I'm throwing a little changeup for this week's Draft Q&A. The subject for this week's interview was at most of the major high school showcases this summer, but he's not a player. This week, I spoke to 24-year-old autograph collector Jeff Sullivan from Belchertown, Mass. Sullivan's collection focuses on draft prospects and he details his scores on Twitter.
Obviously you're a big baseball fan. When did you first get into baseball and what was it that kind of drew you into the game?
I've been a diehard baseball fan my whole life, but the first time I got into the high school stuff was the 2005 Aflac game, watching Justin Upton and Cameron Maybin and all that. After that, that's pretty much when I got hooked. My dad and I went down to the '06 game in Aberdeen, Maryland, and we saw Mat Latos start against Jordan Walden. After that, I've been to all the big event in the summer, I try to get to.
Did you first get into major league baseball?
Yeah, major leagues first. Actually my first book I ever read—no lie, I didn't read in high school or anything—was Baseball America's 2003 Prospect Handbook. I think it was Mark Teixeira on the cover of that one, and ever since then that's the book I've read, and that's what really got me into amateur stuff.
You're a Red Sox fan, right?
So, did you grow up going to any major league games or minor league games or even Cape Cod League games?
I probably went to 30 Red Sox game a year with my dad. We used to skip school when I was really young. Back when, there wasn't as big of a following then. After they won the World Series, it all changed kind of. But I would go get autographs there. We would leave around 7 o' clock and get there around 8 (a.m.) for a 1 o' clock game and get autographs there when they were coming into the parking lot and all that.
So, collecting autographs—was that something your dad was interested in, as well?
Not really, just more for the experience for me. He got me into it when I was like 5 or 6 and I probably have, now, 25 or 30,000 autographs, easy.
I started getting major leaguers, only went to Sox games, but for me the fun is in the draft—getting kids before they're drafted and seeing their whole careers play out, pretty much.
Sure. Well, we'll get into that a little more. I've got questions about that. But let's go back to when you would go to Sox games and get major leaguers' autographs. What are some of your best memories doing that?
I got a bunch of the big ones, but getting Cal Ripken and getting A-Rod when he was with Seattle, that's probably my favorite autograph I still have. Some of my best days I had—when Oakland came in, I got (Barry) Zito, (Tim) Hudson, (Mark) Mulder and (Miguel) Tejada all on the same day. I didn't have any of them before that. That was one of the best days I've had. The Yankees were always one of the best teams I got—(Roger) Clemens, (Derek) Jeter, (Jason) Giami, they were all great. So my collection's pretty good.
When you were getting big league autographs, were you having them sign baseballs or cards? What were they autographing for you?
Always cards. I have probably 30 or 40 balls signed, but for me I love having the cards because balls fade over time and stuff. The cards are always the same and a good memory, too.
Were you one of these guys camping out at the hotel, or were you always just around Fenway?
Never at the hotel—never did the hotel before. I always just got (to the stadium) early and then, when they drive their car in, the Sox would always drive into the Sox parking lot and you actually have to lay down. Back when I was 8 or 9, you'd have to lay down on the ground and they'd come by and grab the card, under the fence while they were walking in, to sign it. The visiting team would always take cabs in, so when they get out of the cabs there, you have to know their face within five seconds from when they get out of the cab and into the park.
I thought you were going to say you had to lay down in the road, so they couldn't move anymore.
No. I might have done that too, but . . .
Now that you've been collecting all these years, and you said you have 30,000 autographs, what would you say are your three most-prized autographs?
A-Rod is probably my favorite, just because I got him when he was a rookie in Seattle. My favorite player of all-time is Manny Ramirez. I actually only got three throughout all the years. He was tough to get. So, he's up there. And my favorite player now is Courtney Hawkins. I probably have 10 of Courtney Hawkins and he's been my favorite player since his sophomore year, probably. That's who I'm pretty much collecting now.
Oh, so the 30,000—that's not unique. You have multiple autographs of some players.
I have easy 50 Variteks, probably 30 Derek Lowes, just because I would get 'em every time they'd come in. I would always just get one, but I probably went to 30 games a year. Varitek signed every time, Nomar signed every time.
They sign a lot of autographs, but did they ever catch on and say, 'Hey, I've signed for you 30 times.'
Never, actually. But, it was awesome.
Do you have any funny stories or moments that really stand out?
Manny Ramirez took my card, which was one of the coolest ones ever. We were in Toronto and my brother and I were there before the game, and nobody gets autographs in Toronto before the game. It was outside at the cab, and he had never seen the card before, and he asked me, 'I've never seen this card before. Do you mind if I take it?' So, I had one more card and he signed it like, letter-perfect, and he took my card and still has it, I hope.
Letter-perfect . . . is that autograph lingo?
Most autographs, especially Manny and the big players, they just give a little scribble when they get too big-time, because they sign so much. But he actually took his time to sign every letter. It was a perfect autograph and that's—for Manny especially—rare.
I imagine big leaguers have, but now that you're collecting high schoolers, have you ever had players turn you down?
I've had two or three players turn me down. Corey Oswalt, I think he's with the Mets now, but he said no. A couple others, but there's only been two or three. I think with (Oswalt), it was a parent or an agent or something like that, that just didn't know.
So, you've moved on from big leaguers. Now, you're just focusing on the draft, is that right?
Only draft, pretty much. When I go to a big league game now, if I see a big prospect like (Mike) Trout or (Bryce) Harper come through, I'll try to get them. But I pretty much have most of the big leaguers now, through the minor leagues and draft and all that.
I have one more question, going back to the big league stuff. When you were at these games, trying to get autographs from the opposing team . . . the guy Zach Hample, who collects all the foul balls, I know one of his tricks is that he always has hats for both teams. Did your allegiance ever stray?
Never. Always the Sox stuff. Even when I was on the Yankees side, I was always in Red Sox stuff.
OK. So, of your 30,000 autographs, how many are from this year's draft class alone?
2013? Of the top 500 or so, I have to have at least 400 of just the high school (players). And I go to the Cape, because it's probably two hours away, so I go to the Cape once a week, at least, and get all them. So that's another hundred, easy. I get everybody. Everybody that's at the big showcases, from the top-ranked player to the kid that's not really even high-ranked, I get them all, just to follow their careers and all that.
Who are some of the top guys that you're still hoping to get this year?
Kohl Stewart's the big one. I've had no luck with Kohl. He's signed for other people, but I'm like 0-for-3 with Kohl. I never saw him in person. After that, Jonah Wesely's a big one, Casey Shane, and for college guys, Jonathan Gray, who pretty much jumped out of nowhere.
I'm just trying to picture how you store all these. What does your room look like?
Well, I just moved into my apartment and the first thing that went up was a Courtney Hawkins 8×10, framed, and a Carlos Correa 8×10. Both of them I got at the National Showcase that PG has. Those were the first two things, and then every year on draft day, I get a 50-card holder board. I don't know if you know what they look like, but there's like five rows of 10 and they can hold cards in them. And then once every pick is selected—like when Correa got picked, I take my autograph of him out and put it in the first slot, and so on and so forth. When (Byron) Buxton went two, take his out, put it right there. That's how I do my draft day.
Did you have everybody last year?
On draft day, I had 45 of 50, and now I have 49 of 50. I just need Eddie Butler from Radford.
Nice. Well, I don't think anyone collects the autographs of high school players casually. I think that's probably an all-or-nothing kind of hobby, but you're more dedicated than most. Tell me about some of the trips you've taken to collect the autographs of high school players.
Let's see. My dad and I flew to Aflac four years in a row, in California. My girl and I—my girl is the girlfriend of the year, every year.
I'm going to get to that later, yes.
She's amazing, but we drove to Chicago (for the Under Armour game) with my good friend Jeremy and Elvira. And then we've gone to Fort Myers, so any event there, I just stay with him and do it.
Oh, so that was perfect for you when PG National was there a couple years ago.
Oh, it was fantastic, yeah. And North Carolina, we go to Tournament of Stars—that's my favorite event of the year, by far. So, we've gone all over. This year, we're going to Area Codes for the first time, so I'm pumped about that.
Aside from when you went out to Aflac with your dad, these are all road trips. These are long drives!
Chicago was a good 15 hours. We drove through the night. My girl probably put in 10 hours, just driving straight. We didn't even stay the night. We drove, went to the game, and then drove all the way back. It was crazy.
Wow. And I was going to say—another aspect of this is that it's not a cheap hobby. I mean, in addition to the cost of traveling, most of these players don't have baseball cards or anything, so you're printing out 8x10s or pictures for them to sign. You're making them by yourself, basically.
Once the rosters come out, that's when it starts. I make 8x10s of all of them—all the big events like Aflac or Under Armour, I'll make 8x10s of all of them because those kids are all pro-bound, pretty much.
How long does that take?
A solid five or six hours, at least, for even the Under Armour or Aflac-type stuff. I'll make two or three cards of every player and then I'll make 8x10s. It's a process, for sure.
You don't have to tell me how much everything costs, but do you set some sort of budget for yourself? Or, what do you do to fund this hobby of yours?
No lie, I pretty much work during the year so I can enjoy my summer. This is a big passion for me, obviously. It's not cheap, it's a good amount of cash, but it just wouldn't be the same if I didn't do it. I love it. The players are awesome. The interactions you get with guys who are in the bigs now, it's just awesome.
What do you do for a job?
I'm actually a meat cutter, a butcher. I have two butcher jobs, juggling between them. That's what I do.
And then there's the other cost involved, and that's that you mail autograph requests to players, right? Tell me about that.
I probably mail out, when it's close to draft time, about 15 or 20 per week. I like to mail out 8x10s of the big guys I miss. I just sent out 15 a couple days ago. I sent an 8×10 to Kevin Ziomek and Ian Clarkin, two of the big lefties, and then I'll send to some of the underclassmen who are ranked high and some of the other kids I missed throughout the summer.
That's time consuming, as well. How much time would you say you spend during an average week on autograph collecting?
It's three or four hours a week. I'll just get my stuff ready on a weekend day, when I have off, make all my cards for the week, get all my stamps for the week, and then pretty much throughout the week just do a couple a night and send them out each day.
I hate checking the mailbox because it's just junk mail and bills, but you must love going home and getting the mail.
Oh, that's the highlight of my day, every day.
Who did you get mail from recently?
Colton Hock—he's a big 2014.
You're already working on 2014s, too?
Oh yeah, I already have some 2015s, too, like the really big ones—Daz Cameron, I have him already. He's a big prospect, and Kyle Dean, he's a 2015 and one of the nicest kids you'll ever meet. He sent me a good amount of stuff already—USA cards, and stuff.
Mike Cameron was my favorite player growing up, since I grew up in Seattle. I don't collect a lot, but I did collect Mike Cameron stuff and I have about 300 different Mike Cameron cards. You mentioned that Courtney Hawkins is one of your favorite players. What other players have you enjoyed watching at the events you've been to?
Courtney's absolutely the nicest kid you'll ever meet in your life, and as a first-rounder, you're not going to meet many kids like him. I've had a favorite player almost every year, but my first favorite player that I met through all this stuff was Josh Vitters in 2007. He was awesome—nice kid. Chris McFarland in 2011, he's with the Brewers now. And this year is probably the closest I've been with a bunch of guys. There's probably 10 or 15 guys that I talk to weekly, or so—Dalton Dulin, Jarret DeHart, Reese McGuire, Mark Ecker, John Sternagel, Jesse Roth . . . a bunch of kids.
If you look at autographs of guys who played in the '50s or '60s, they're all pretty cool or unique, but it seems like kids these days are typing from the time they're 2 years old. Penmanship is really a lost art. In your opinion, which players have the nicest-looking signatures?
Lance McCullers sticks out right away—his is awesome. Hawkins is great. This year, Stephen Alemais is probably my favorite autograph.
I remember seeing a picture of a Mike Trout autograph, and it looked like just a couple squiggly lines. Which players could use a little more style in their autograph?
Trout for one, for sure. A.J. Bogucki from this class could spice it up—he's pretty much printing right now. I get a lot of that from first-timers that pretty much just have no idea. Connor Jones from this class, too.
You mentioned this earlier, but I've seen your girlfriend out at games with you and I've told you: If she's willing to do that, you better put a ring on it. Have you done that yet?
Not yet, but we're hoping pretty soon.
All right. This is going in print, so you're committed now.
I hope she doesn't read this.
How do you convince a girl to go to high school showcase games with you and help you get autographs?
Well, we've been dating for close to five years now. So, the first time was pretty much just because she liked me a lot back then. It was a national showcase and she got everybody. I was just watching, pretty much, and she got a lot of the autographs, because I figured that players would rather sign for a good-looking girl than a guy like me. It was more of an experience for them. But after year one, it went into year two summer and that was it. She was like, 'I'm retired now.' She does a lot of the stuff—she makes a lot of the cards and stuff. She's awesome, and she drives most of the time on the trips.
Did any players hit on her, or anything like that?
I try not to watch that, but yeah—definitely.
One of the criticisms you hear about autograph collecting becoming more of an adult industry, instead of kids, is that you're just going to turn around and sell it on eBay. Have you ever done that?
Not once. I probably have about 30,000 autographs and I've never sold any. I give them away to diehard fans I know up here who love a certain player, but I've never sold an autograph in my life. It's all my personal collection and I have autographs of guys who never even made it to pro ball—played D-I and fizzled out, and I still keep them all.
It seems like there's a sense of camaraderie among autograph collectors. I'm sure you get to know the other guys you see doing this at events. Is there ever any beef or drama between collectors? Are there any autograph collector rivalries?
Not really in ours, because there's so few of them. If we meet another guy who does the same thing, it's pretty cool to see what they collect, how they collect it and stuff. That's the fun part. It's more of a passion at this level, where people really love the draft and the whole process of it.
The internet has probably been huge for you guys, hasn't it?
Absolutely. Twitter has made everything so much easier to keep in touch with players and ask players to sign and stuff. This year's class was the best I can remember of nice kids and people willing to sign, and stuff like that.
There's a reality show about everything these days, so when Baseball America gets its own TV channel, I'm going to pitch a reality show about autograph collectors. Are you in?
I am definitely in. That's my dream. Whatever can help me get Kohl Stewart's autograph.
What do you like to do when you're not collecting autographs?
It's a year-round hobby for me, actually. It's pretty much work, girlfriend and (autographs). I love the draft. I'll follow it every day. I'll check Baseball America, Perfect Game, all the draft sites.