December 18, 2010
A recent thread on the SportsGraphing.com message board discussed the worst signing teams in sports. Dump all professional teams in a bucket and who sinks to the bottom? The Celtics and Red Sox. So when two of the toughest signers on two of the roughest teams join forces for a charity autograph signing, I’m getting up early that day.
Ray Allen’s Ray of Hope Foundation Giving Tree Event is an annual pre-Christmas toy drive for underprivileged children. For each donated gift, you can get Allen’s autograph on any item. This year, Kevin Youkilis was also appearing and you were allowed to split your autograph credits between the two athletes. I had missed out on this event in previous years and I was eager to add these tough signatures to my collection (incidentally, I had never graphed either player) while supporting an excellent cause.
8:02 a.m.: I speed walk through the empty concourse of the Natick Collection, an upscale shopping mall 15 miles west of Boston. Volunteers at the Ray of Hope Foundation table hang paper ornaments on a Christmas tree, each labeled with a child’s gift wish. Almost as fast as they put them up they are snatched by an older man who is a known autograph dealer. I ask him how many he has so far. Fourteen. As long as the kids’ wishes are being fulfilled, I guess greed is good today.
8:07 a.m.:With five ornaments in hand, I retrace my steps to my car and take one last inventory of the day ahead. Allen will be signing from 4-6 p.m.—for the Celtics star I have a full-size basketball and an 11×14. I’m also getting an 8×10 signed for my buddy Garett’s cousin. Kevin Youkilis is scheduled from 3:30-5:30. I plan to be one of the first in line for him, get a bat and mini helmet signed, and then race to the end of the Allen queue.
8:20 a.m.: Across the street from the mall, David Ortiz is hosting Big Papi’s Holiday Breakfast at his restaurant (called Big Papi’s, of course). When I arrive I meet my buddy Lewando who had already snagged his ornaments. Several other collectors gather on one side of the establishment, just out of view of the front door where a line of ticket holders starts to grow. It’s freezing outside.
10:15 a.m.: Ortiz’s white Escalade pulls in an hour and fifteen minutes after the event officially kicked off. About ten of us approach the vehicle and are met by Big Papi’s personnel who tell us this isn’t an autograph signing and threaten to call the police. The Christmas spirit is bright this morning.
10:20 a.m.: With at least forty-five minutes to kill until Ortiz makes his exit, I hop into Lewando’s SUV along with two other collectors and head to a nearby Wal-Mart to pick up gifts for the toy drive. Watching graphers pick out baby dolls and Zhu Zhu pets, I couldn’t help but laugh. My cart included a Crayola art supply kit, Dora and Diego picture books, a Play-doh creativity pack, Fuzzoodles and a Toy Story 3 Lego set. I spent between fifteen and twenty dollars on each kid.
11:15 a.m.: From an adjacent parking lot we watch people file out of Big Papi’s with gingerbread houses they had decorated inside and Polaroids with the Red Sox slugger. The picture alone would have been worth the price of admission ($20) to me but tickets had sold out before I became aware of the event. When Ortiz exited, I pulled a bat out of the camping chair bag slung around my shoulder and joined the surge. Handlers again formed a human wall around Ortiz, quickly ushering him into the passenger seat. Word spread that he signed only a few autographs inside after being broken down by a couple of aggressive ticket-holding collectors.
1:30 p.m.: Retracta Belts were finally assembled in front of the Ray of Hope Foundation table where Kevin Youkilis would be stationed. An identical setup about 50 yards away was prepared for Ray Allen. I took my place in line for Youk and passed the next two hours sharing war stories with fellow collectors.
3:40 p.m.: There were about 75 people in line when Kevin Youkilis arrived. A mother and her son were first and the kid got his t-shirt and hat signed. I was next and dropped a bat and a silver Prismacolor paint pen in front of Youk. He hesitated.
“Personalize?” he said.
“I guess so,” I replied.
A man I later learned was Ray Allen’s business manager leaned in and said Youkilis had to personalize items “because of a contract thing”. Fine with me. Though I was sure the dealers behind me were steaming.
3:44 p.m.: The line for Ray Allen was several hundred strong—it was clear Youkilis’ appearance was not well publicized. I took my place at the end, trying to keep my bat and mini helmet smudge-free while fumbling with my items for Allen. Looking at the snake of people ahead of me, I had plenty of time to let my items dry.
5:15 p.m.: With only forty-five minutes to go until the event’s advertised end time, the Allen table was nothing more than a high-speed conveyor belt. I was rushed forward and, after saying a quick hello to Ray, spit out instructions.
For the 11×14, “Can you please sign this ‘To Matt’ in blue?”
For the 8×10, “Can you please sign this in black, no personalization?”
For the basketball, “Can you please sign this in silver?”
Allen accommodated three items with three different pens with no problem. I thanked him and shuffled my items over to an open spot on the mall floor, laying the pictures out for a moment to ensure they were dry. I dodged disaster when a teenager hopped over my 11×14, nearly stamping a footprint across Ray Allen’s forehead.
With the toy drive, the Ray of Hope Foundation exceeded its goal of collecting 600 gifts and I’m certain the expectations of those who attended were similarly surpassed (with the exception of the autograph dealers). I can’t recall attending a better organized signing and I look forward to participating in 2011.