Big League Stew

Getting Derek Jeter’s autograph can be humiliating

David Brown
Big League Stew

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(AP)

Autograph-seeking fans of Derek Jeter and the lengths to which they'll wait for him during the offseason are the focus of a remarkable story by Scott Cacciola in the Friday edition of the New York Times. Like serfs seeking scraps from the lord of the manor, signature-starved adults line up, typically starting about 3 a.m. every morning, outside of the New York Yankees complex in Tampa. They're anticipating the arrival of Jeter, who is rehabbing his broken ankle.

Sometimes all they get is a glimpse of Jeter driving in and out of the complex in his Mercedes-Benz with glinting mirrored windows. No autographs. On Tuesday, he signed 10 autographs for perhaps 40 hopefuls who repeatedly were reminded of their place by a Yankees employee named John Johnson. Because spring training hasn't started yet, there are different expectations for Jeter when it comes to autographs. And dehumanizing rules:

With the glowering demeanor of a drill sergeant, Johnson delivered a series of instructions that several members of his audience could recite from memory: “Single file! No chitchat! He doesn’t want to hear about your personal life, so don’t ask him about his!”

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Some of the fans in the Times story simply humiliate themselves rather than having John Johnson do it. And yet, that's not the most riveting part of the Times story. Instead, it's the virgin attitude of 21-year-old Yankees prospect Tyler Austin that stands out. He always makes himself available to sign, the Times writes. And it's an easy decision for him:

He recalled attending a Chattanooga Lookouts minor league game as an 8-year-old and positioning himself for postgame autographs by moving down the right-field line, just past a gate that led to the team’s locker room. A couple of players stopped. Many more did not.

“I remember it vividly,” said Austin, an outfielder who has hit .331 in the minors. “My mom looked at me and said, ‘One day you’re going to be there, and I swear if I ever see you walk by anybody and not sign a thing for them, I will come and personally slap you right across the face.’ ”

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Please allow Tyler Austin the pleasure of signing for you.

Austin's got an All-Star mom. Of course, Austin's never had the same volume of requests made of his time that Jeter has. And even though he has done quite well in the minors so far (batting .331/.406/.563 with 23 homers and 41 stolen bases in 677 plate appearances), it's unlikely he'll ever be hounded like Jeter, the most popular Yankees player since Joe DiMaggio, probably. Still, let's check back with Austin in a few years after a few thousand signatures.

Regarding Jeter, the Times is careful in being — "fair" is the word — for not signing every single autograph. If he's criticized at all, it's buried between the lines.

It is different when spring training officially starts, Jeter is in uniform and fans are allowed inside the Yankees’ complex. At that point, there are any number of moments when Jeter might interact with fans. The same applies during the regular season, when Jeter has even been seen chatting with people in box seats while he is kneeling on deck.

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OK, OK, we get it. He's not really a heartless baseball terminator. And if Jeter followed Tyler Austin's mom's advice to sign every single autograph for every fan, it's possible he might never get to the field on time for games. Still, there's something empty about checking your humanity at the door and not wasting Jeter's time by chatting him up so he can sign 10 autographs instead of three or four. It makes me want to no bother anyone ever again, even in non-autograph situations. Except maybe for Tyler Austin.

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