Sunday marked the 19th anniversary of the birth of the Tampa Bay Rays. Three years later, in April of 1998, they took the field for the first time. Since then more than 400 players, managers and coaches have worn the team’s uniform.
Jeff McKenney and his family have an autographed baseball from each and every one of them.
It’s more than likely the only complete collection of signed balls for any team in Major League Baseball history.
“When I say everybody that wore a uniform for the team during a regular or postseason game, I mean everybody,” said McKenney, who has been a fan of the team since its inception. “We've had guys show up for a day or two that have signed a ball. Select Rays minor league coaches traditionally join the team in September for a few games. We get them. The minute we hear or read that someone new is joining the team we attempt to track them down.”
The result has been a collection that’s so big, the McKenneys have been invited to display it at the team’s annual winter fan fest at Tropicana Field, where the huge display cases, sorted by year, receive jaw-dropping stares, especially from wide-eyed youngsters.
“Every year, I build a new display case, then include it with the collection in a climate-controlled storage space. The collection has only seen the light of day during Fan Fest,” said Jeff, who is involved in several businesses in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
It began during that 1998 season when McKenney, his daughter Jennifer, then 9 and son Raymond, who was 7, had seats directly above the Rays’ right field bullpen. They began catching batting practice balls and chatting with players in the pen who would often toss balls to them. By mid-season they had a five-gallon bucket full and started to acquire autographs. They quickly accumulated nearly every one and a quest was born.
Early on, it was the kids doing most of the collecting but as both Jen and Raymond became involved in school sports and other activities, Jeff became what he calls ‘the main chaser’. However, once Jen graduated from college a couple of years ago and moved back to work for the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, she got back to work, keeping the collection going. Other ballpark friends have helped as well as some contacts inside the team who have occasionally been enlisted to track down a few players who have proven to be a challenge.
The Rays were almost always accessible until the team became a contender in 2008. It’s been tougher since then but they’ve managed to stay on top of things. Recently, Jeff and Jennifer spent two days at the team’s training complex, getting autographs from players who could be with the Rays at some point this year.
“The thing we take the most pride in is we don’t sell anything we have signed and we make it a point to let everyone know that,” he said. “No eBay or selling extras on the side. We have helped a few friends obtain autographs but I’m comfortable stating that they’re hobbyists too.”
While the highlights of the collection include well-known stars like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Evan Longoria and David Price, the McKenneys enjoy interacting with those players and coaches who don’t normally get a lot of attention.
“On the whole Rays players have been nice to us and other autograph collectors,” Jeff stated. “My favorite was the Devil Rays first manager Larry Rothschild. We were part of a group of colorful fans in the early years and Larry was nice enough to acknowledge us on occasion. He actually strolled out to our section in right field immediately before a game to thank us for our dedication. Every person in our section was absolutely blown away as he took his long walk back to the dugout seconds before the first pitch was thrown. My best baseball buddy at the time was speechless because he had spent 25+ years attending Phillies and Mets games and had never seen such a gesture. I also had a lot of fun talking to former Bullpen Coach Orlando Gomez.”
While most of the autographs are acquired during home games, the McKenneys have been known to travel out of state when necessary.
“My daughter and one of our baseball buddies actually drove to Durham (N.C.), the night before a hurricane in 2011 to get some balls from guys we were afraid would be released before we could approach them,” Jeff recalled. Jay Buente and Alex Torres signatures safely acquired, they sat down to watch the game which was, not surprisingly, rained out after a few innings.
Autograph collectors know the best time for obtaining signatures at the ballpark is during and after batting practice and in the minutes leading up to game time and that’s when the McKenneys have had the most success, too. Those who try to hunt down players for autographs would do well to pay attention to how the family has approached their project.
“Our biggest suggestions for success collecting autographs are be patient and polite,” Jeff related. “Don't expect to get an autograph every time you make an attempt. Despite what a lot of fans think the players are not obligated to oblige. Most of them are constantly hounded by fans and shouldn't be expected to respond whenever they hear people bark their name. Also be polite when interacting with a player. Simple courtesies like knowing the players name, addressing him as mister, saying please then finishing with a sincere thank you is huge. This attitude should hold true no matter the age differential between parties. My kids often received compliments for the way they approached and dealt with players when they were young.”
The collection even has its own Facebook page.
“The bottom line is that collecting has been a great hobby for my family,” Jeff stated. “It helped instill a love for the game of baseball in my kids and continues to tie us to our hometown team. My guess is we will continue to collect until the team packs up and leaves St. Petersburg. Hopefully that never happens.”