I worked during my summer vacations. Sure, there were other things, too. We went to fish frys and fried ourselves in front of the fireplace that was always inexplicably burning in the dead of July and generally experienced all the things that Door County, Wisconsin had to offer. But in between then, there was the job. Letter writing, to be precise. No, this wasn’t Garrison Keillor’s fantasia; this was far more expansive. I was 11 years old, and I had tasked myself with scribbling a hand-written screed to my favorite player on every major league baseball team.
Autographs were the prize, and my game was in top form that summer in 1998. Pencil smudges coated my left hand, and the drop-leaf table was littered with envelopes and stamps. I subsisted on cheese sticks, and that full gullet fueled my brain with the most persuasive words I could muster. There was no margin for error; this was the most important work of my life.
That’s why I lied to all of these players. I loved baseball, of course, but I loved the rush of obtaining pen on leather even more. The letters followed a similar format. I would explain who I was and why I was writing, always making sure to end with “You are my favorite player in the world!” — a desperate plea for one more signature. I may not have been honest, but I made up for it by being earnest.
Recently, I looked back at that summer seventeen years ago and the outcome of my 30-team letter-writing campaign. Mostly, I was disappointed. I’ve got a decent memory, but I’m even better at holding grudges.
Here are the players I wrote to, the reasoning behind that player, and the result of said letter:
Player: Jim Edmonds
Why: He always seemed to be diving everywhere. I owned an Edmonds jersey once, one of those nice, game-like stitched up ones. I spilled nacho cheese on it.
Result: Heard nothing. Now his significant other’s on a Real Housewives show.
Player: Tim Bogar
Why: At that time, the Astros had a lineup that featured the “Killer B’s”: Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell, and Sean Berry. I felt bad for Tim. He was a B, per se, but perhaps wasn’t so predatory. I wanted to express my commiserations.
Result: Didn’t hear back. Think it may have touched a nerve.
Player: Ben Grieve
Why: He was the talk of the town in Beckett magazine!
Result: He sent me an autographed card, then won Rookie of the Year. That’s how karma works.
Player: Carlos Delgado
Why: He was a first baseman that seemed to either hit a home run or strike out. It’s who I modeled my Little League career after.
Result: Returned an autographed headshot. Put him in the Hall of Fame!
Player: Javy Lopez
Why: He was the only likable guy on that team. Ryan Klesko, Walt Weiss, Denny Neagle — yuck.
Result: He mailed a signed card. That card proceeded to sit in my dad’s car and become gunked up with his Polo cologne and face astringent.
Player: Geoff Jenkins
Why: He had just been called up from the minors that spring and looked like a stud.
Result: Jenkins autographed a felt pennant and sent it to my home! Pennants are the most charming way to cheer on a team and thus he will always be one of the top Geoffs to ever live.
Player: Manny Aybar
Why: Being diehard Cubs fans, I grew up with a strong repugnance for the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s why I thought writing to their worst player would be funny.
Result: Aybar didn’t write back. He probably detected my insincerity.
Player: Terry Mulholland
Why: That ’98 Cubs team was a lovable squad and I have a special place in my heart for grizzled bullpen men.
Result: He sent me back an autographed 8x10 in a manila envelope! The best part of this story is not only did I possess a glossy picture of Terry Mulholland, but that he must have had a reserve stash of them ready to go.
Player: Matt Williams
Why: The “right way” to play the game was the sermon preached from my suburban coaches and Division III catcher of a father. That means dirt on your jersey and grit with a capital G. Williams was a poster boy for that particular anti-style.
Result: Even better than Mulholland’s surprise, Matt Williams shipped a signed rookie card from 1987. It was slightly creased, stained and so, so weird.
Player: Dave Milicki
Why: He was just traded from the Mets and I wished him luck in his new home.
Result: Nothing. He was probably getting settled in.
Player: Ugueth Urbina
Why: I really don’t know.
Result: He didn’t write back and the Expos are no longer a team. Coincidence?
Player: Marvin Benard
Why: He seemed like a pleasant guy on a team full of jerks.
Result: Marvin didn’t respond. My perception of him might have been skewed.
Player: Eric Plunk
Why: Probably only because I wanted to write “Dear Mr. Plunk”.
Result: Plunk-is bupkis.
Player: Glenallen Hill
Why: Poems should be written about Glenallen. The heavens sang when he swung his bat.
Result: He was put on waivers shortly after I wrote to him, where my beloved Cubs picked him up. Didn’t get an autograph, but I still count it in the win column. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to watch Glenallen Hill highlights on YouTube all damn day.
Player: Rey Ordoñez
Why: He could throw really hard and wore number 0.
Result: Got zero back from him, too.
Player: Mike Bordick
Why: I became familiar with a lot of these players through my Nintendo 64 and Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey, Jr. Bordick was on my fantasy-drafted team and hit much better than his tiny, yellow circle of dots gave him credit for. I also owned a plastic cup from my visit to Camden Yards that showed Bordick and Jeff Reboulet. A collector’s item, for sure.
Result: A disappointing no-return.
Player: Trevor Hoffman
Why: This one was more of a letter of gratitude. The previous year, I attended spring training. A San Diego game was about to start when I spotted Hoffman chatting it up with a man near the left field foul line. I husky-sized hustled it over, ball and pen in hand, zig-zagging through bleachers. As I made the final cut, my leg dragged across the metal seats and I reached the All-Star closer just in time. As he was signing my ball, he looked down and said, “That doesn’t look good.” My sock and shoe were soaked in blood from the gash on my calf. Luckily, the man Trevor was talking to was the Padres team doctor, who mended my wound before the beginning of the 1st inning.
Result: Didn’t expect to hear back from a thank-you note and now I’ve got a good story to tell.
Player: Mike Lieberthal
Why: I respect a good catcher.
Result: I did receive an autographed card. He was an All-Star the following two years, probably motivated knowing a sweaty redhead from Chicago was in his corner.
Player: Jason Kendall
Result: He must have been too bruised up and muddy to write me back.
Player: Rusty Greer
Why: He was tearing up the league! The previous season he even received a few MVP votes—a colossal achievement for anyone named Rusty.
Result: I put a letter in, I got an autograph. (That’s a deep-track Rusty-themed reference.)
Player: Fred McGriff
Why: I loved Fred McGriff. In fact, if you weren’t a fan of the Crime Dog, you’re probably not passing the litmus test of my friendship.
Result: Fred came through with a signature and it was on a foiled insert card! That’s the equivalent of childhood gold doubloons.
Player: Tim Wakefield
Player: Sean Casey
Why: We have the same last name! I distinctly remember mentioning that we might be distantly related.
Result: Most likely too busy tracing the family tree to return any correspondence.
Player: Vinny Castilla
Why: I thought Vinny was the coolest player in baseball. I had an ill-fitting white T-shirt with his face on it to prove that point.
Result: He didn’t respond, but I am surprisingly unfazed. Vinny has other things to worry about like slicking back that hair and hitting home runs.
Player: Scott Service
Why: Service belongs in the long line of pitchers that garner the reaction of “That guy’s a professional athlete?” May that lineage live forever.
Result: Never received a response because he was probably too busy on some moonlighting plumbing project.
Player: Damion Easley
Why: Easley was probably my favorite player as a kid. I would take my Nerf Liquidator bat in the backyard and whisper “Damion Easley, up to the plate” before I smacked the neon foam baseball across the street.
Result: Greatly disappointed.
Player: Ron Coomer
Why: Coomer seemed like a fun uncle — someone with a swinging Fungo in one hand and an Old Style in the other.
Result: He shipped a signed baseball. Raise a frothy toast to the Coom Dawg!
Player: Jaime Navarro
Why: He seemed neutral. The hate for the “other” team in Chicago ran deep in my family. At one point, while visiting my relatives, my grandfather made me take off my Fred Flinstone White Sox jersey before I could enter his home.
Result: I didn’t get anything back and it was probably for the better.
Player: Chili Davis
Why: He was cool and old like a designated-hitting Miles Davis.
Result: He didn’t write back, but what do you expect from a Yankee?
Final Autograph Batting Average: .333. Not too shabby, but a colossal waste of time.
But what is time when August’s in the ninth inning and sun’s still setting slow?
As a kid, it’s not really about the permanence an autograph can represent — it’s the emotions that follow. What matters isn’t that these pieces of ephemera found a permanent home in the closet once the Trapper Keepers came out, but that I can still vividly recall the thrill and resentment that came along with the responses and the snubs. The ink might fade but the joy, the validation, the feeling you get seeing your name on official team letterhead does not.
And sometimes those are the only things that get you through the long, hot summers.