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From prisoners to proposals, D-Backs’ fan mail mixed bag

A decade later, former major league pitcher Brad Penny still remembers the opening line to a unique piece of fan mail:

I’m a condemned inmate in San Quentin. We all have our crosses to bear.

The letter, which would lead to an unlikely prison meeting with a notorious serial killer, characterizes the unusual mail sent to professional athletes. Most are autograph requests and some are words of encouragement, but often, too, come pleas for money, tips to break curses and even, well, naughty invitations.

“Really?” Diamondbacks pitcher Josh Collmenter mused. “No Polaroids for me, unfortunately.”

Fan mail has long been a way to slow the growing chasm between pro athlete and fan. It has evolved over the years — more fans are reaching out through social media and team email accounts — but white envelopes featuring hand-written letters still fill the mail slots belonging to Diamondbacks players.

A bin every day

Each day, a large white bin stuffed with letters and packages is delivered to clubhouse assistant Chad Chiffin from the Chase Field mail room. He sorts the contents into slots identified by uniform numbers on a wall that players pass as soon as they enter the clubhouse. Some are always overflowing, including those belonging to outfielder Paul Goldschmidt and pitcher Zack Greinke.

“But so will a guy’s that got called up suddenly and has a baseball card out there,” Chiffin said.

That’s the less-romantic piece about fan mail. Pitcher Brad Ziegler believes “99.7 percent is about signing something.”

It’s not just trading cards but boxes that include jerseys, hats and even baseball bats (those are returned unsigned). Autographed sports memorabilia is a $1.5 billion business, according to a study by sportsmemorabilia.com, with Major League Baseball paraphernalia making up 26 percent of it (the NFL leads the way at 34 percent).

Many players sign and return requests but often with indifference. They know many items are going to be sold.

“So much is collectibles,” said Diamondbacks analyst Bob Brenly, who was the team’s manager from 2001 to 2004 after playing nine major-league seasons.

“You see the same people in every city. ‘You’re my favorite team and here is a whole notebook of your cards. Can you sign 50 of them?’”

Several players said they will sign cards and memorabilia that appear to come from a younger audience.

“You’ll get the ‘I’m so-and-so, I’m 14, I play first base and catcher,’ ” Collmenter said. “It’s fun to see that. I remember collecting cards as a kid.”

The writing on the envelope often gives players a hint of what’s inside. A “cell block” listed in the return address is a dead giveaway.

On the cell block

Penny, a former Diamondbacks minor-leaguer who pitched in 14 major-league seasons, was playing for the Dodgers when, on a road trip to San Francisco, he accompanied several team officials on a visit to San Quentin State Prison. While there, they had a discussion about a prisoner who had sent Penny a fan letter.

“I didn’t want to meet him after reading the stuff he had done,” said Penny, who retired from the game in March. “But suddenly there we were at his cell.”

“The guy had the look of ‘I can’t believe you’re standing there right now,’ ” said Diamondbacks senior vice president Josh Rawitch, who also was there as a member of the Dodgers staff.

The prisoner was a big Dodgers fan who had kept a lot of statistics on Penny. He was Randy Steven Kraft, dubbed “The Scorecard Killer” because of a cryptic list he kept about his victims. He committed a vicious string of killings, most in the late 1970s, and remains on death row.

For all the creepiness that can be found in the mail — traditionally or digitally — plenty of good comes, too, from reaching out to players.

In April, members of the Rowley family were interested in finding solace at a Diamondbacks game. They sought out the help of Chrisie Funari, president and founder of the Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children.

She wrote a fan letter for them explaining that 14-year-old Mason was battling brain cancer and that his mother, Nicolle, was also fighting the disease:

Mason and his family (mom, dad and sister) would really like to attend the game this Friday, April 22, and attend batting practice and meet any players who may be interested in saying hello.  

And that’s exactly that happened.

It was an ideal day for a family enduring endless challenges.

“It was surreal,” Nicolle said. “We were on the field watching batting practice. All these players came up to him and were so nice. And he took a selfie with Goldschmidt.”

Too much to handle

It’s these types of interactions that Goldschmidt enjoys most. He admits he is overwhelmed by the amount of mail he receives, and the handling of it usually happens in the off-season.

Like most players, he can read and respond to only some of it.

He prefers personal contact and to “sign for people who are at the game or out in public if I meet someone.”

It’s understandable. Fan mail isn’t always about fandom.

Just ask Diamondbacks assistant hitting coach Mark Grace, who was a wildly popular figure during his 16-year playing career and experienced all kinds of interesting fan interactions.

“Nothing too odd,” he said, “other than the ‘Mark, you’re the father of my child. Remember four years ago when you were in Topeka, Kansas?’ Except I had never been to Topeka, Kansas.”

Grace also received “a handful of death threats,” he said, many from fans of the White Sox and Mets who didn’t like him during his time in Chicago.

Grace’s mother, Sharon, used to help him out with mail. It’s common to have a family member assist. Goldschmidt’s wife, Amy, has lent her husband a hand. Former manager Kirk Gibson would ask Chiffin to go through his mail and have things lined up for him to sign.

Diamondbacks relief pitcher Josh Collmenter reads mail from a fan from Montana. Video by Thomas Hawthorne.

Hate mail and encouragement

Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale picks up his mail most mornings and puts it in a drawer in his desk. When he has time, he goes through the letters.

“You get a lot of suggestions,” he said. “Coming back from the last road trip, I got a really nasty letter from someone back east about how bad I managed the game.

“Sometimes you get some encouraging stuff.”

Those are the ones players seem to enjoy most.

“Sometimes you’ll get just a fan, and they’ll send you a two-page letter, hand-written, saying they love watching you pitch, play,” Diamondbacks broadcaster and former pitcher Brandon Webb said. “They don’t want anything.”

Plenty, however, do.

“Sometimes I get mail from people who need help,” catcher Welington Castillo said. “Maybe someone going into surgery or someone who needs money.”

Castillo opts to have his agent take a closer look.

“You just never know what’s real and what’s not. You have to be careful.”

Several players said they have received marriage proposals in the mail.

And gifts, too

Many fans send gifts. That’s particularly true of those from Asia, where including a small token of appreciation with a letter is customary.

Brenly said his fan letters have been accompanied by pot holders, a fishing pole and even gold-plated lures.

“I even mentioned grandkids on the air one day, and I got a pacifier that someone recommended,” he said.

The amount of fan mail has decreased in recent years. The Diamondbacks, for example, make players available before every game to sign autographs. Other teams, especially during spring training, do the same.

An Illinois high school student, Vince Santoria, was in the Valley on vacation in March and wanted to reach out to one of his favorite Cubs players for a favor. It was too late to write a letter.

So he went to a spring-training game at Sloan Park in Mesa, lined up for the autograph session and asked Cubs slugger Kris Bryant for help. The player did and held up a cardboard sign that said, “Julia, will you go to prom with Vince?”

The prom-posal was a success and she said yes.

Social media changes the game

But more than anything, Chiffin said, email and social media have changed how fans try to reach players, lessening the amount of mail that arrives at the clubhouse.

Twitter is a popular method. A glance at Diamondbacks pitcher Patrick Corbin’s timeline during a week’s time includes support (“PatrickCorbin46 is my favorite pitcher!”) and criticism (“Now you are a bum and laughingstock”).

Social media can be a good way to connect with players, but it has its flaws. Impulsive responses come too easily.

Letter writers aren’t always kind, either. A Facebook group titled the Center for Investigative Research called fan mail “the predatory bacteria of celebrity culture.”

Maybe, but much of it means something to the recipients, and Brenly said he still mourns a box of it he misplaced during one of many moves.

“You can see who’s actually putting some effort into it, and who is just trying to do it en masse,” Ziegler said. “But the ones who really try, and the ones from kids, those are fun to read.”