there is more than one way to land a signature of your favorite Major League Baseball player. All it takes is a little perseverance and, in most cases, a little luck.
I possess more than 100 autographed trading cards in my private collection. And I have nearly 50 signed baseballs, the bulk of which I landed in person by meeting the athlete and being prepared. And that's key. Being in the right place is crucial, but having something beyond a napkin for the athlete to sign is a big piece to the autograph-collecting puzzle. That's why baseball trading cards provide the perfect signing surface. They're easy to carry -- make sure you store each one inside a protective card guard when transporting -- easy to hand over and easy for the athlete to sign. A fanny pack works wonders. But what's of utmost importance is to have the proper writing instrument as well, and that's where a lot of novice collectors go wrong.
I've been the recipient of a few trading cards from friends who thought they were doing me a favor by having them signed by big leaguers. I was excited for sure, but when they shared the cards, I noticed they had them sign with ballpoint pens. Big mistake. Besides the fact that it's difficult at best to even read the player's ballpoint signature on a UV-coated card, it usually disfigures the card with a noticeable imprint and more often than not, the ink doesn't carry all the way through the scrawl. The gesture -- albeit nice -- was a disappointment in the end.
What should they have used? In a perfect world, a Staedtler Lumocolor permanent marker is the answer. That's the exact same pen the Athlete Relations crew at Upper Deck uses when they have athletes sign trading cards for upcoming trading card launches. Not only does it provide a nice, consistent transfer, but the signature is easy to read, dries in an instant and doesn't bead or smudge. A fine/ultra-fine Sharpie Twin Tip permanent marker is another option, although depending upon the card surface, slight beading can occur. Blue seems to be the preferred ink color -- of card manufacturers as well as avid collectors -- since the autograph really pops when you display it inside an acrylic screw-down holder on either a mantel, bookshelf or desk. It's also important to remember to shake the Sharpie and not have it upside down for too long before you hand it to the athlete. You want plenty of ink available in the tip and you often only have one chance to get your coveted autograph. For display purposes, make sure your card does not face toward direct sunlight, as that will only lead to premature fading.
Now that you have the proper tools in place, you need to find the athletes you want. You can always try mailing your preferred trading card in to the athlete, in care of his team, accompanied by a kind note and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for easy turnaround. The only problem with this scenario is that it takes the fun out of the possible exchange you might enjoy if you met your favorite player in person. And let me be the first to tell you that meeting a big leaguer is an experience you won't soon forget. I've been fortunate to cross the paths of quite a few, including retired greats like Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Joe DiMaggio, Luis Aparicio, Mickey Mantle, Steve Carlton, Reggie Jackson, Warren Spahn and Jim Palmer, as well as current stars like Todd Helton, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada. Each of these encounters has provided me with a memory that I'll hold on to for the rest of my life.
Where are the players?
Two terrific venues every year that provide ample opportunities to score some sought-after signatures of baseball's best (past and present) are the Major League Baseball All-Star FanFest and the National Sports Collectors Convention. Both of these events boast large autograph pavilions where fans can go and secure autographs of their favorite players. Individual signature fees are called out for each player, depending upon the type of item that's being signed (trading card, 8x10 photo, baseball, bat, etc.), but more often than not, it's worth the price and the time it took to stand in line. Not only do you get the signature you want, but you get to meet your idol face to face and share a moment that can never be taken away.
The MLB All-Star FanFest takes place during the same week as the annual Midsummer Classic in the host city (this year it was Pittsburgh), while the NSCC (the National) rotates every summer, but seems to make more frequent stops in Anaheim, Chicago and Cleveland. This year's National -- now in its 26th year -- takes place at the Anaheim Convention Center from Wednesday, July 26 (VIP night) through Sunday, July 30.
The first National I ever attended was in 1991, which was also held in Anaheim. It remains the most heavily attended National in history as more than 120,000 rabid sports fans walked through the aisles that weekend. And what I recall most fondly from that event was meeting my boyhood idol and Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. He shook my hand and signed an 8x10 photo for me, which I still have proudly displayed amongst my BoSox memorabilia. I used a black Sharpie Twin Tip permanent marker that day and the signature is still holding strong.
Always on the "sweet spot"
When it comes to getting baseballs signed, there are a couple of rules of thumb to consider. First of all, purchase the real deal: an official Rawlings Major League Baseball, complete with current MLB Commissioner Allan H. ("Bud") Selig's machine-generated facsimile signature printed on it in blue. Don't try to make do with your son's little league baseball or some Minor League knockoff. If it's a big leaguer's signature you're after, make sure he signs a big-league ball.
On the exact opposite side of Selig's replica signature you'll find an area where the red seams of the baseball come closest together; that's what's known as the "Sweet Spot." That's prime signing territory and exactly where you want the ballplayer to scribble his name. But remember: never use a Sharpie or permanent marker on a baseball. Only use a ballpoint pen, preferably sporting blue ink. Otherwise the ink will start to bleed into the baseball over time and fade. And that just won't do.
How bad do you want it?
If using the U.S. Mail doesn't float your boat, and you're just too far away from either the FanFest or National, you can always stay local and visit your home team's ballpark. Pregame batting practice provides the best chance for getting a signature, unless you're lucky enough to walk right into one of the players as he's entering the ballpark. But the chance of that happening is remote as each of the MLB stadiums has secure parking and entrance areas for the players that can't be accessed by the general public.
Simply show up at least two hours before game time and make your way down toward the front row next to either dugout. That's about as close as you can get, and then you'll need luck to intervene. Some players will spend a few minutes signing autographs for the fans and some won't. It's simply the luck of the draw.
Every once in a long while, purely by accident, you'll see a big leaguer about town, out of uniform. That's when the Boy Scout in you needs to take over. Are you prepared? Do you have one of his trading cards on you for him to sign? Did you remember to put a couple of his cards -- or even a baseball -- in your glove compartment? What about a Sharpie or a ballpoint pen? If you did, you deserve a merit badge.
And last -- but certainly not least -- always be courteous when you request an autograph. A few key words like "please," "appreciate" and "thanks" will go a long way in helping you secure your desired autograph.