The great autograph chase is in full swing for collectors who swarm Cactus League ballparks and practice facilities.
For the most serious of fans, their drive for collecting is decades long and their cache of autographs is as extensive as the hours spent getting them. Many boast thousands of prized signatures on baseballs, bats and cards.
They savor stories of sweet successes and lament the bitter disappointments.
These aren’t the people who put their catches of the day on eBay or sell autographs at shows. Instead, they build extensive personal collections.
Many collectors admit that it has become more difficult for them to gain access to players, and personal exchanges are becoming rare because of tightened security.
But they’re not at all deterred from continuing the craze.
At the end of the day, sometimes they’ve won, other times they’ve lost.
But like an old Brooklyn Dodgers battle cry, there’s always that saying: “Wait till next year.”
Bruce Honga, 46, northeast Phoenix
Bruce Honga is perhaps the most seasoned and foremost autograph collector in the Valley.
Honga, who grew up in Scottsdale, said he has been collecting autographs since 1970, and has amassed more than 5,000 of them.
“I’m a junkie,” he said. “It’s a hobby. It’s something that I’ve done forever that’s a lot of fun. I just enjoy going out and meeting the players.”
Honga has gotten autographs on bats, baseballs, photographs, posters and cards.
A roofing contractor, Honga said that he grew up a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, and his first two autographs were of former first baseman Steve Garvey and third baseman Ron Cey.
Honga also has the autographs of 101 baseball Hall of Famers, missing only six of the 62 who are still living — Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Steve Carlton, Dennis Eckersley, Red Schoendienst and Ozzie Smith.
He’s an autograph seeker who’s successfully made the transition from an era of being able to approach players on the field to today’s era of tightened ballpark security.
As a teenager, Honga once visited Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell at his home in Scottsdale.
“A few of us kids, we just walked up to the apartment complex where he lived, and asked a maintenance worker which one Carl Hubbell lived in,” Honga said. “The maintenance guy pointed and said ‘over there.’ When Carl Hubbell came to the door, his left arm was twisted and his left hand was bent backward from years of throwing the screwball — and he let us in. Just being able to sit and listen to him tell stories was incredible.”
Honga also said that overall, it has become tougher for older collectors to get autographs from players.
Many players think the older guys are selling them, but that’s not always true, he said.
“I just collect for myself and don’t sell them,” Honga said. “Sometimes, I’ll trade an extra autograph for one I don’t have.”
Rico Quinonez, 42, Mesa
Rico Quinonez estimates he has about 1,000 autographs of various baseball players, which he has collected since the 1970s, when he was a kid.
His vast collection fills a room in his home, and Quinonez says he needs more space to display it, but that his wife likely would not be in favor of it.
“My wife always asks me, ‘Why do you need more autographs?’ ”
“I tell her there’s new players, and I have to get their autograph,” he said. “It’s addicting. It’s a nice hobby and something I just like to do. My collection is for me to enjoy while I’m alive. After I’m gone, my kids can do whatever they want with it.”
Quinonez remembers getting his first two autographs while living in New York in the early 1970s — from Sandy Alomar and Walt Williams, who played for the Yankees at the time. After that, he was hooked.
“I was a Mets fan, but my dad took me to a Yankees game,” Quinonez said. “He knew Sandy Alomar. They both were from Puerto Rico. My dad knew a baseball player, and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”
Later, when his family moved to Florida, he became a batboy for visiting teams at the spring training facilities of the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays during the early 1980s.
Quinonez said he likes to get players’ autographs on equipment used in games, such as batting helmets, bats and jerseys he often purchases at charity events hosted by the teams.
“It’s more affordable than trying to get all the different baseball cards that are out there,” Quinonez said.
Quinonez, who works the night shift as a stocker at a Mesa Wal-Mart, also takes photographs of the players during spring training. He quickly gets them developed and brings them back for the players to sign. He also lets some of the players keep an extra photograph of themselves if they sign one for him.
That strategy recently helped him acquire the autograph of rookie outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, the Japanese sensation training with the Cubs.
The elusive autographs for Quinonez? Former New York Yankees superstars Reggie Jackson and Don Mattingly.
Quinonez is already passing down his collecting skills to his oldest daughter, Victoria, 8, who often accompanies him to the ballparks.
“She has the routine down pat,” Quinonez said. “I tell her when she asks for an autograph, always be nice and polite and don’t get cocky.”
Don Schmit, 81, Scottsdale
Even as one of the older autograph seekers, Schmit isn’t about to give up the hobby anytime soon.
The Scottsdale resident has collected thousands of autographs on baseballs and baseball cards, visiting several spring training parks each year to get autographs — something he has done for nearly 20 years.
Schmit retired to Scottsdale in 1989 after working for 42 years in the service department of a GM dealership in Wisconsin. He said his wife, Audrey, encouraged him to do something “to stay off the streets.”
“She told me, ‘You gotta do something. You can’t sit around, so find a hobby,’ ” Schmit said. “I love sports, so, I started getting autographs of baseball players. I like the challenge of getting them. Some guys say, ‘He’s tough to get’ — so it’s ‘Hey, you gotta get his autograph.’ I used to do it from sun-up to sundown, but I’m no longer physically able to do that.”
Schmit said he is collecting the autographs and setting them aside for his six children and nine grandchildren.
A lot of the players now recognize him and walk the other way, he said.
“In the beginning, very few would refuse you an autograph,” Schmit said. “It would just be a matter of gathering the stuff you wanted signed and taking it to the ballpark, but you just can’t do that anymore.
“A lot has changed in the last 15 years because of how teams have changed things around at ballparks that don’t allow you to get as close to the players. It has become somewhat of a game for the younger players not to sign. They make a lot of money, but there’s no (public relations) on their part.”
Schmit said it has been a thrill to acquire autographs from his favorite player, Hall of Famer Robin Yount, also a Valley resident.
“It’s best to decide what you really want signed instead of carrying everything to the ballpark,” Schmit said. “You can’t carry everything when you’re going up to a player — you might end up with nothing.”