The Washington Times - June 29, 2008, 12:36AM

By JAY LeBLANC
June 29, 2008

Back when I was nine years old, my mom had a friend who babysat for Brett Butler’s kids during the Major League Baseball season. As some of you may remember, Butler was a speedy leadoff man who hit .290 and swiped 558 bases over 17 years with the Braves, Indians, Giants, Dodgers and Mets. Anyway, my mom’s friend knew I was a baseball nut made some kind of deal with Butler that if his San Francisco Giants made the playoffs in 1989, he’d get all his teammates’ autographs for me. As you might imagine, I was the world’s biggest Giants fan that summer. It must have paid off, because the Giants won the N.L. West and then proceeded to beat the Cubs in the playoffs before falling to the A’s in that fall’s earthquake-interrupted World Series.

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A week or two after the series ended, a package arrived in my mailbox containing a stack of signed Giants cards, including Butler, rising star Will Clark, 1989 N.L. MVP Kevin Mitchell, All-Star Game starter Rick Reuschel, N.L. ERA leader Scott Garrelts, young slugger Matt Williams and about 15 others. From that moment on, I was hooked. Almost 20 years later, my collection includes signatures from more than 400 current and former major leaguers, including 65 Hall of Famers. While I’ve gotten a few through the mail, in packs, or for Christmas or birthdays over the years, I’ve obtained most of them myself while attending major and minor league games, and, as a bonus, I’ve ended up with a couple good stories to tell along the way. What follows is the first in an occasional series called Signature Stories, in which I’ll recount various autograph-related tales that you might find interesting.

Manny being Manny, long before you knew him as Manny

The dreadlocks were still years away, his wallet was significantly lighter and he had exactly zero big league home runs to his credit, but Manny Ramirez was the Manny we’ve all come to know and love even back in the summer of 1993. Ramirez was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the first round of the 1991 MLB Draft and was in the process of tearing through the minor leagues when his Charlotte Knights visited McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I., to play the Red Sox’ triple-A affiliate. A good number of future big leaguers, including future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, played in the International League that summer, but no player caused as much of a stir as Manny did when he rolled into town.

The then-21-year-old Ramirez was in the midst of a season in which he’d hit .333 with 31 home runs and 115 RBI between double-A and triple-A and get his first taste of the majors, smacking his first two big league homers after a late-season call-up. I was 13 years old at the time and had heard all about the top prospect, so obviously I wanted to see him play and hopefully add his signature to my collection. A friend of mine named Sean Kane - now a semi-famous harmonica player in the Southeastern Massachusetts area, and no, I’m not kidding - lived with his mom just a couple blocks from McCoy Stadium. We decided we’d catch all three games of that weekend’s series and try to get a bunch of Ramirez autographs, some of which we’d keep, and some of which we’d trade for more prospect cards to get signed.

In the hours before first game of the series, and we gathered up all our Ramirez cards. Ramirez already had a bunch of major league issues - 1992 Topps, Score, Upper Deck, Pinnacle, etc. - and plenty of minor league cards as well. I decided to prioritize the cards in order of which one I’d get signed if I could only get one, or just two, or three and so on. One card in particular caught my eye: A 1992 Upper Deck Minors team checklist that featured a lifelike drawing of Ramirez smiling a lopsided smile with flashy sunglasses and an Indians cap on. I just thought it looked cool and different. I decided that was the card I’d get autographed if I could only get one.

With that night’s game scheduled for 7 p.m., we walked down to the park around 2 to hang out in the parking lot and wait for the Charlotte team bus. To our chagrin, we arrived there to find a crowd of at least 75 to 100 fans gathered there already - far more than the 10 or so you’d usually find. The team bus arrived, and everyone got their sharpies and Ramirez cards ready. Ramirez emerged from the bus rocking shades, a couple gold chains, earphones and a wide smile. He quickly made his way through the crowd, waving and seemingly getting a kick out of all the attention, but signing nothing before disappearing into the clubhouse door about 40 yards from where the bus had parked.

We headed into the stadium a few hours later in hopes of scoring Manny’s signature from the stands, but it was to no avail. After the game, Manny offered a couple of waves and smiles as he made his way from the clubhouse back to the bus, but no autographs for the many fans hoping for one. The next day brought more of the same. Manny didn’t come off as a jerk or anything; he just obviously wasn’t interested in spending a half hour signing his name for a huge throng of fans in a parking lot on a hot summer day, and once he got into the park, he was all business, focused on preparing for that night’s game. Obviously, this approach was working for him.

Some of the autograph hounds speculated that Manny would stop to sign for everyone when he got off the team bus before the third and final game of the series. I, however, wasn’t taking any chances and came up with a different plan. As the team bus pulled up to the park and everyone rushed toward the door to greet Manny, I headed in the opposite direction. I positioned myself right outside the clubhouse door and watched as Manny made his way off the bus and through the sizable crowd. As he reached the door and opened it, I asked him if he’d sign my card, pointing out that he’d only have to sign one since he was safely inside. He chuckled and took my card as the door closed behind him. Two second later, he opened it a crack and handed my card - now signed in blue sharpie - back to me. I smiled and thanked him, and he said something along the lines of “No problem, buddy.”

As you might imagine, I felt pretty cool as the only person to score Manny’s autograph the entire three-game series. I raised my trophy in the air as I walked back outside to join the crowd, loudly proclaiming my triumph. Nobody - not even Sean - was happy for me, and I’m lucky and somewhat surprised that none of the heavyset 45-year-old Rhode Islanders who had planned to have Ramirez sign 40 cards for them to sell and thus needed to come up with another moneymaking scheme that weekend decided to shut me up with their fists. Some tossed out offers for my signed card, but I was having none of it. I told the story of my brilliant plan to anyone who would listen during that night’s game and when I got home, I put the card in a prominent spot on my bookcase so anyone who came into my room would see Manny’s smiling mug with his signature scrawled beneath it.

Today, that card sits in a display case at my house, and I’m still as happy to have it as I was the day I got it - actually, even more so, now that Manny has led my beloved Boston Red Sox to two World Championships. From time to time, I tell complete strangers the story of how I was the only person to score Manny’s autograph during a three-game triple-A series in Pawtucket 15 years ago - most recently on May 31, when I went to the Red Sox-Orioles game in Baltimore in hopes of seeing his 500th career homer. Manny delivered, of course, with a shot into the right-center field seats, and as he made his way out to left field to start the next half-inning, he seemed to truly enjoy the adoration he got from the packed house at Camden Yards, waving and smiling the whole way like the showman he is and always has been.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Photo by The Associated Press