Autograph seekers make a pitch to boys of summer

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A buzz arises along the first base line at RFK Stadium as the visiting Houston Astros take the field for batting practice Monday evening.

Several hundred fans — most of them children and young teens — cram into the first few rows of seats trying to get close to the action, all in search of the cherished autograph. Outstretched hands filled with baseballs, cards, programs and Sharpies accompany their screams.

“Lance! Lance! Can I have your autograph?” they call to Astros right fielder Lance Berkman.

“Craaaaaaaaaig!” they scream to second baseman Craig Biggio. “You’re on my fantasy team! Can you sign please?”

The Astros turn to wave, then trot out to the field.

“Pleeeeease!” 13-year-old Avery Decker cries from amid the chaos. “I came here from New York to see you!”

Traveling with a teen tour group that will see 15 major league games in 10 stadiums, Avery obtained the autograph of the Nationals’ Nook Logan earlier in the evening. Leaning on the roof of the home dugout, Avery rolled the center fielder a ball and tossed him a marker. Logan signed and flipped the items back to the wide-eyed teen who screamed “Thanks!” and then scurried off to the other side of the stadium.

“I don’t even know him,” Avery says of Logan. “I’m a Yankee/Met fan. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just cool getting autographs.”

Avery is like the majority of autograph seekers who descend on RFK Stadium every game. They don’t know the players and couldn’t tell you their stats. Many of the signed items will wind up in a drawer or box, forgotten for the most part.

But they have obtaining the coveted scribbles down to an exact science.

Josh Cockerham has received two boxed sets of baseball cards for Christmas every year since he was born 20 years ago. The La Plata, Md., resident and his family split season tickets with friends and attend 20 Nationals games a year.

The night before a new series, Mr. Cockerham will turn on a baseball game, go through his collection and put every card from the visiting team into a billfold-sized folder. Once at the game, when he sees a player or coach whose autograph he doesn’t have, he scrolls through the folder and pulls it out.

“I’ve got basically the entire Nationals team in autographs and about a thousand autographs total,” he says. “That’s including cards and other memorabilia. I know I’ve got 600 signed cards in a folder and lots more that aren’t organized yet. I’m like an 8-year-old out here, really. I don’t sell them. I just collect them. I’d feel bad making money off them.”

But there are many who see nothing wrong with selling autographed items. Fueling the booming sports memorabilia industry, these adults travel from city to city, equipped with large notebooks, backpacks crammed with boxes of cards and glossy photos of athletes. According to players, the autograph “hounds” stake out hotels and restaurants in addition to attending games.

“It takes away from the kids when you see people who want your autograph solely for profit,” Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young says. “They get on EBay, all trying to make some money. And it’s a network. People here might trade with some guy in Philly. Philly guy trades with someone in Chicago. You just gotta pick and choose. I won’t sign for adults. I only sign for kids. But some of them get kids to get autographs for them.”

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