In April 1998, Jeff McKenney and his kids, Jennifer and Raymond, began collecting autographs of their new favorite team…the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays.
Years later, the trio has put together a massive collection of autographs that includes every player, manager or coach that’s ever called Tropicana Field home. And, recently, their collection of more than 400 baseballs has been mentioned by ESPN’s Keith Olbermann and featured online at si.com.
HOVG: I’ve gotta know…what made you start?
JEFF McKENNEY: I purchased season tickets above the Devil Rays bullpen, at the time located directly below us in right field, for the inaugural 1998 season. A few weeks into the season, some of the players recognized us as regulars and starting tossing batting practice balls to my kids. Before long they had a five-gallon bucket of balls. That's when the idea of collecting autographs started. The kids starting getting the better quality balls signed then gave the remainder to kids that weren't fortunate enough to snag one during pre-game batting practice. By the end of the season, we were only missing a couple of autographs so I went to work locating the players. I knew we had an interesting collection but don't recall wanting to attempt the same for a second year. All I recall from the second season was the Rays spring training complex was close to my workplace so I was there almost every day getting balls signed. Back then, the only big names on the roster were Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff, so most guys were easy marks. Surprising the two stars were usually good about signing too. By the time the regular season started I recall already having balls signed by just about everybody that I felt had a legitimate chance to play for the team that year. My kids went to work on the others at Tropicana Field. That's how we've done it ever since.
HOVG: At what time, does the collection go from something fun that you’re during with your kids to “oh, my God…I think we’re on to something here”?
JENNIFER McKENNEY: I honestly don't believe it has reached that point, not even after spending half my lifetime (literally) building it. Even in the stage of seriousness that it is in now, we don't take it beyond what it has always been and hope it always will be…a jovial family affair. After ten years of "the collection”, I went off to college and dad was left holding it together the majority of four years. However, not a day of Rays regular season went by in which I was too caught up in my college courses and intercollegiate athletics to call home and see what new acquisitions the Rays had made. What started as a hobby really has become something to get us to stop, take a break from reality and just talk as father and daughter. We both work and have outside interests, but at the end of the day, we have something tremendously fun in common and it keeps us from ever growing apart. That, to me, is what it's all about.
HOVG: In the 16 years you’ve been tracking down members of your beloved Rays…who has been the most receptive to your attempt to track everyone down? Has anyone from the team ever assisted you at all?
JEFF: We've only had problems handing balls to players about a half dozen or so times. One time we were in Alaska when a guy was called up for a brief time. A trusted friend got the signature for us. I also recall another baseball buddy of ours getting at least one more for us, though it's possible he helped another time or two? We've also gotten to know a couple of guys that spend time in the clubhouse. The few times we've had problems getting to a guy they've been nice enough to either direct the player to us, or on three occasions, actually present the balls to be signed. The players were Dan Johnson, Pat Burrell and Enny Romero.
JENNIFER: My best friend, and fellow Rays devout, Joseph McMahan has been the comical "mastermind" behind quite a few unique autograph seeking adventures. For example, when Hideki Matsui was called up, Joe came unannounced to our aid with an autograph request sign which he had ordered translated into Japanese! I still, to this day, couldn't tell you what the sign said but Hideki came right over and signed.
HOVG: Who was the toughest to track down?
JEFF: Besides Burrell, it had to be Julio Franco. The veteran joined the Rays as a September call up in 1999. His only appearance was one at bat in Texas. He was a ghost when at Tropicana Field. We finally caught up with him as he drove out of the players parking lot after their final game. Never got near him again.
JENNIFER: By far, the two toughest have been two guys who came up for one day in 2011 and departed back to Triple-A before we could seek them out. Alex Torres, who returned the following year, and Jay Buente, who never did, signed for me during a late summer road trip to Durham, North Carolina…a trip which McMahan (who doesn't get enough credit for helping us!) and I made specifically for their autographs. We knew it may be our only chance so we drove 13 hours in the rain directly into the path of a hurricane (honest to goodness) and made it to Durham just in time for their signatures.
HOVG: Alright…I’m guessing each autograph probably has a story. So, quick word association time. I’m going to throw out a Rays player…share with me, if you can, the story behind getting their autograph. 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner David Price.
JEFF: We got David Price shortly after he was drafted. He made an appearance at the Trop, a common practice for first round picks after they sign their contact. We were ready for him!
JENNIFER: David Price isn't an easy sign, but he's one of the nicest guys when you catch him. He's one of only a handful we are guilty of getting more than once. I also had him sign a commemorative ball from each of his All-Star selections.
HOVG: Perennial All-Star Evan Longoria.
JENNIFER: He's not easy. Dad was fortunate enough to get him prior to making the big league club. He's only gotten tougher…likely from constantly being badgered. Like Price, Longoria is one of only a handful which we have asked to sign on more than one occasion (Carl Crawford being another). We have a signed ball from each and every All-Star in franchise history so those couple guys with multiple selections have multiple baseballs. That album can be viewed on Facebook as well.
HOVG: The Rays only Hall of Famer…Wade Boggs.
JENNIFER: Wade signed more than any man to ever wear a Rays uniform. While a lot of stars avoid signing for fear of someone trying to make a buck off them, Boggs used to sign after every game and for every last person who waited in line for him. We used to watch him sign dozens and dozens of items daily. He was amazing.
JEFF: I don't recall the first time we got Wade Boggs. He didn’t sign often while in the stadium, but was great with fans and collectors after spring workouts and in the parking lot outside of Tropicana Field.
HOVG: Manny Ramirez.
JEFF: Manny Ramirez signed outside the Trop after his last game with the Rays. There was no indication that he had anything on his mind other than chatting and signing.
HOVG: Everyone’s favorite…Jose Canseco.
JENNIFER: Jose wasn't big on signing but he did sign from time to time. We obtained his autograph early on in 1999 and didn't bother him again.
HOVG: Give me your favorite story from the start of your collection until now.
JENNIFER: My favorite memory is my first Rays autograph adventure back at their first spring workout in 1998. My younger brother Raymond and I had just finished a little league game when dad piled us into his car to go see what he'd been hoping we'd get for years…Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg! I remember being so excited to see a real big leaguer in person and frantically searching his vehicle for a potential autograph item. All we had were two of his slow-pitch softballs and a red sharpie. So off we went…crowding in with dozens of fellow fans in awe, just hoping to get one autograph. By days' end inspiration was born and a favorite player was decided upon.
HOVG: And that player?
JENNIFER: Deciding on a favorite player was easy and I remember how it happened like it was yesterday. He was jogging in between fields and stopped to sign for a clueless little girl in a Phillies uniform who had accidentally intersected his path and was now hesitantly holding her giant softball up to him. He didn't let onto being burdened and agreed to sign if I would hold his helmet and glove while he did. He was instantly my favorite (still so to this day) and I went on to hold a #14 sign up for him every game for his tenure with the team. I still have the softball from that day… signed by #14 Dave Martinez (now Joe Maddon's righthand man) among others.
HOVG: What’s next…where can we find your collection?
JEFF: Probably more of the same. Chase the new guys. Hopefully finish the upcoming season with another complete collection then build another case to house them in. If everything falls into place, we'll probably offer our collection to the Rays again for their next Fan Fest. In the meantime, we invite memorabilia and Rays fans to visit our Facebook page to learn more about our hobby. The Keith Olbermanns of the world may make light of the potential monetary value of our collection, but to us it has been priceless fun. The enjoyment we've gotten out of building our collection and the interaction we've had with players and fans alike have been worth every moment and cent spent. I wouldn't trade our collection for a Babe Ruth signed baseball.