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July 2, 2013
The Baseball Writer's Biggest Sin
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Peter Abraham has covered the Red Sox for The Boston Globe since October of 2009. Prior to that he covered the Yankees (2006-09) and Mets (2002-05) for The Journal News of White Plains, NY. He once ran down a street in Dublin to see Bruce Springsteen go by in an SUV. Follow him on Twitter at @PeteAbe, and read his writing about the Red Sox at BostonGlobe.com’s Red Sox page and the Globe’s Extra Bases blog.
The credentials issued to journalists to cover baseball games quite often say “No autographs” on the back. Sometimes the two words are in bold or in capital letters to really drive the point home.
Outside of plagiarism, perhaps the greatest sin for a baseball writer is to ask for an autograph. Not only are you violating the rules, you’re annoying the player and showing yourself to be, well, a rube.
But three times in my career as a writer, through no fault of my own (honest!), I got autographs from prominent players. Hopefully you’ll be amused to hear how it happened.
The first time was in 1988. I was in my first job at the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin, a small newspaper in the eastern part of the state only a few miles from the Foxwoods Resort Casino.
John Ellis, the former big league player, held a charity dinner at Foxwoods to raise money for cancer research and somehow convinced Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin to attend. I was assigned to go cover the dinner. It was kind of a big deal that Mantle was showing up.
The three attended a press conference before the dinner. I was 23 and hopelessly confused, and I mumbled a few questions. Mickey told a few good stories about the old days.
As the press conference broke up, I remembered that my boss had wanted me to ask Mickey if he had any particular memories of Ellis because that would “localize” the story, and we were big on doing that.
Notebook in hand, I walked up to Mickey and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, Mr. Mantle? Do you have a second?” I said.
He turned around, grabbed the notebook out of my hands, and signed his name on a blank page with those signature loopy M’s.
I was stunned. I may have been young, but I knew enough not to ask for autographs.
“Mr. Mantle, I didn’t want your autograph. I’m a writer from the local paper,” I sputtered out.
Mickey looked me dead in the eye with an expression of amusement on his face.
“Tough shit, kid. You got it,” he said before walking away.
I drove back to the office somewhat fearful that I’d get reprimanded. I explained what happened to the sports editor, Jay Spiegel. He laughed and congratulated me on my good fortune.
That sheet of notebook paper is framed and hangs in my office at home.
Years later, in 2003, I was covering the Mets and my boss, the late, great Mark Leary, had me work on a series of stories about the autograph business. Steiner Sports was located a few miles away, and we did a whole package of stories about the memorabilia business.
The logo for the package, Mark decided, would be a baseball signed by Mike Piazza. The Mets graciously produced a ball signed by Mike, and I ferried it back to the office to be photographed.
The photographer returned it, and there it sat on my desk in the office. My boss, who was a stickler for ethics, told me to return it.
At the next Mets game, I tried to hand it off to media relations director Jay Horwitz. He told me to keep it. I then went down to the clubhouse and tried to give the ball back to Mike.
“Dude, why do I want a ball I signed?” he said.
Good point. I wandered up the ramps at Shea Stadium in the direction of the press box wondering what I’d do with this suddenly troublesome ball.
I decided to do a good deed and give the ball to a fan. My problems would be solved and positive karma would be mine.
Alas, this was New York. The first guy I approached was wearing a Piazza jersey and had his son with him. When I offered him the ball, he looked at me with suspicion and refused it. He assumed I was running some kind of scam.
The second person was equally dubious until I told the whole story. He took the ball and gave it to his kid.
Now that Mike is close to getting into the Hall of Fame, it has crossed my mind that I should have kept the ball. Nobody would have known. But hopefully that family still has it.
The third autograph came on Sept. 28, 2008, the day Mike Mussina pitched his final game for the Yankees.
Mussina was kind of a crank when it came to the media. But once he got to know you, he was a delight to deal with. Moose is a smart guy with a good sense of humor and perspective on the game.
During that season, new manager Joe Girardi took it upon himself to ban junk food from the clubhouse. That included the donuts Mussina enjoyed eating before games.
Mussina would occasionally sneak donuts in, and his disdain for the junk food ban was a running joke all season.
On the final day of the season, everybody knew Mussina was almost certainly going to retire despite having pitched well all year. He had accomplished all he wanted and was prepared to go back home to Pennsylvania and enjoy his life.
A few of us, as a little joke, chipped in and got Mussina a dozen donuts before the game. It was our way of saying thanks to him for being a nice guy over the years.
Mike pitched six scoreless innings against the Red Sox at Fenway Park and ended up winning his 20th game, the first time that happened in his career.
Mussina tore three flaps off the donut box and signed them, “Thanks! Mike Mussina.” It was too nice a gesture on his part to refuse.
That flap was framed, too. It’s right next to Mickey’s notebook page on the wall.
So remember, aspiring baseball journalists, never ask for autographs. But if one shows up, you can keep it.