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."
A handful of hounds have come to RFK and worked their way into the mix of autograph seekers.
Jostling through the crowd of youngsters, three men who appear to be in their 40s hold items in the face of Astros center fielder Hunter Pence, who has paused to sign for some youngsters before heading into the clubhouse.
"I'm signing for the kids," Pence says, passing over the men's items. They try to persuade him to change his mind, but to no avail. Frustrated, the men move on to the next player.
"They always come out the first game of a series," RFK Stadium usher James Ercole says. "Then you don't see them anymore."
Thirty minutes before the game begins, the players retreat into the clubhouse. Mr. Ercole begins shooing the fans away, but one of the hounds spots Astros manager Phil Garner still signing a few more cards.
"Phil! Phil," he calls before Mr. Ercole steps in front of him.
"It's 6:30, time to move on," the usher instructs. "That's the cutoff."
"What? I've never heard of such a thing," the man says, raising his voice.
Despite the protests, Mr. Ercole maintains his stance and begins ushering away the angry man, who along with his partners declined to comment.
"I disagree with the whole autograph-selling business," says 22-year-old Scott Rogowsky, a counselor with the teen tour group. "Those guys mess it up for guys like me because players don't sign for adults very much."
Mr. Rogowsky figures he has 150,000 cards in his collection, 5,000 of them signed.
"Part of the joy of getting an autograph is the hunt," he says, while watching members of his group try for last-minute autographs. "Why buy an autograph? The great thing about getting one is the story that comes with it."
Mr. Rogowsky remembers the first autograph he ever got.
Attending the Mets' spring training in 1997, he called to catcher Mike Piazza and stuck his card and marker through a hole in the fence. A huge crowd flocked to the fence upon seeing Piazza approach and Mr. Rogowsky recalled getting crushed.
"Mike Piazza saw it and said, 'Hey, hey! Give the kid some space!' and made everyone back up. Then he signed my card and gave it back to me. I'll never forget that."
Mr. Rogowsky, who has started writing a book about the art of getting an autograph, instructs his teens on expert tactics.
"It's about the three P's," he says: "Pens, pockets and patience. I always bring a blue Sharpie, not black, so it stands out. You need pockets to put your stuff in, and you have to be patient. Remember that they're people, too. Young guys, I call them by their first name. Veterans and coaches, I say Mr. So-and-so. And you've gotta be in the right place at the right time."
One person in the right place at the right time is 7-year-old Alexandria resident Conrad Bartenstein, who sits in the arms of his father, Rob, a few rows back from the Houston dugout.
Astros first-base coach Jose Cruz notices the father and son, who both wear bright orange Houston T-shirts — the Astros' old color — and calls for Rob to place his son on the dugout so Cruz could reach the Nationals program Conrad wanted signed. The father, a Houston native, squeezes through the crowd and sits his son down, then pulls him back after thanking Cruz.
"It's pretty exciting," the elder Bartenstein says. "That's his first autograph, and it's of a player I grew up idolizing in Houston. This is what it's all about, being at the park with dad. And autographs put you close to the game."
After the game, a Nationals victory, Mr. Cockerham and a handful of other fans — and hounds — wait outside the player parking lot, calling to each car that passes. About a third of the players pull over and sign autographs from their cars.
"It's pretty cool, because I remember when I was a kid, asking for autographs," Nationals closer Chad Cordero says. "But I was real shy, so I would always get my brothers to go with me and I see a lot of the kids doing the same thing.
"Then once they ask and you sign, their face lights up. So I do it as much as I can," the pitcher says.