Stars are on ball at autograph show

SportsBaseballBaltimore OriolesRod CarewPhiladelphia PhilliesJim PalmerNew York Yankees

In a private room at one end of the 300 level of the Baltimore Convention Center, four Hall of Famers sat at separate tables, signing baseballs, bats, jerseys and helmets that later would be shipped as pre-orders and sold.

It's not often that Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Johnny Bench and Rod Carew appear at the same function. Even rarer are the days when they're rivaled in importance by other former players.

The famed foursome gathered yesterday as part of a star-studded lineup for Baseball's Best memorabilia show, which began Friday and ends tonight. Seventeen members of the Hall of Fame, including upcoming inductees Cal Ripken and Tony Gywnn, were available for autographs and to greet fans, along with 26 of Ripken's former teammates from the 1983 Orioles World Series team and a slew of other notable names.

The line to enter the autograph room was long, the complaints relatively few.

"They should have a real good crowd here today. Good for them, bad for me," said Bill Vogelpohl of Ellicott City, who took his place in line around 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes before fans were granted entrance. He planned to visit the Convention Center for all three days of the event.

"I'll be here until 4 o'clock today, but it'll be worth it," he said.

Ron Jones, who lives at the Aberdeen Proving Ground with his Army wife, brought a bat for Ripken to sign, a jersey for Don Mattingly, and baseballs for Carew, Tom Seaver and Paul Molitor.

"When you get them live, take a picture of them and see them sign it, it's the best thing," Jones said. "You don't know what's out there in the memorabilia world. So many people are selling stuff, you don't know what's legit. ... I'd rather get it myself."

The price of adulation is steep. While a lesser-known player's autograph on any item this weekend costs $10 or $12, one from someone the stature of Bench, Robinson or Ripken, just to name a few, runs into the hundreds.

"I can understand why they're doing it," Jones said. "There's so much money in resale value for some of the top stars. Ripken, now that he's going in the Hall of Fame, and Tony Gwynn, that's the hot item. You'll see a lot of dealers come in here and pose as shoppers and try to pick up as much as they can. And the promoters have to make some money, too.

"I just feel bad for the little kids. If they have a baseball and you've got to pay $99 to get it autographed ... but I've also been to a lot of games and it's tough to get them to sign for free there, so you've got to do what you've got to do. And as long as people are willing to pay, they're going to charge."

The players and managers had a volunteer next to them who attached a sticker of authenticity to every autographed item. But sometimes, the person in the next seat held far greater importance.

Preston Mattingly, a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in last June's amateur draft, sat beside his father, Don, the former New York Yankees first baseman, and signed for fans.

The elder Mattingly took a baseball from a woman who wore a replica of his jersey, noticed his son's name scribbled on it and jokingly said, "You went to Preston first? What's up with that? He took up the whole ball, too. Kids today. No respect."

Mattingly also participated in a coaching clinic with Ripken, but nothing could match the feeling of glancing to his right and seeing Preston, so warmly received, so in his element at such a young age.

"I told Preston, 'Man, the first one of these you ever did and you got to do it with all these guys.' It's unbelievable," he said.

Fan Ed Mathews made the drive from southern New Jersey to meet Mattingly and have their photo taken together. "I made plans to come here three or four months ago," he said. "I brought a Mattingly jersey to get autographed that doesn't even fit anymore. I already bought the frame for it."

As expected, men and women created a steady flow toward Ripken, who sat at a table and signed for hours. The only interruptions occurred when he walked to an aisle to pose for photos with fans who either brought their own cameras or had one provided for them. This was Ripken's idea - a way to create a more personalized snapshot and to stretch his aching back.

In another area, memorabilia dealers set up shop, with items ranging from a 16-by-20-inch black and white action photo of Yogi Berra for $300, to a framed Johnny Unitas autographed jersey for $1,200. A jersey that Ripken signed and made the notation "HOF 07" sold for $899 while Gwynn's sold for $699.

Ray Schulte, president of Ironclad Authentics, a memorabilia company and affiliate of Ripken Baseball who took primary responsibility in organizing the show, estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 people would pass through the Convention Center yesterday. They brought backpacks, duffel bags and roller bags filled with memorabilia. One industrious fan used the strapped carrying case for his daughter's field hockey stick to protect an Orioles' poster commemorating the '83 season.

There weren't as many kids present as normally found at the Orioles' yearly FanFest, which had to be rescheduled because of a Ravens home playoff game. The Convention Center has been transformed this weekend into an adult playground.

"It's quite an undertaking, but it's gone real smoothly," Schulte said. "It's always good when the players come in and they're in a great mood. A lot of these guys haven't seen each other in a long time, so they're very upbeat, and it's reflected when they meet the fans."

Plasma televisions replayed the '83 Series between the Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies. Jim Dwyer, who homered in the Game 1 loss, clearly had gained a few pounds and gray hairs as he sat beside former manager Joe Altobelli at another autograph station.

"It's been great, just seeing all the guys [Friday] night again. We made a lot of friends back then," said Dwyer, the hitting coach at Single-A Fort Worth, a Minnesota Twins affiliate.

As Dwyer spoke, another male fan approached him with a photo to sign. Gwynn was soon introduced to the crowd as he took a seat. Jim Palmer, master of the complete-game victory during his Hall of Fame career, finally was being relieved at 11:30 a.m., about 2 1/2 hours after he first sat down. And outside the building, another former Oriole, Ken Singleton, hustled toward the entrance.

"For me, this illustrates how people love baseball in this town and why they keep coming out every year despite the recent travails of the club," Palmer said. "And you get to see a lot of your former teammates, which is great. It's a special time.

"What happens, like with [former Orioles pitcher] Pat Dobson passing away, a lot of your teammates, as we get up in age, they're not around anymore. It's kind of like, seize the moment."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

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