There really is no Neil Walker autograph controversy.
But you can go ahead and get mad. Get mad as hell. The only thing, make sure you get mad at the right people — get mad at those degenerate, weirdo, creepy and unnerving adult autograph seekers that park themselves inside and outside stadiums each day and flood the mailboxes of professional athletes.
They are the ones where your angst should be directed.
Not the Pirates.
Not Neil Walker.
Not some 8-year-old Pirates fan named Colin (nice name, kid) with the cutest of cute handwriting.
That’s why we are here; that’s why this is even a story.
You see, over the past couple days, it has come to light — because his father put the team on blast on social media — the aforementioned young Pirates fan wrote a letter in mid-June and included Neil Walker’s player card. He mailed it to the Pirates and the letter said, simply:
Dear Mr. Walker,
You are my favorite player. May you please sign my card? Hope you get better soon!
A reasonable enough request and one that, in a different era, would probably be met with a signed card showing up in the mail at a later date. Instead, as per club policy with Walker — who participates in the “Autographs for a Cause” program with the Pirates — his mail was opened by a staffer with the club and the young boy was sent back a form letter that he recently received. In it, the letter explained that Walker’s autograph could be obtained for a donation to Pirates charities. The letter didn’t specify a minimum donation and, let’s remember, the money is going to charity.
I wish I could see this huge problem or controversy, but I just don’t.
Do those of us who are a bit older get nostalgic remembering how we once sent a request to an athlete and received back an autograph without such a prerequisite?
Again, however, this is a different time.
This program, in my estimation, is two-fold. Indeed it raises money, but it is also a safeguard and acts as a barrier so that players don’t have to sign each and every request. Know why, to some degree, such a program is needed? Creeps.
Yep, I said it, creeps.
There is no creepier portion of the populace than the adult autograph seeker and, this is a perfect example of how they have ruined something as innocent as a kid sending a letter and getting back an autograph from one of their heroes.
Is creep too strong?
I will let you decide.
Drive down to the player entrance near the Bill Mazeroski statue on a home game day between about 2:30-3 p.m. and take a gander at the adults jockeying, wrestling and pushing each other — and kids — aside to get the autographs of the Pirates and visiting players as they make their way into PNC Park.
I have seen it many, many times. Go watch those people and how they operate and then get back to me and see if you have a problem with me calling them “creeps.”
A logical deduction is the plan implemented by the Pirates is not just to raise money for Pirates Charities, but to also help filter out some of those adults who might look to capitalize monetarily as I’m certain many of those creeps out on the street are.
I reached out to the Pirates about this situation. Brian Warecki, Vice President of Communications, wrote back:
“Our organization and players get thousands of autograph requests per week, the majority of which are from collectors. While it is impossible to respond to every request, we do try to respond to as many as possible; especially those we can determine come from true Pirates fans.
“As part of the fan mail response process, some players and staff have asked to participate in the “Autographs for a Cause” program. This program, which was modeled after similar programs in use at other MLB clubs, helps to support a cause or charity designated by the player. Neil has asked to participate in this program in an effort to support the Miracle League program to help give every child, regardless of challenge they face, the chance to play baseball.
“We do apologize for disappointing this young fan and are working to make it right. We had proactively reached out to his parent via social media message, well before any mainstream media became involved. We will also take a look at the “Autographs for a Cause” program and possible tweaks that can be made to improve upon it moving forward.”
So there you have it, simple enough for me. Again, doesn’t seem too much of a controversy or the Pirates attempting to “shake down” an 8-year-old kid.
The staffer who opened the letter from the kid had to follow a protocol put in place that has clear black and whites, even though it wouldn’t have hurt anything in this case to use a gray area and send the kid an autograph without a donation.
Again, I can’t get mad at the Pirates here — instead I’ll get mad at those creepy adult autograph hounds who, in many ways, forced the club into implementing a policy such as this.
If I haven’t stated it clearly enough, let me again: My gosh, those people are losers.
Also, don’t you contemplate, just a bit, about the motives of the father of the boy who, instead of contacting the Pirates privately with his concern, chose to blast it all over social media and then contact at least one member of the mainstream media?
I do. Maybe just a little, but I do.
I know Pirates President Frank Coonelly.
I don’t want to speak for Frank but I know that if the father of this kid contacted him privately and voiced a concern — which to me is the prudent thing to do — Frank would have made damn sure the boy got his autograph.
In addition, I have been told — by someone who would know — that Walker never saw the letter from the kid until it hit Twitter. I have also been told by that same person — again, someone who would undoubtedly know — that Walker has personally already made strides to reach out to the family of the young boy, apologize and will “take care of him” in terms of fulfilling that autograph request.
I know Neil Walker and know him well; have known him since he was a high school athlete. If I know him as well as I think I do, I’d bet this little kid might get more than just the simple autograph he initially sought.
That’s what kind of guy Walker is — unwaveringly polite, humble, respectful, and, if there was ever an athlete who understood what Pittsburgh fans were about and how they appreciated hard work and being treated with respect, it is Neil Walker.
The last guy who wants to be embroiled in a controversy is Neil Walker.
And, come to think of it, this isn’t even a controversy.
In reality, it is barely a story.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.
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