August 11, 2002

The Power Of The Pen (On The Ball)
by Steve Lombardi

If a baseball player wants to make someone their fan for life, all he has to do is sign a baseball for them.  It works.  Conversely, if a player wants to make someone's "list" for life, not signing a ball (when asked) is a good head start towards being list-worthy.

Six years ago, I began sending out baseballs to (then) minor leaguers in search of autographs.  Every other year, I would select six players whom I felt were excellent prospects.  In the Spring, I would mail out the balls (accompanied by a letter which explained I was a fan - and not an autograph dealer).  The vast majority of players are great in signing and returning the balls.  Through this year, I have sent out two dozen balls and all but three came back autographed.  A return rate of 88% "ain't too shabby" (in my humble opinion).

Below is a snapshot of who I have sent baseballs to date, whether they signed or not, where they were, and where they are now:

Year

Who

Result

Where Then

Position Then

Where As Of 8/2002

Position Now

Games thru 2001*

1996

Andruw Jones

Signed

Durham Bulls

OF

Atlanta Braves

OF

827

1996

Scott Rolen

Signed

Reading Phillies

3B

St. Louis Cardinals

3B

744

1996

Mike Sweeney

Signed

Wichita Wranglers

C

Kansas City Royals

1B

686

1996

Jose Cruz Jr.

Signed

Lancaster Jethawks

OF

Toronto Blue Jays

OF

623

1996

Todd Walker

Signed

Salt Lake Buzz

2B

Cincinnati Reds

2B

594

1998

Paul Konerko

Signed

Albuquerque Dukes

3B

Chicago White Sox

1B

522

1998

Troy Glaus

Declined

Midland Angels

3B

Anaheim Angels

3B

522

1998

Ricky Ledee

Signed

Columbus Clippers

OF

Philadelphia Phillies

OF

345

1998

Lance Berkman

Declined

Jackson Generals

1B

Houston Astros

OF

304

2000

Pat Burrell

Declined

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons

1B

Philadelphia Phillies

OF

266

1998

Dee Brown

Signed

Wilmington Blue Rocks

OF

Omaha Royals

OF

138

1996

Gabe Alvarez

Signed

Memphis Chicks

SS

Not Playing**

3B

92

2000

Adam Dunn

Signed

Dayton Dragons

OF

Cincinnati Reds

OF

66

1998

Brent Butler

Signed

Prince William Cannons

SS

Colorado Rockies

2B

53

2000

Michael Cuddyer

Signed

New Britain Rock Cats

3B

Minnesota Twins

OF

8

2000

Jack Cust

Signed

El Paso Diablos

OF

Colorado Rockies

OF

3

2000

Jason Romano

Signed

Tulsa Drillers

2B

Colorado Springs Sky Sox

OF

0

2000

Josh Hamilton

Signed

Charleston River Dogs

OF

Bakersfield Blaze

OF

0

2002

Adrian Gonzalez

Signed

Portland Sea Dogs

1B

Portland Sea Dogs

1B

0

2002

Brandon Phillips

Signed

Harrisburg Senators

SS

Buffalo Bisons

SS

0

2002

Casey Kotchman

Signed

Cedar Rapids Kernels

1B

Cedar Rapids Kernels

1B

0

2002

John Buck

Signed

Round Rock Express

C

Round Rock Express

C

0

2002

John-Ford Griffin

Signed

Tampa Yankees

OF

Midland Rockhounds

OF

0

2002

Justin Morneau

Signed

New Britain Rock Cats

1B

New Britain Rock Cats

1B

0

True to the opening statement here, I can confirm that I am now always interested in following the travels and progress of all those who have signed for me.  No matter if they excel or struggle, I always maintain the highest regard for them.  Why?  Again, it is that magic spell that comes with an autographed baseball.  By signing, they were nice to me.  And, I will always return that favor.

What about the players who did not sign/return baseballs for me?  Well, albeit right or wrong, they do carry my version of a hardball scarlet letter.  Without fail, every time I see them play (usually on television), I immediately think of one word - "bum."  Sorry Lance Berkman, Troy Glaus, and Pat Burrell - you have made my list.  And, if anyone is in the room with me (when I see these players), I usually launch into a "I sent this guy a ball when he was in the minors and he was too full of himself to sign it for me" soliloquy. (Unluckily for some, I frequently repeat this whether or not they have already heard the rant on a previous occasion.)  

Another interesting realization from an exercise such as this is the illustration of player movement.  Of the 24 players I have chosen over the last 6 years, 11 (46%) are now with organizations other than the one they were with when I asked them to sign.  In fact, two "signees" from this year have already moved on:  Brandon Phillips (from the Expos' to Indians' system) and John-Ford Griffin (from the Yankees' to A's system).  All of these movements came as the result of trades.  No wonder why players are so anxious to gain some control over the right to choose their place of employment.  If you follow this small sample, even top prospects have nearly a fifty-fifty chance of being peddled in their first six years.

Lastly, an additional "they don't always finish where they start" observation can be made by comparing positions played at the time of the signing versus now.  Note that in this small time period, one-third of the players have already switched their primary fielding position.

Regardless, no matter where they play - in terms of affiliation or position - I will remain a fan of "my guys" and will continue to track them.  

Hopefully, the majority of players do realize the potential of an autographed baseball and the allegiance that can be attained by wielding that power.  

------------------------
*Major League Baseball games played through the 2001 season.
**Gabe Alvarez last played for the AA Huntsville Stars in 2002 before being released this Spring.

JUNE 2004 UPDATE:  As mentioned in the above feature, which was penned in August 2002, every other season, a batch of a half dozen balls is sent out.  As the ritual was started in 1996, this season (2004) is one of the "send them out" years - and, on April 10th, the lot went out.  Below is a chart indicating to whom a ball was sent, where they played, and the result.  The overall return rate is now 87% - down by just 1% from before this year.

Year

Who

Result

Where Playing

Position 

2004

Jeff Mathis

Signed

Arkansas Travelers

C

2004

Dioner Navarro

Signed

Trenton Thunder

C

2004

Jeremy Reed

Signed

Charlotte Knights

OF

2004

Jeff Francouer

Signed

Myrtle Beach Pelicans

OF

2004

B.J. Upton

Declined

Montgomery Biscuits

SS

2004

James Loney

Signed

Jacksonville Suns

1B

 

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