Five hundred and ninety-three men have suited up to play for the Tampa Bay Rays since the team’s inaugural season in 1998. St. Pete Beach natives Jennifer McKenney and her dad, Jeff McKenney, have baseballs signed by every single one of them – even the role players who’ve come up to the Big Leagues for little more than a cup of coffee. They say no one else has a complete signature collection like theirs that encompasses every player who has played for an American pro sports franchise.
But they’ve had to get creative, and a little lucky, to keep their 22-year streak alive in socially distanced coronavirus times. And with the team’s future in St. Pete in doubt, it’s unclear how long this passion project that’s brought together a father, his daughter and their favorite team will continue.
“I never intended to become an autograph hound,” says Jeff McKenney, 62, who moved to St. Pete Beach in first grade. “It started off as something to do during batting practice and has grown from there into a family tradition.”
Mr. McKenney took Jennifer and his son, Raymond, to the first Rays Fan Fest in 1997 and purchased season tickets the very first day they went on sale. Jennifer McKenney recalls that back then, there was no turf in Tropicana Field – it was just a concrete floor. Despite the unsightly environs, her love affair with the team took shape that day as they picked out their seats in the right field bleachers, a perch where they still sit and where they’ve made dozens of lifelong friends over the years.
Starting at age 9, Ms. McKenney says they missed only about 10 games in the team’s first 10 years, usually because of illness or because she had a baseball or softball game. Her own baseball career came to a screeching halt at age 12, when one of her front teeth was knocked out while she was trying to lay down a bunt.
“Luckily, I had a teammate’s dad who was an orthodontist,” she recalls. “He went into a Waffle House, put my tooth in a cup of milk to preserve it and then did a root canal on me a few days later.”
The mishap didn’t put her off on the sport, though. Not by a long shot. Jennifer McKenney says that their typical Rays routine throughout her childhood was to arrive at games two hours before game time, in plenty of time for batting practice – the perfect time to get autographs.
“I’m ready to walk in the minute they open the gates,” says Jeff, who used to work in the publishing industry and now works nights in security.
Jennifer says they’d often get back to St. Pete Beach late on school nights, but would almost never leave games early. “We loved every minute of it,” says Jennifer, who is now a pharmacy technician. “You never had to drag us to a game.”
There was no master plan at the beginning to collect every signature. They started slowly, the collection grew that first year and pretty soon they realized they could get every player’s signature, mostly after batting practice sessions. “After the first year, my daughter said, “Let’s do it again next year,” Jeff recalls.
And so they did just that in 1999 and then again every other year since then. Raymond was part of their autograph collective family collective until he lost interest in the hunt as a teenager. Over the years, they’ve honed their routine down to a science. “Each ball gets placed in a UV light resistant acrylic case,” says Jennifer. “Dad builds a decorative wooden display case each one gets put in, and then each year gets its own case.”
They say that most players have appreciated their cordial approach. “Dad always told us, ‘don’t bother them often, don’t ask the same guy twice and don’t get greedy,’” Jennifer says.
But she admits that its been a challenge to get some players to sign in between the seams over the years. One star, whom they prefer not to name, once rolled their eyes at them and made a sarcastic comment, warning them not to sell his signature. And Pat Burrell was “never pleasant or accessible,” but even he eventually succumbed – on the very last day he played with the team in 2009.
When asked to describe what it feels like to snag the signature of an illusive target, Jeff says the feeling is more relief than exhilaration these days. “Mostly it’s just ‘Ah good, one down and now let’s focus on the next one.’”
Some players have illegible signatures, and so Jennifer says they have to be well organized to keep them all straight, particularly during spring training workouts, when she and her father fan out with bags full of dozens of balls to four or five fields where up to 70 players are practicing.
“You can tell a lot about players by how they sign,” says Jeff. “A guy who takes the time to make a really nice signature recognizes that not everyone who wants an autograph is looking to sell it.”
Jeff McKenney says that a few players, most notably Bubba Trammell and Mickey Callaway, had particularly lovely signatures. “Some guys create a real piece of art for you with their signature.”
He says that some players start off their careers with great signatures but as they become more famous – and tired of signing for fans – their signatures become sloppier as time goes on. Rocco Baldelli, for example, had a great signature that became a bit more slapdash over the years, Jeff says.
The McKenneys keep their collection in climate controlled storage and bring it out once a year to show off at Rays Fan Fest, which won’t happen this year, at least not in its typical incarnation, due to the pandemic. A few times, people have opened up their checkbooks and asked they how much they want for the collection or an individual ball. The answer has always been a resounding “no thanks.”
“We don’t don’t do it for the money,” Jennifer explains. “My entire childhood is in that collection. My memories of my family are wrapped up there. That’s our whole life. I’m 32 and still have a great bond with my dad because we share this common goal of maintaining the connection and history of our team.”
Though they say they won’t sell, Jeff McKenney admits that maintaining the tradition becomes more of a burden each year. “The novelty of it has worn off on me,” he says. “At my age, sometimes I feel kind of awkward asking 20-year-old kids for autographs. But if you’re invested in something, you’re going to be hesitant to leave it. After 22 years of doing this and all the time we’ve spent, it can be a hassle. I don’t wake up in the morning saying, “Oh, I can’t want to chase autographs today.”
Their family hobby has grown more expensive over the years and they now have to get more creative to snag signatures. The cost of a dozen MLB balls is now $195, more than double what it was when they started. Jeff says he gave up golf years ago to finance the hobby. Last year they had to pay for two signatures on Ebay for the first time ever, for players who signed with the team after Spring Training they never could get access to.
And Jennifer contacts players on Instagram to try to line up autographs through the mail. She sends a pre-paid envelope for the players to return the balls in, but sometimes they don’t do it and she’s out the money for the ball plus the postage. That said, she says she’s been surprised by how receptive and cooperative many of the players are when she explains their family tradition. “A bunch of them have told me they think what we’re doing is really cool,” she says.
Jeff McKenney says that despite the challenges of autograph collecting during a pandemic, the only thing that can stop them is if the Rays move out of Tampa Bay. “Otherwise, there’s no finish line unless we drop dead,” he says.