- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2014

Drew Storen swears it’s simple, and watch — he’ll even show you.

First comes the capital D, which to the naked eye looks like anything but. A loop here and there, more like a figure eight, follows, and suddenly the capital S is woven right on top of it, following nearly the same path as the first initial before it.

For the T in his last name — lowercase, as logic dictates — there’s a vertical cross, rounded with a quick hitch, before a slant for the rest of the last name. A longer, horizontal loop follows, almost like a pretty little bow that tidies up the gift for the autograph seeker.

“It’s simple,” the Washington Nationals reliever said again as he pulled the felt-tip pen away from a white piece of paper. “It’s always been pretty much the same, but it’s just smoothed out a little bit over the years.”

Autograph hunting, the pastime within the national pastime, has been pretty much the same since the days of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and Harmon Killebrew, except it hasn’t. No longer does an immaculate, full-bodied, legal identification stain cowhide or parchment. Now, any casual jotting of figures, if one would care to call them that, does the job — not just loops, but arches and whorls as well.

One almost needs to check for fingerprints to determine the autograph’s creator. When Storen’s teammates are introduced at Nationals Park, their signatures flash on the video boards. They aren’t hard to see, but making them out? That’s a different story.

“If the signature isn’t with a picture, you wouldn’t know who it was,” said Nationals center fielder Denard Span, whose autograph is arguably the most legible on the team. “I can say that I want my signature to be recognized, whether it’s on a picture or on a piece of paper.”

Memorabilia market breeds sloppiness

Many players say the sloppy signatures are the result of increased demand, and leaving only initials or nicknames helps them work quickly through a crowd that always wants one more.

That trend is nothing new. The proliferation of ballpoint pens in the 1960s and the explosion of the sports memorabilia marketplace in the 1980s changed the autograph-seeking dynamic, said Mike Gutierrez, a Dallas-based vintage sports autograph and memorabilia appraiser.

Players, increasingly suffocated by collectors looking to sell their autographs for hefty profits, could get away with leaving a few quick strokes and moving on to the next item. Penmanship, romanticized by signatures like Ruth‘s, is no longer stressed.

The online marketplace has facilitated that appetite for memorabilia. It’s difficult, Mr. Gutierrez said, to authenticate current players’ signatures because the distinguishing characteristics examined by handwriting analysts are missing. At times, authentication isn’t worth the cost to the collector.

“It’s here to stay and to get worse,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “There’s no positive sign that any of this could go back to the way it was. There’s no chance of that.”

J.J. Hardy, the Baltimore Orioles’ shortstop, said he tries to sign for as many people as possible, but players’ schedules at the ballpark often do not allow enough time to get to everyone. His autograph is a vaguely symmetrical jagged heap of diagonal lines that looks like more like an electrocardiogram tracing than a signature.

“There’s a number of times when it’s not readable,” said Hardy, who was coincidentally interrupted with an autograph request by a clubhouse attendant while speaking about his signature. “When I’m in a hurry to sign a bunch of them, it kind of turns into more of a scribble, but if I’m just signing a couple, and I have time, I try to make it pretty legible.”

Poor penmanship abounds

The modern marvel is that of former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, with its textbook slant and its trademark swoops. It graces a 3-by-5-foot version of the Major League Baseball logo in the main hallway of the visiting clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Others’ signatures should never be displayed in such a way. Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki’s mess looks like a wisp of Charlie Brown’s hair — if he let it grow for a month or two. Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz may have signed his name, or he may have signed Peter Pan’s. Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus seems to make a lot of mistakes considering he writes — well, something, then crosses it out three times.

“I don’t know one specific one where I’m like, ‘What is that?’ but there are a lot of guys” with ugly signatures, said Cleveland Indians designated hitter Jason Giambi.

A collector as a child — he still requests bats from teammates and opponents — Giambi knows the value of the moments he spends signing autographs. Early in his career, Giambi asked a girl for her name and addressed a message accordingly, only for her to run away in tears when she saw he spelled her name incorrectly. (He fixed the gaffe.)

Then there’s the artistic creation left behind by Storen. He was inspired by the butterfly style in sixth or seventh grade, he said, when one of his teachers left a similarly ornate mark.

Autograph seekers tell him frequently that his signature is among their favorites. It has, in its own way, a fan club; people have told him they were recommended to ask for his signature.

“You just want to have something that looks cool,” Storen said. “I was always a big fan of autographs, so I just want to make sure if somebody cared about my autograph, it looked kind of cool.”

Autographs sometimes reflect the personalities of their designers. Cincinnati Reds rookie Billy Hamilton, who stole a record 155 bases in the minor leagues in 2012, jots a B, a period, and a hyphen, followed by an H, a period, and a hyphen.

It takes mere seconds, and his curves and imprecision leave the appearance of motion blur.

“That’s just my baseball signature,” Hamilton said, teasing that it’s OK to call it terrible. “I just do it real quick and get it over with, but I don’t do that when I’m signing [important] stuff.”

Neither would Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, but he has another reason for leaving three loops and a No. 10. Jones fears that, regardless of an extensive autograph history, someone could re-create his full legal signature for nefarious means.

“Everything’s different, because nowadays, with all these cybercrimes going on, they can get your signatures and buy a Lamborghini,” Jones said. “You’ve got to protect yourself in this age.”

Memento with staying power

In the movie “The Sandlot,” set in the early 1960s, a group of boys tries to recover a ball autographed by Ruth that ended up in a backyard patrolled by a ferocious dog. Though Ruth retired nearly 30 years before the movie’s setting, each of the boys recognized Ruth’s signature and knew his accomplishments.

Killebrew, who died in 2011, would recite a similar tale when he visited the Minnesota Twins’ minor league camps. If a child found an autographed baseball lying in a dirt lot 20 years from now, how would he know whose signature it was?

Rangers reliever Scott Baker, who, like Span, came up in the Twins’ system, was struck by Killebrew’s question. When he signs, he meticulously crafts his initials, making sure to cross the T’s in his first name and elongate the K in his last name.

“You just never know what impact you’re going to have on somebody that’s 8, 9, 10 years old,” Baker said. “I think it’s definitely beneficial to have a short name.”

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