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Collective crush Kids' game no more: Autograph hunting has turned into a wild kingdom, with many out not for a signature but for a profit.


The crowds start gathering three hours before game time, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, two or three deep along the barricades that separate the fans from the players' parking lot.

A clump of pre-teens on bikes is off to one side, playfully screaming as each Oriole goes by, usually without acknowledging the shouts. Two retirees take in the scene, baseballs in hand, hoping to snag an autograph -- especially Cal Ripken's -- but not wanting to fight the most aggressive fans.

One young, first-time father waits patiently near the rear, with a black batting helmet and special silver pen. He hopes to get the signatures of each of this year's Orioles to give to his son, born this season.

Once the pastime of only a few fanatics, autograph hunting has grown so popular, and the crowds so big, that it's easy to forget that Americans are supposed to be mad at baseball. There are still plenty of fathers and sons hoping to catch a glimpse of an idol, but they now share space outside stadiums with legions of others whose buying and selling have created a frenzy out of a one-time hobby.

Nervous stadium managers have increased security. And the athletes, althoughtrying to improve their image after the strike, have grown jaded by collectors who use kids to collect autographs that can be sold for inflated prices.

When the Camden Yards gates are opened a few hours before game time, hundreds of youths swarm through the stands, taking up positions around the perimeter of the field, until the entire field is surrounded several rows deep by wiggling, pleading fans holding out baseballs, books, bats and pens, like beggars seeking alms.

After the games, it is even worse, with the friendly clumps of fans that always loitered around stadiums giving way to assertive crowds that can swell into the hundreds, intimidating players and requiring armed police and platoons of ushers.

"It's usually a good crowd, but there's so many of them it's unbelievable," said usher Richard Cole, who is part of the detail assigned to the players' parking lot. He had the same duty at Memorial Stadium, and said there is no comparison to the scene at Camden Yards.

In an overheated market for sports collectibles, where a certified Cal Ripken signature on a ball retails for $80, players have grown suspicious of adults who show up day after day with bags of pristine balls or of kids who decline offers of personalized messages, asking instead for the plain signatures preferred by resellers.

"It really does get overwhelming. It gets to the point where you can't possibly get to everyone, and then you leave someone angry," said Orioles third baseman Jeff Manto, as he signed balls before a recent game. "You'll get aggressive people and people who will curse you if you don't sign."

He views the encounters as an important part of the game, an opportunity to connect with fans and acknowledge their primacy in the sport's success. But the requests and crowds have grown in recent years, especially in passionate baseball cities such as Baltimore, he said.

At Camden Yards, the temporary wooden horses that were put up near the players' parking lot were replaced this year by rows of mobile, steel barricades. Ushers this year also received an electric cart to pick up players in the parking lot and whisk them past the fans and down the service ramp into the stadium. A few players, including Ripken, have valet privileges so they can drive their cars down the ramp and have it returned to the lot.

"I think it's become a problem for the players," said Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who also has his autograph requested occasionally. "They are at the stadium at 3 p.m. and sometimes don't leave until midnight. When they are on their way home, it seems to me that is an imposition."

Angelos is considering some changes for next season, such as designating a few volunteer players every day to be available for autographs before the games.

Still, players are wary of the scams. Once, after signing several 8-by-10-inch photographs of himself a fan had purchased at the Camden Yards gift shop, Manto said he found them for sale a few days later in an area mall.

Like many players, Manto often passes over adults -- who he assumes may be collecting autographs for resale -- to accommodate children. Even then, however, there is no guarantee: Adults sometimes can be seen on the sidewalk passing out balls to youthful compatriots.

One fan, Jeff Caslin, said excluding adults is not entirely fair either. He and his son have been coming to the games early for years, collecting autographs and memories that will last a lifetime.

"It's a fun father-and-son thing," he said.

Autograph seekers say they learn something about the player's personalities from the encounters, and those who do it frequently know who is likely to stop and who is going to race by in their car without acknowledging the crowd.

Avi Goldsmith, a 15-year-old Baltimorean who uses breaks from his job working a concession stand to camp out near the Orioles dugout with a ball before games, said rookies and older veterans tend to be the most likely to stop, with the mid-career journeymen the least likely.

Fans say the most cooperative Orioles are catcher Chris Hoiles and Manto. Plus Ripken, who on occasion is known to spend hours after a home game signing autographs. Brady Anderson, Manny Alexander and Arthur Rhodes are among the tougher catches.

Retired Orioles pitcher and current broadcaster Jim Palmer said there were always people who wanted his autograph, but not in the numbers he sees today. Money -- chiefly the increase in value of an autograph -- is to blame, he said. "I liked it better when I didn't think someone was going to sell it," Palmer said.

Recently, a young fan asked Palmer for an autograph and then asked who he was. "My name's Jim and I used to pitch," quipped the Hall of Famer.

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