By Drew Olson Special to Published Sep 05, 2006 at 5:36 AM
Professional athletes, coaches and celebrities from the entertainment world hear the words almost every day.

"Can I have your autograph?"

Sometimes, they are stammered softly and shyly. Other times, they are delivered in a drunken slur tinged with rudeness. No matter how they're spoken, the sentences have become as much a part of public life as sunrise, sunset, pre-game practice, cell phone bills, death and taxes.

"Will you sign this, please?"

Most people go through life without encountering strangers asking them to sign a scrap of paper. For celebrities, attention from autograph seekers can be flattering, annoying or even intimidating, depending on the timing, location and nature of the request.

"For the most part, people are very polite," Packers running back Samkon Gado said after a recent practice in Green Bay. "Other times, they don't realize that they can be obnoxious.

"I like to sign whenever I can, but there are times when we're going through stuff and they catch us at the wrong time. How are they to know that?

"If I have to be somewhere, I'll try to explain. Sometimes it helps, Sometimes, it doesn't. The other day, I said 'I'm sorry, guys. I have to go to practice,' and someone said 'All right, Sam. Have a good practice.' That comment made me want to sign for that person that much more. I really wanted to sign, but I couldn't."

Generations ago, autograph collecting was viewed by most people as a children’s hobby. Over the past quarter-century it morphed into an obsession and a multi-million dollar industry beset by charges of fraud, price-gouging, backstabbing and other problems.

"I guess there is money to be made out there on autographs," said Brewers bench coach Robin Yount, a Hall of Famer who has spent nearly four decades scribbling his name countless times on baseballs, bats, cards, pictures and jerseys.

"You see more people doing it these days for that reason -- the business end of it."

Like several other athletes and coaches interviewed for this story, Yount knows that there is a difference between the fan who wants an autograph for his collection and a dealer who is looking to sell the signature for a profit.

"It doesn't bother me (that people sell my signature)," Yount said. "But, I also turn those people down a lot more than the ones you know are just keeping it."

How do you tell the difference between a true fan and a "green fly" which is the name many athletes use for persistent collectors? For starters, the dealers are usually the guys with binders full of cards and big stacks of pictures.

"It’s the same ones who are out there every single day," Yount said. "I can't say I stand there and sign for the same guys every single day. Because of that, there are some people who get left out or miss the opportunity because of the money-makers. I think certain athletes or celebrities in general don't do (autographs) just because of that."

Brewers pitcher Chris Capuano considers signing autographs to be part of his job. On days that he doesn't pitch, Capuano makes it a point to sign as many autographs as time permits in order to take the onus off teammates who are preparing to play the game. While he enjoys interacting with fans, Capuano doesn't like the idea that his signature is a commodity.

"That’s the only part that I don't like," he said. "For me, it’s for the kids and the true fan. I go out there and try to get them. For someone to have to buy my autograph online, to me, I think that is a travesty because I'm happy to give it to anybody."

Gado tries to look at things from the collector/businessman’s point of view. It's hard to fault people for selling autographs when many players take sums of money to do signing sessions at card shows and collector's shops.

"There are two sides to every story," he said. "To be honest, there is part of me that says, 'This guy can sell (my signature) on eBay and that’s not right.' Then again, who is giving me my paycheck? It’s the fans. I guess it doesn't bother me (when people sell autographs), but if a guy comes up to you and he’s got a big bag (of things to sign), then you're like, 'Come on.'"

Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila tries to avoid big crowds of autograph seekers because he knows he won't be able to satisfy everyone.  "I always tell people that the best way to get an autograph from me is to mail it to me," he said. "I guarantee you'll get it within a week, maybe two. I'm not on offense, so I don't get that much mail. If they mail it in a self-addressed envelope. I will send it back.

"I have cards and things that I'm trying to get rid of, I don't need anymore."

Along with the cards, Gbaja-Biamilia tucks in an informational letter from his ministry. "I'm trying to raise money," he said. "I tell the fans, 'Thank you for your support,' and I have a letter I send them about the ministry that is doing something good for the community. They don't have to send in money. They've already got the product. but, it helps me get the word out."

With every card that he signs, Gbaja-Biamilia writes the word "Jesus."

"That's why I do this," he said. "To glorify Him."

Brewers veteran Jeff Cirillo said he doesn't have a problem with people selling his signature, but he isn't likely to stand and sign multiple items for the same person.

"If someone out there wants the autograph, we're providing a job for somebody," Cirillo said. "I don't care about that. As long as guys aren't blatant about it, I'll sign."

Cirillo does have his limits, though.

"I don't like signing shirts," he said. "I don't like writing on a shirt that some guy has been wearing for three hours. That grosses me out. Hats are kind of gross, too."

While players expect to be asked for autographs at the ballpark and sometimes at the hotel, resourceful collectors often find them at restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

"It’s like they got homing devices on you or something," Brewers outfielder Geoff Jenkins said.

During the 1990s, Paul Jones spent several years chasing athletes around ballparks, hotel lobbies, bars and city sidewalks in Milwaukee and other Midwestern cities. A Menomonee Falls native who now works as an attorney in Boston, Jones said the thrill of the chase was more exciting than the financial rewards.

"It was like hunting," said Jones, who began collecting signatures near "Gate X," the employee/player entrance at County Stadium. "I wasn't really star-struck, and I never looked at it as an investment. I just liked being able to outsmart other autograph seekers and the players who tried to avoid me. You try to find a way to be in the right place at the right time and catch them off-guard."

Jones, who began collecting autographs while working for Sportservice at County Stadium, had finished his undergraduate degree and was working as a waiter when he got bored and decided he needed some sunshine. He became an autograph mercenary.

"I put an ad in 'Sports Collectors Digest' and I said, 'I'm going to spring training. Send me your stuff to get signed.' Then, I would charge people a fee and that financed my trip down there. I came home when the money ran out."

Jones said he sold much of his collection to finance his move to Boston a few years ago. All he has left now to remind him of his hobby are a few prized signatures and a lot of stories.

"One of my first experiences came in ’94. Albert Belle got out of a cab and a 10-year-old ran up and asked him to sign and he said 'Go f--- yourself, kid.' There were some guys like that, but a lot of guys were really good, too. Jeff Cirillo was always great. So were Fernando Vina and Turner Ward and a lot of others."

Jones recalled one instance when a friend purchased a gumball out of a machine and asked Mark Loretta, then a Brewers rookie, to sign it. "It was white and it had seams on it like a baseball," Jones said. "Loretta couldn't believe he was asking him, but he took an extra-fine Sharpie and signed it. When he gave it back to him, my buddy said, "Thanks," and popped it into his mouth."

Reminded of the incident earlier by a Boston Herald reporter earlier this year, Loretta said, "I remember that. That guy was a jerk!"

Although some autograph seekers can be rude and belligerent, Brewers radio announcer Bob Uecker still finds most of them to be polite and respectful.

"I think it depends on where they're asking you," Uecker said. "If they're at the hotels, they're pretty quiet. If you see them around (the ballpark) after a game, some of them have had a lot to drink and they can get loud and boisterous.

"For the most part, they're pretty good. If they're not, I don't sign."

Uecker, who has worked in the TV and movie industry in addition to spending more than 50 years at professional baseball parks, said when it comes to autographs there is a difference between sports fans and non-sports fans.

"Sports are different," he said. "When I did the Miller Lite commercials, people would sometimes send a Budweiser to me and they'd laugh. They'd think it was funny. But, in Hollywood, there are a lot of stars around all the time and people don't bother you. They don't say a word to you. But, they'll point. You can see them. They'll say, 'There is so-and-so.' But, they don't bother you.

"Sports fans will come right up to you. That's the difference."

In almost all cases, players are fans, too. Even though they have to fill out an official request form, it’s not unusual for players to seek autographs from their contemporaries across the diamond. Brewers shortstop Bill Hall was thrilled earlier this year when he met his hero, Ozzie Smith, and received an autographed ball. Ben Sheets has a Brett Favre autograph. Jeff Cirillo has more than 60 bats signed by players that he played against. Brewers reliever Matt Wise owns autographed jerseys from Greg Maddux and Trevor Hoffman and teammate Derrick Turnbow has a retro Astros jersey signed by Nolan Ryan.

"Jerseys are big nowadays," said Yount, who is often asked by visiting players to sign powder blue Brewers jerseys. "I don't mind signing them for guys, as long as we don't ever have to wear them again. Those things were ugly."

Another thing that can get ugly -- the signatures that fans stand in line to receive. While many athletes have developed cool, distinctive autographs, others are almost illegible scribbles. Wise admitted that he practiced his signature during high school and college. "That come from going to games and getting autographs," he said. "You would see one and you'd say, 'That's a cool autograph. Maybe I need a cool autograph.'"

Cool doesn't always translate into readable.

"I used to write M---- W----," Wise said. "You could only read the first letters. But, my mom called me out on that. She asked me to be more legible."

Capuano spent time practicing his signature, too, but the results weren't great. "I don’t know what happened, but mine doesn’t look cool," he said. "If I’m signing 10 or 15, I’ll do a nice legible one. If you're doing a lot more than that at one time, the hand kind of cramps up and you can’t do the fine details. A lot of times, I'll put my number on it so people will know that it's me."

For the true fan, the value of an autograph isn't the signature itself. It's the shared moment between a fan and his hero. "That's kind of the way I look at it," Capuano said. "I would rather meet someone and talk to them for a few minutes than have their signature. If I have a memory of meeting the person, that's all I really need."
Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.