America has always been a nation of seekers. Some seek material wealth, others seek spiritual enlightenment, and still others seek autographs.
Yes, autographs, and specifically, the autographs of baseball players on said player's baseball card. This pastime within our pastime is practiced throughout the nation, at ballparks large and small, Sharpie-to-cardboard application the goal.
Last week I visited Dwyer Stadium, home of the Batavia Muckdogs, where I met a devout autograph seeker by the name of Ted Wasko. His primary objective that evening was to secure the autographs of the visiting Mahoning Valley Scrappers coaching staff -- manager Ted Kubiak, hitting coach Phil Clark and pitching coach Greg Hibbard -- all of whom played in the Majors.
Later in the ballgame, his mission accomplished, I spoke with Wasko about his hobby.
It all started with collecting baseball cards, an endeavor with which Ted and his twin brother, Steven, became enamored during a childhood spent in Madison Heights, Virginia. Ted points out with pride that he is the older of the twins, having emerged from the womb three minutes prior to Steven.
"I was in second grade in 1974. Some kid gave me a package of baseball cards, one Topps package, and it started from there," said Wasko, enjoying the action at Dwyer Stadium from a seat directly behind home plate. "In fact I can still go in the collection and find the ones from that pack, because they were so beat up."
With this lone wax pack serving as the impetus, the brothers Wasko began amassing a formidable card collection. The collection is stored at Steven's house in Virginia, and Ted estimates that it now contains a quarter of a million cards.
• All the features and blogs from Ben's trips »
The Waskos didn't just enjoy baseball cards; they could also be regularly found attending ballgames in nearby Lynchburg (currently home to the Carolina League's Hillcats). Why not combine these two endeavors?
"We'd been to so many Minor League games, especially in Lynchburg," said Wasko. "We realized, 'We've got so many of these cards. Why don't we just go to the ballpark, bring the cards of these former Major Leaguers [on the coaching staff] and get them to autograph them? We started doing that around 2000."
Ted now lives in Lockport, New York, equidistant from Batavia and Buffalo. He regularly attends games in those cities as well as Rochester, communicating with his brother back in Virginia in advance of each stadium excursion.
"We have all of our cards databased in his computer. So I can say to my brother, 'I want to find such and such a card,"' said Wasko. "He puts the name in the computer, has the cards in binder, can go to whatever binder it's in and find it in a couple minutes.
Muckdogs fan Ted Wasko waits by the outfield fence to ask for autographs at a recent game. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)
"Today I had cards for the three coaches from Mahoning Valley," he continued. "With Greg Hibbard, I had a couple of his Major League cards. … I get here when the gates open, an hour before first pitch, and since they're the coaches, they're a little older and heavier and you can pick out who they are. So I just asked very nicely, "Mr. Hibbard, would you please sign some cards?" He looks at me, says 'In a few moments.' He got set up in the bullpen, came over and signed all six of the cards that I had for him. Sometimes they come over immediately, sometimes they say 'I have a little work to do, I'll come back later.' Well, you're on the hook, just make sure you come back! And once they do, I just say, 'Thank you very much and best of luck in the game tonight.'"
In addition to getting their old baseball cards signed, the Wasko brothers acquire new cards in the form of Minor League team sets.
"Especially in the smaller ballparks, the clubhouse is right on the field and players have to walk by you. It's very easy to stop them when they're walking to the dugout and say 'Hey, could you sign a card?'" said Wasko. "In the lower Minor Leagues, they're amazed that they even have a card of them and they'll sign it.
"It's really fun, to watch the [Major League Baseball] All-Star Game and see the starting lineups," he continued. "'Oh, I got him to sign in Lynchburg, I got him to sign in Batavia.' It's just something that's a hobby. We're not selling them on eBay."
Wasko said that he and his brother have now amassed some 10,000 autographed cards, the result of a dogged pursuit of their chosen hobby.
"I just like going to baseball games, and especially Minor League Baseball games, because it's summertime, the weather's nice and it's a good value," he said. "My brother and I always say: If we get one autograph, that's more than we walked into the ballpark with."