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BY DON FLUCKINGER • Only one of my pens was used by Mia Hamm. And ironically, it wasn’t my first-year Sheaffer Crest — a pen befitting an Olympic gold medalist — or one of my ornately patterned, sterling-capped “51”s. It wasn’t the Vac with flexy nib, lovely transparency, and gold-filled triple cap bands.
The day the soccer star signed her autograph for me, those Cadillac pens were back at home. Hamm used the Ford Pinto of my collection, a workaday c. 1952 green plastic Sheaffer Admiral Snorkel.
|Only one of my pens was used by Mia Hamm.|
I was with my friend Roger at Fenway Park, observing a ritual in which we partake a couple times a year: go in early on a game day and watch the parade of players pull in with their Mercedes, Lexuses, and BMWs flanked by a few Yukons, Escalades, Navigators, and Land Rovers. We’re not there to admire automotive craftsmanship, however; we’re there to hawk autographs.
Some players come out and sign autographs for the crowd of 20-30 people who always congregate behind the sawhorses the team puts up to keep the public out of the lot. The visiting players’ entrance is close by, too, and you can nab a few ’graphs from them as they come out of their taxis — if they’re in a good mood and you’re polite.
The proper complement of writing instruments for this activity includes Sharpies, always, for baseball cards. I only bring trading cards to sign, but Sharpies are the preferred choice for people who bring programs, posters, bats, and index cards as signatory substrate. Others bring baseballs, too, and for that, ballpoints are mandatory; the Sharpie ink sinks into the leather and after a year or so, your hard-fought signature turns into a faded shadow of itself.
My junk bag also includes a fountain pen and a journal; I jot down who signed, who was rude, who came with the coolest wheels, and of course, I always get a quote from this one guy who’s always there, an intense collector who has memorized every player and coach’s car make, model, and license plate number. Come game time, I write stuff about the game that won’t be in the next day’s newspaper and box score: observances about fans, little tics each player shows at bat or in the field, and different cosmetic changes I see around the park since the last time I was there.
Don’t ask me what I’ll ever do with this journal material; it could be one giant waste of time…but us writers always need to have a scrap of paper handy wherever we are to take down notes. To people around us, it’s a compulsion; to us, it’s a raison d’être.
The journal also fulfills a secondary function: when a player shows up to sign and I don’t happen to have that player’s card on hand, I thrust out my journal and a Sharpie to catch the sig. Among my baseball scrawlings you’ll find autographs from the likes of Cubs manager and former Red Sox slugger Don Baylor; current Royals and former Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper; Johnny Pesky, Sox shortstop from the Ted Williams era who I hope soon makes the Hall of Fame; and many other current players such as Joe Lawrence and Raul Ibanez.
For this outdoor application, the fountain pen that comes along for the ride must be tough (and cheap) enough to withstand the bumps and jostling that come from hanging out in a crowd of 35,000 sports fans. It needs to write clearly on the thick, textured, spongy paper of my journals (they came from the dollar bin at some forgotten stationer) — the nib must be firm, ideally medium fine, and wet. The pen can’t be too valuable, in case it takes an unscheduled trip to Fenway’s rough concrete floor when I jump up and cheer for a Manny Ramirez home run or a Pedro Martinez strikeout, commonplace happenings in this magical venue that John Updike once called a “lyric little bandbox.”
The Snorkel fits the bill.
That day, Hamm showed up with her current beau, Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. As is his habit, Nomar signed about a half-dozen autos and then ducked into the clubhouse. I didn’t even try to get his autograph; I’d missed him so many times before.
Hamm, though, had several hours to kill before she took her seat in the park, so she hung around for a while. She was a little surprised when we baseball fans recognized her and, I think, a little flattered when we asked for her autograph. I know she signs a lot of autographs, now more than ever since she’s quite possibly the best player in the new WUSA pro soccer league and the cornerstone of the Washington Freedom team. Even so, on this day, Mia knew she was in Nomar’s house.
Out of the context of the soccer field and in street clothes and sunglasses, this world-class athlete — who has her own Gatorade commercial — more closely resembled the wives, girlfriends, sisters, and children coming in with the other players than she did the players themselves.
So when the more astute sports fans dropped their pursuit of Nomar, Hamm obliged our requests for her signature. While I had been at the ready with Sharpies and trading cards for the players that had shown up earlier, I’d packed it all up in my bag by then. Even if I’d been ready for another ’graph, I had nothing for Hamm to sign — except my journal, in which moments before I’d been tallying which players had signed and which had blown us off.
But yet I was in line for an autograph, only my Snorkel in hand. No time to grab a Sharpie twenty feet away, with Hamm in front of me, ready to sign. I made the call, flipped the book open to a blank page, and handed it and the Snorkel to her.
Hamm looked at the pen, interested, and turned it around in her right hand, as if no one had ever handed her a fountain pen before. At first it struck me as odd to see someone look at a garden-variety Snorkel in wonder — we collectors handle these things all the time — but, come to think of it, Mia Hamm probably never had seen one before; perhaps she had never used a fountain pen, period.
Even so, she knew what part of the point to put to paper, and said to me as she signed good-naturedly, "I am not going to sign it ‘Nomar’s girlfriend,’ so my name and number will have to do." She handed it back to me, and the paper said: “Mia Hamm #9.”
Autograph seekers must be polite, even when it’s the visiting team’s batting-practice pitcher doing the signing. You profusely thank everyone who signs, and smile while you’re doing it, even when they act indifferent or even irritated toward you, the fan. (Sometimes it’s tempting, but you must never remind them it’s you who pays their salary by purchasing tickets.) Those are the rules. Word gets around which towns have ungrateful fans.
I was so in awe of Hamm and the experience of having this truly national titan of sport sign for me that I broke the rule and said nothing. After the fact, Roger said I at least smiled at her and nodded. I hope she took that as a thank-you. Hamm was very polite. I get the idea she actually enjoyed signing for us — in sharp contrast to many ballplayers.
After Hamm signed for me, she was done. She crossed between the sawhorses, hopped onto the sidewalk, and disappeared into the crowd as she walked down the street alongside the hot dog vendors and ballcap carts along Yawkey Way. I watched her walk away, a backpack slung over one shoulder.
On game days at Fenway, fans look for baseball players, not Olympic gold-medal soccer stars. While the least-known Red Sox player such as backup catcher Doug Mirabelli or midseason minor-league callup Juan "Big Thunder" Diaz couldn’t walk down the street without getting mobbed by fans, Mia Hamm looked like just another Boston University student with her shades and backpack.
And that’s the story. While it’s nice to have the regal Vacumatics in my collection, the Sheaffers with gold-filled caps and barrels, and the Skylines with nibs seemingly broad as the ocean is wide…none of those fine pens was ever used by Mia Hamm.
That job was left to my plain, pastel-colored, dime-a-dozen, not-even-a-White-Dot Snorkel acquired for a measly twelve and a half bucks on eBay. It’s still not the prettiest, rarest, or best pen in my collection, but it will forever be a favorite.
Further Reading: Go for the Goal: A Champion's Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life, by Mia Hamm, Aaron Heifetz
There’s no “me” in "Mia," which might explain why she’s had so much success on and off the soccer field — and why teammates love playing soccer with her.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.|