At 14, he's a veteran of autograph hunting Second home: Just a few blocks from David Talley's rough neighborhood, Camden Yards is a refuge where he can practice the art of souvenir gathering

September 27, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Back in David Talley's Hollins Park neighborhood, crumbling rowhouses guard against vandals with sheets of plywood, gangs run the streets and random shootings take kids before their time.

But that's all another world to the lanky 14-year-old as he burrows his way through the crowd outside Camden Yards, presses up against the waist-high barricade and politely asks third baseman Jeff Manto to sign a scuffed baseball.

"There is nothing to do in my neighborhood. They just shoot and fight and sell drugs. This makes me not get in trouble," says Talley, who has lost three friends in as many years to violence.

Talley began coming here shortly after the stadium was built, just a few blocks from his home. He rushes over after school, often with his cousin, 15-year-old Ernest Pinkney. They blend in with the throngs of regulars who show up early and stay late at Orioles home games, seeking autographs and shagging balls in the bleachers during batting practice.

Few of the regulars are as devoted, or as skilled in the nuances, as Talley. He knows his chances are best with a player on a streak and when the approach is polite -- and when he gets the player's name right. Novices shouting "Are you a player?" rarely get a response. Talley studies the faces of the players on television so he can recognize them in their street clothes.

"I like the Orioles, especially Rafael Palmeiro," he said.

He attends as many games as he can afford. Last season, he worked at a concession stand, giving him free access. And he has a friend with a season ticket who sometimes lends it out.

"He gets out there every chance he can," said his grandmother, Queen Talley. "I'm happy to see him doing that. I'm happy for him because he doesn't have anybody to motivate him."

His mother relies on public aid and his father, who lives in New Jersey, doesn't come around much, the grandmother said. She's worried about losing him to the streets.

He seems to have little time for that: When not in school or at Camden Yards, Talley shoots basketballs at the neighborhood rec center, plays first base with a boys club league and marches with the Christian Warriors Street Band. His career plans are uncertain: Pro basketball or pro baseball now top the list.

Working the barricades before a recent game, he demonstrated his style: always polite, addressing players with a "mister" and staking out a position near the usher's booth where the signing usually starts.

His equipment consists of a tattered red backpack stuffed with his scuffed "Tru-play" glove, acquired from the YMCA boys club and autographed by Manto, and some of the 12 balls he's caught at batting practice. He's also got a recycled three-ring notebook of signed cards, alphabetically sorted in plastic sleeves.

Before a game, he sorts the cards, loading the notebook with current Orioles and players from the visiting team he hopes to see.

Talley scored the Manto autograph after nearly an hour of standing outside Camden Yards. Most of the athletes, weary of the crowds that line the entrances before and after each game, ignore the shouts as they are whisked in an electric cart from their fenced-in parking lot into the stadium's underground entrance. Some make a point of gunning their car engines on the way out, with their tinted windows rolled up.

But others -- Talley says rookies and veterans are most likely to stop, with journeymen being the least likely -- stop for as long as 20 minutes, signing balls, bats and caps and posing for pictures.

"Sometimes they stop and sometimes they don't," he said.

Sometimes the encounters are magical. Talley's cousin Ernest once handed his cap to Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, saying he wants to play in the majors someday. Anderson signed the hat: "Keep on Trying, Brady Anderson."

Talley swears Jeffrey Hammonds looks for him in the crowd and tosses him balls during batting practice. "We're like this," Talley says, holding up two crossed fingers.

When shagging balls, Talley prefers left field to right because there are fewer fans there. And he pays attention to the hitters, identifying them by their batting stance and trying to position himself where they are most likely to hit.

At a recent batting practice, he almost fell over the outfield wall trying to grab a ball headed for the warning track. Bobby Bonilla had blasted it deep into left field and Talley was competing with one of his favorite Orioles, Curtis Goodwin, for the ball. Goodwin was racing in from center, glove first.

They both missed. But Goodwin, hearing Talley's plea for the keepsake, scooped it off the grass and casually spiked the ball into the rubbery warning track, sending it bouncing into the youth's glove.

For a brief, sunny moment, the two players -- one a promising Orioles rookie, the other a boys club first baseman hitting .500 -- connected in the magic that baseball is supposed to be.

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