Recently, while watching the local news, I saw a story about NASCARís Bobby Labonte, who was making an appearance in our area for a meet-and-greet and autograph session. While watching, I saw a-close up of the driver signing some 8X10 glossies with a Sharpie. And, while the name was boldly written, it also bore little resemblance to the twelve letters that comprise his name.
In other words, what I saw him signing was 100 percent totally illegible. The only way someone who wasnít there that evening could tell that the marking was Labonteís signature was that it was on a picture of him.
Had it been, say, on a race program or in a page in an autograph book, besides the person who beseechingly awaited the treasure that some deem a celebrityís autograph to be, I will tell you that no one, not even one schooled in the art of deciphering illegible cursive, could have matched signature to signee.
I will tell you I donít have a lot of firsthand experience with autograph collecting lately. For a grown man, especially at 61 years old, to be standing in line to ask another guy for his autograph to me is a bit disturbing, unless, of course, that signature is going to come at the bottom of a personal check made out to me.
However, I do find myself in a pretty fair number of sports collectible stores in my travels as a lifelong sports fan and certainly have seen a lot of signed pieces. And, much of what I see really is quite pathetic when it comes to an athleteís willingness to take an extra second or two to make certain his signature is legible.
Any of you whoíve seen the autograph on a jersey or photo of Joe Montana know what Iím talking about. Iíve also seen pieces signed by Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and former multiple Cy Young winner Greg Maddox, and they are absolutely unreadable.
I donít know. It seems to me that such men who have been given so very much because of their preternaturally special athletic skill set should hold themselves to a higher standard when signing their names for someone whose allegiance to them has been partly responsible for paying such handsome dividends. Thatís especially true since many of these signings are done for hefty personal appearance fees. For many of you, youíll receive a personal appearance fee. Hereís how it works: You make a personal appearance at your job for several consecutive work days, and youíll receive your personal appearance fee in the form of something called a paycheck. However, I think youíll be expected to do a bit more than sign your name for an hour or two.
Certainly, I know a lot of these signatures wouldnít pass muster in classrooms, where teachers, kind of, have a rule that goes like this: ďIf I canít read it, I wonít grade it.Ē This former teacher certainly did.
I will tell you that I still have a number of autographs from my younger days when I counted an athleteís signature as a treasure, and I notice when I look at them that there are no such illegibility issues with the John Hancocks of men such as Reggie Jackson, Bart Starr, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Don Larson and Bob Feller.
Now, perhaps itís coincidence that I just happened to collect the signatures of men who had better penmanship and, perhaps, some other athletes of yesteryear wrote their names as poorly as those who came later. But maybe thereís another reason. Maybe they were a bit more thankful for the fans who gave their games meaning and helped to line their pockets with cash. Maybe they took as much pride in signing their name as they did in demonstrating their athletic skills. And maybe they felt it wasnít too much to ask to take an extra second or two to sign something readily decipherable.
With the current guys, maybe Iíll give a bit of a pass to Major League catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and not castigate him too strongly if his signature goes a little sideways at the end, say, around the 16th letter or so of the 20 that he has to write.
As for the rest of you† ó Bobby, Joe, Michael, Tiger, Greg and the others† ó Iíll end with the four words that have been yelled at many a referee and umpire by coaches and managers who felt their performance wasnít up to standard.
ďYouíre better than that!Ē