Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sharpie Scribbles -- Chapter XI, Alomars vs. Ripkens

-- by Josh Suchon

Note to readers: The feedback on the “You Were Lucky, Hershiser” story was so positive, and triggered so many memories from a childhood where my playground was the Oakland Coliseum, I’ve decided to share more of these stories. I’m blatantly stealing this idea from “Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker, who used his baseball card collection to tell the story of his childhood in the 1970s. Wilker gave me his blessing, so I’m going to use my autograph collection to tell the story of my childhood in the 1980s.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two families competed for the title of best family in baseball -- the Alomars and the Ripkens.

The similarities are impressive: both were led by strong fathers who didn’t have much of a playing career, but were consummate baseball men who stayed in the game as coaches, and taught their sons the right way to play; both of the older sons went on to a Hall of Fame career; both of the younger sons had solid careers; both named one of their son Junior; and most important, both families were huge targets to an autograph-obsessed kid like me.

What follows is a comparison of how the two families grade out, strictly on a Sharpie Scribble scale:

Sheer volume of autographs

The final tally is 16 for the Alomars and n11 for the Ripkens in my collection. It breaks down with eight by Roberto, seven for Sandy Junior, one for Sandy Senior, six for Cal Junior, three for Billy, and two for Cal Senior.

Considering the overwhelming number of my autographs came at the Oakland Coliseum, this is an impressive total for a National League family like the Alomars. It shows how much I took advantage of spring training and how accommodating they were.

Off memory, I want to say that Billy was back in the minor leagues during my peak 1987-89 years of collecting. But that wasn’t the case.

Upon checking, Billy was in the majors. For some odd reason, Billy was just a much tougher autograph to obtain than his more in-demand older brother. You'd think it was the other way. 

Edge to the Alomars.

Quality of penmanship

If you looked at any of Alomar autographs on a blank index card, without pictures or names around it, you’d have a difficult time identifying them. The best chance would be with Roberto’s, and I like the style of his autograph (just like I liked his style as a player). It’s interesting how similar Sandy Junior’s scribble compares to his father’s.

The signature of Cal Senior looks like a guy trying to get perfect marks in penmanship class -- legible and clean and professional. I dig the style of Cal Senior’s signature, especially the way he’d put a J at the end of it.

Billy's strikes me as slightly lazy. It's basically B-Rip. Of course, I’m sure most of the autographs Billy was asked to sign were alongside his dad and brother, and he was probably sick of it.  

Edge to the Ripkens.

Personal connection

What I recall about the Alomar autographs is the casual fan didn’t know who they were in 1988 and 1989, and I got the impression all of the family members were impressed that I knew who they were.

Whenever you hand a minor league card to a player, he’s usually impressed with your knowledge of his career and desire to get an unusual items signed. I found that most took a little extra time to make sure they delivered a better scribble. That was definitely the case when I handed the Alomar brothers a card from the Texas League all-star game.

Only one memory stands out about getting any of the Ripken autographs, but it’s a powerful image. It was either in 1987 or 1988, and I was waiting in the players parking lot. A group of Orioles took a hotel shuttle together to the Coliseum.

Cal was dressed the best out of anybody. Cal got out of the shuttle first. He waved his teammates off the shuttle, made sure to tip the driver, and I recall the driver’s smile was a little bigger, so you know the tip was pretty good.

Then Cal patiently stood there and signed everybody’s autograph. He didn’t walk and sign and cause havoc. It was like Cal understood this was part of the job description, that he was not only the face of the Orioles (who were awful at the time), but he was also an ambassador for all of baseball.

Can’t recall which of the six autographs I obtained that day, but I know it wasn’t the smeared one. In fact, I think the smeared one was obtained through the mail, and smears were actually a common drawback for getting autographs in the mail. I got Cal’s autograph on at least three occasions, and I’m guessing it was probably five different times.

Too close to call; no edge.

Peak item to brag about

Getting all three Ripkens signatures from that famous Sports Illustrated issue was a huge goal. Even though it looks ugly, the white scuffs at the bottom of my SI are a sign that I was a subscriber, and the first thing you did when the magazine arrived was try to remove that mailing sticker as gingerly as possible.

I was able to get Cal Junior and Senior on that SI, but not Billy. I can't tell you why I'd get Billy's signature on baseball cards, instead of this magazine. My guess is that I forgot about the SI, and didn't try getting the magazine signatures until after I'd already obtained scribbles on baseball cards. Or maybe I hadn't decided that getting SI covers autographed wasn't cool, until one of my friends did it first.

My memory is not precise, but I recall Billy wasn’t as friendly to us autograph seekers. I always felt empathy toward him, getting compared to his older brother, and never coming close to his accomplishments. 

The 8x10 photo of the Alomars was in wide circulation in 1989. From the gray road uniforms and background, I can tell the picture was taken at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The picture was probably taken in 1988, when the brothers were both top prospects.

Since they’re not looking directly at the camera, my guess is a whole bunch of photographers got that shot that day. The photo in the Fleer card was taken the same day, and it looks like they delicately told Sandy Senior to get out of the frame.

I’m almost certain I obtained all three signatures on the photo, and the two on the card, in spring training 1989. It might have occurred all on the same day. The spring of 1989, I had most of the A's players that I wanted, so I was usually one of the only people on the visiting side of the field. I'd get the best spot and totally dominate. The number that sticks out in my head was 222 total autographs in a nine-day stretch.

I'm pretty sure, in fact, that every Alomar in my collection was obtained that week.

What I know for sure is that 8x10 photo, and the photo of the Alomar brothers, immediately went inside the best 8x10 frame I had at home. The Ripken item remained in a mere plastic sheet the last 25 years.

Edge to the Alomars.

Post-autograph seeking run-ins

Most of the chapters in this Sharpie Scribbles feature is not just the autographs obtained as a teen-ager, but how I later interviewed the athletes as a journalist. Surprisingly, my interaction with all six was really limited.

I never interviewed any of the Alomars. They were always in the opposite league of whatever league I was covering at the time. Billy’s career ended in 1998, Cal Senior’s life ended in 1999, and I didn’t start covering baseball regularly until 2000.

The only person from either family that I ever interviewed was Cal Junior, and that was part of group interviews during the 2001 all-star game. Cal’s home run is one of my best all-star game memories. The day before the game, one of my sidebars was asking Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez what Ripken meant to the game. Cal’s home run made him the obvious focal point of the game story.

Edge to the Ripkens.

Summary and Conclusion

So it’s tied 2-2-1 in five categories. I really didn’t rig these categories to force a tie. I hate ties. Honestly, I can’t think of any other categories. If you’ve got one, let me know, and I’ll update this.

Overall, my heart gives the edge to the Alomars. Quantity, quality, and unique items make the Alomar autographs some of the proudest in my collection back in the day. I mean, who buys a minor league card of a player in 1988, gets it autographed in 1989, and then the player makes the Hall of Fame two decades later?

Victory to the Alomars.

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