They arrive long before the bustling begins.
Globe Life Park is usually still a quiet, peaceful place when the small group begins to gather on the grass by some trees at the lip of the tunnel where Texas Rangers players and officials enter a parking garage under the stadium.
There, a group of diehard Rangers fans, typically no more than a dozen, all wearing team colors, sit and wait.
They’re autograph seekers and there’s a group just like them at every Major League ballpark.
Of course, autographs are nothing new to sports fans. Baseball players can be seen before most games signing along the first and third base lines at home or on the road. It’s part of the history of the game, one that players generally respect and enjoy.
Waiting by the tunnel, however, gives fans, if they’re lucky, an even more intimate encounter, a chance to interact with their heroes before they’re in uniform, before they put their game face on.
“It’s the interaction,” said Rangers super fan Terry Long of Mansfield. “A lot of times when they’re in there they’re in there to do their business. Here, you catch them before they actually have to get into that kind of mind-set. A lot of times the interaction out here is a little bit more casual. You can ask them questions or tell them, ‘Hey, you had a great game last night.’”
Long, 39, who grew up in Duncanville, is a season-ticket holder and makes it out early for autographs a couple of times each homestand.
Others, such as Tammie Decker and David Middleton, drive in as much as they can from Merkel, which is about 15 miles west of Abilene. Decker, who works at the Abilene State School, has been a partial season-ticket holder for years. For her, the autograph collecting is an escape.
“I come out here and meet new people, it’s kind of a stress relief for my job,” she said. “You just forget about that world back there until you have to go back, then it’s like pulling teeth.”
She has a Rangers’ room in her house where she displays all the collectibles: bats, helmets, batting gloves and jerseys, most signed by her favorite team.
Her prized possession, a Josh Hamilton banner that used to hang in the concourse at Globe Life Park, now hangs in her Rangers’ room. She bought it for a $100 at a Rangers FanFest. It’s now signed by Hamilton, of course.
“He signed it over the dugout one day,” she said. Hamilton and former Ranger David Murphy are two of her favorites.
“I felt easier talking to Josh Hamilton and David Murphy, both of them were really down to earth, easy going guys.”
Most of the Rangers players don’t hesitate to stop on occasion. Some, typically rookies like Keone Kela, stop routinely. As the high-end cars start entering the lot, the assembled group of regulars quickly identify the player by their car before he reaches the tunnel drive way.
Some players prefer to sign for kids only, hoping the spirit of the exchange means more to them and is not going to be up on eBay later that day.
Most of the regulars waiting for autographs over two days last week insisted that they don’t sell their memorabilia.
“When I’m dead and gone my daughter will probably sell everything,” Middleton said.
Players quickly learn to discern the avid fan from the professional dealer.
“I’m a hustler myself, so you get get a vibe,” Kela said. “I won’t sign more than two things unless it’s for a child. I really like signing more of the kids stuff rather than the adults. But you kind of get a sense of who is a genuine collector.”
If a fan pulls out a portfolio or binder filled with 8 by 10 photos, or has a slew of different baseball cards, Kela limits them to one signed item.
“You can kind of tell he’s fishing for something in quantity to flip them for quality,” he said.
Veterans such as Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland don’t hesitate to stop occasionally. Neither is too concerned with their signature being sold.
“I don’t worry about it,” Fielder said. “Sometimes my autograph is what they need to sell so they can get money. They can have it.”
Moreland feels the same way, but was mildly creeped out once when a friend sent him an Internet link of an “authenticated” signed item that included a picture of Moreland, in his truck, signing the item.
“You want to do well by them and kind of honor their commitment to you,” he said. “Most of those people out there are great so you try to stop and show them a little gratitude.”
Sean Robinson, 36, drove over from Texarkana to have Murphy, who was in town with the Cleveland Indians over the weekend, sign the last home run ball he hit as a Ranger. Robinson bought it on eBay for $40. Murphy was dropped off at the entrance of the tunnel and walked in, since the security guards know him from his days as a Ranger. The rest of the visiting team typically arrives by bus on the other side of the stadium. Murphy stopped to pose for pictures and sign autographs, including Robinson’s home run ball. Robinson was back the next day with his 7-year-old son, Aiden. Both were dressed in Indians’ garb to hopefully entice Murphy to sign more items.
Some players get frustrated seeing the same faces seeking their autograph over and over. For the diehard fan, though, you can never have enough of Derek Holland’s signature. Buy his jersey? Get it signed. Catch a ball he pitched? Get it signed. Have is rookie card? They want to get it signed.
“I love doing it, but the thing is when you’re trying to sign, you’re trying to give somebody that hasn’t gotten your signature a chance to get it but you can’t because the same people keep coming to the front,” said Holland, whose been seeing familiar faces at his public appearances (and near the tunnel) for years.
Overall, players enjoy the interaction as much as the fans. Most players understand that the fans pay their salaries at a base level.
“Without the fans we wouldn’t be Texas baseball, we wouldn’t have the culture and atmosphere that we have,” Kela said. “I feel like it’s my duty to do that, to give back to our community. The Texas Rangers have done a lot of for me as far as my life, so it’s only right that I return the favor.”
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760
Here’s a look at eBay listings for signed Rangers’ memorabilia:
2013 Topps Relic card
Game-used bat PSA certified
Game-used glove, 2007
2010 Official World Series ball
2011 World Series-used bat
Plastic toy Angels helmet