Canzano: There's an imposter in the outfield at Stanford
Autographs are dicey territory for a sports fan.
I graduated high school and was focused on enrolling in community college in the summer of 1989. I played both football and baseball. About 45 miles from where I grew up, Stanford University’s baseball program was coming off recent back-to-back national championships.
Mike Mussina was a tentpole on the Cardinal pitching staff at the time. He hung around Sunken Diamond that summer, throwing once in a while in the bullpen. A minor-league infielder named David Esquer, who played shortstop on Stanford’s 1987 College World Series title team, took ground balls and hit in the cages.
Also, I was there — making $8 an hour.
Stanford coach Mark Marquess had two College World Series championships. He had a load of young talent, including Mussina, David McCarty and Jeffrey Hammonds. But what the coach didn’t have were enough bodies to meet an increased demand for the annual Stanford University Summer Baseball Camp. Also, NCAA rules at the time prohibited the employment of student athletes.
Marquess hired me and several of my community college teammates as stand-in baseball-camp instructors. We arrived at Stanford, met Marquess and the other coaches, and were assigned rooms in the campus dorms.
An equipment manager sized us up and fitted us in Stanford baseball uniforms. I pulled on Cardinal team-issued baseball pants, a jersey, stirrups, a belt and a baseball cap with the trademark block “S” on the front.
I walked onto the field.
“Will you sign my T-shirt?” one of the campers asked.
I’ve thought about that moment dozens of times over the years. The kid couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. I wore cleats and eye black. I chewed gum. I was wearing a Stanford uniform. By all appearances, as we ran around the complex instructing players on footwork and hitting, I looked every bit like a Cardinal baseball player. But I was a paid imposter.
“You don’t want me to sign your shirt,” I told the kid. “Go get Mussina or Esquer to sign it.”
He walked off, dejected.
I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. Because on one hand, I didn’t want to scribble on the kid’s shirt with a Sharpie marker and mislead him into thinking I actually was a player from one of Stanford’s national-title teams. On the other hand, was I over-thinking it? Was I ruining the kid’s experience? I mean, would he get picked up from camp that day, get in the car and tell his mom that some jerk Stanford baseball player refused to sign for him? Should I have just signed?
Think on that while I tell you another story.
Years ago, I got on eBay and hunted down a Joe DiMaggio autographed baseball. It came with a certificate of authenticity. I paid $150 for it. Then, I went in search of a signed Ted Williams baseball and did the same thing.
I was in for $300 total.
I collected the signatures of members of the “500 Home Run” club. I got Henry Aaron and Willie Mays to sign baseballs in person at a baseball-card show in downtown San Francisco. I tracked down signatures from Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks and Eddie Matthews over the years, too. But Williams and DiMaggio were big gets for me and I proudly displayed those two baseballs, side-by-side, for the last 15 years on a shelf in a room at home where I work.
There’s rampant fraud in the sports memorabilia industry. Authentication of cards, balls, bats and jerseys has become a billion-dollar industry. But I bought those DiMaggio and Williams baseballs years before any of that. Also, I had certificates that were signed, stamped, and official-looking from the dealer on eBay.
He had a 100-percent feedback rating and included an official letter with the DiMaggio ball that announced, “The autographed baseballs of Joe D. were obtained at various signings at shows in Cherry Hill, N.J. They were all face-to-face with Joe D. and one of the officials our company. We were in good standing with Joe D. at the time of his death. We miss him greatly.”
James Spence Authentication is one of the best in the business. The family-run company is on its third generation and has multiple verification-center locations. I got to thinking early in 2021 that it was time I sent in my baseballs and got them authenticated.
I filled out the paperwork and carefully packaged the balls up, including the certificates of authenticity. I shipped them off, insured and tracked, with the United States Postal Service. Then, I waited for JSA to send them back.
I’ll never forget the look on the face of that jilted kid on the field at Stanford. I even discussed the dilemma with some other camp instructors between sessions of the camp later that day.
The campers definitely believed they were on the field alongside bonafide Stanford Baseball players. Their parents were paying a premium for the camp. Was the right move to not sign for them? Or to sign autographs, but with an indecipherable name? Or just use our real signatures and field awkward questions later in the week? Or should we just forge a “Mike Mussina” or “Jeffrey Hammonds” signature and call it good?
The responses were all over the place.
Some argued that non-sensical scribble was the simple solution. Others offered that the kids were unlikely to ever sell their camp shirts. They weren’t paying for the autograph, after all, and probably just wanted to make a memory. Why not give them one? One other instructor confessed that he had already signed with the name of a star player on the current roster — a young, gifted Stanford first baseman named David McCarty.
I bounced between the camps.
I scribbled a few intentionally-sloppy signatures, at first. Then, noted that none of the campers ever asked who I was or what position I played. I tried a couple of times to manage a “Jeffrey Hammonds” or “Mike Mussina” signature but this wasn’t at all like forging a note from your parents in high school.
Attempting an unfamiliar signature, while using a felt-tip pen and cotton T-shirt, while standing on a baseball diamond is a high-wire act. As the campers bounced away, smiling, I sometimes examined my work on the shoulder of their T-shirt and shook my head at the absurdity. Nobody could ever distinguish any of it. I resorted, for the sake of time and my conscience, to simply scribbling a series of non-sensical loops and dashes. The kids seemed happy. That’s what mattered.
James Spence III is one of the key authenticators at JSA. He performed the evaluation of my signed baseballs. They arrived back in a couple of weeks with a detailed analysis.
The baseballs signed by Killebrew, Mays, Aaron, Banks and Matthews were deemed “authentic.” They were marked with tiny markings, hologram stickers and notations. The package included detailed descriptions and documentation that verified their authenticity.
The Williams and DiMaggio baseballs?
“Fakes,” Spence later told me in a telephone call. “Everyone wants a Williams and DiMaggio autograph. But because of the high demand those two are among the most common forgeries in sports.”
He’s studied millions of signatures from famous athletes. He has any and all variations of them on file in the company’s computer system. Spence also has examples of the known fakes and common forgeries at his disposal. He knows the brush strokes, pen-pressure, habits, writing angles, and where Williams and DiMaggio liked to sign on the ball. He even knows how their signatures evolved over time and has a chronological database at his disposal.
“Usually, I can tell within seconds if it’s authentic,” he said.
I’m out $300.
It’s a valuable lesson learned. Maybe it’s karma for the signature I didn’t sign. Or for the clumsy forgeries that were attempted in that Cardinal uniform that summer. Or maybe all of this is just a fun story to tell.
That minor-league shortstop, Esquer, is now the Stanford head baseball coach. The Cardinal will play in the NCAA Tournament this week and try to get back to Omaha for the College World Series. Mussina is in the Hall of Fame. As a member of the Baseball Writer’s Association, I cast a “yes” vote for the guy.
I wonder, though, what became of the little kid I refused to sign for.
I’ll bet he went to Cal.
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