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THE CELEBRITIES ARE tucked in the back of a Cleveland convention center, behind a labyrinth of booths teeming with rare baseball cards, vintage football jerseys and bobbleheads. They're sitting at individual card tables, like students at a bake sale, only they're selling something far more valuable: their signatures. Jim Rice's goes for $60; Deion Sanders is charging $100. Bob Knight will sign anything -- except negative covers of Sports Illustrated -- for $80. Hundreds of collectors are waiting to meet these titans of sports, but one man's line is especially long and especially boisterous. His name is Joe Charboneau, and his autograph costs $20.
You could be forgiven for asking: Joe who? Charboneau is best known for winning AL Rookie of the Year in 1980, as a left fielder for the Indians, then flaming out of the league two years later -- an unprecedented feat. He's anonymous in most of America, but here in northeastern Ohio, which he still calls home, he's a legend. Jovial, with a deep tan and an ex-jock's build, Charboneau happily mugs for photographs, leaping out of his seat to fist-bump kids. Several fans are holding dusty copies of his autobiography, Super Joe: The Life and Legend of Joe Charboneau.
"I grew up hearing stories about you," says a young man in an Indians T-shirt.
Another chimes in, "You look like you could still play!"
When one guy tentatively asks Charboneau to append "Rookie of the Year" next to his signature, a nearby convention staffer dryly informs him that everyone has made the same request. Charboneau pushes up his glasses and roars with laughter. "Let's face it," he says, grinning. "That's all I'm known for!"
Every summer, hordes of memorabilia buffs and autograph-seekers flock to the National Sports Collectors Convention, a multiday event that can best be described as a 500,000-square-foot yard sale dreamed up by middle-aged men with childlike hobbies. The National, as collectors call it, travels to a different city every year. This August it came to Cleveland. The convention's founder, Mike Berkus, says 46,000 people showed up, the biggest turnout in 15 years. Nearly half of those attendees, he adds, were locals. "Cleveland fits us perfectly," he says.
In a way, this is logical; Ohio isn't exactly an entertainment hot spot, so tourist attractions face less competition here. But on an emotional level, it makes far less sense. This is a city that hasn't won a championship in 50 years -- a city where soul-crushing, season-ending plays are memorialized as proper nouns, like The Fumble, The Drive, and The Shot. The National, a celebration of the greatest moments in sports history, thrives in a place that has precious few of them -- in a city where a player whose notoriety stems from his short-lived success is treated like royalty because, well, he stuck around.
Still, despite this miserable record, they've come to pay their respects -- old men in faded Jim Brown jerseys, slightly less old men in Bernie Kosar jerseys, young boys in Johnny Manziel T-shirts. A lone Browns fan walks by the signing table, and everyone pauses to admire his custom uniform. His number is 14, and his name comprises three words strung together: "MAYBETHISYEAR."
"THE LAST GAME I went to, it got down below zero," says Mark Schott, a county government worker with a stoic Midwestern accent. "I had a toe turn black."
Schott is sitting below a sign that advertises "The World's Most Complete Collection of Browns Cards." His 11-year-old grandson, Ronnie, is curled up in a lawn chair next to him. Over the past two-plus decades, Schott has amassed some 31,000 cards, the sum of which he has valued at $225,000. As he adjusts an oversized Manziel card on the display table, Ronnie looks up from a box of cookies and studies the rookie's picture. He's never heard of him. "I like Colt McCoy," he chirps.
His grandfather sighs. "He obviously doesn't follow it real closely."
There are more than 500 booths at this year's National, which opened its doors on the last Wednesday in July. VIP ticket holders, who paid as much as $279 for their badges, bum-rushed the entrance, throwing elbows as they walked briskly toward the goods: faded media programs, games, buttons, pennants, hundreds of objects that have gained extraordinary value simply by grazing the hands of professional athletes.
On the north side of the convention center, the big card companies have set up "man caves" -- fake living rooms outfitted with leather lounge chairs, arcade games and cheery female staffers. A salesman with a megaphone is raffling off cards, and a small crowd has amassed around him, screaming "Topps" over and over to the tune of LMFAO's "Shots." Groups of men are huddled around picnic tables, ripping into foil-wrapped packages of cards. One heavily tattooed collector, Chris Lee, is beaming because he unearthed a Manziel. Lee, 34, wears a tank top that features Brownie the Elf rubbing his fingers together, Johnny Football-style.
"I collected Tim Couch stuff, Brady Quinn stuff -- I don't care," says Lee, who has Kosar's signature inked on his forearm (after running into Kosar at the stadium's gift shop one summer, he proceeded straight to a tattoo parlor). "I'm all-in on Manziel."
The vendors have spent months preparing for this year's convention, stocking up on Browns, Indians and Cavaliers paraphernalia. Where else but Cleveland can someone buy an oil painting of LeBron for $25,000? Or the Indians' Articles of Incorporation? Or a seat from Municipal Stadium? That chair's owner, Sean Walsh, is a retired construction worker. After his crew tore down the facility, the Cleveland native took home 300 seats ("My ex-wife wasn't very happy about it," he says). Today, Walsh sells a variety of chairs, although he refuses to carry inventory from Baltimore and Pittsburgh. "I don't want to contaminate the rest of them," he explains.
Like many Browns die-hards, Walsh still despises former owner Art Modell, who moved the team to Baltimore in 1996. When a video circulated this summer of an anonymous man urinating on Modell's grave, Walsh's friends asked him whether he was involved. "I wouldn't go that far," he says of the culprit. "But I can understand his point."
ON SATURDAY NIGHT, Panini, the Italian card company, hosts a party at FirstEnergy Stadium, the home of the Browns. Access is restricted to VIPs -- athletes, memorabilia dealers and anyone who has spent at least $7,500 on Panini merchandise during the week. Inside the party venue, which is lit like a nightclub, a DJ spins pop songs. Joe Namath is posing for pictures next to an ornate arrangement of shrimp. Jose Canseco is surrounded by a cluster of women in black Panini bra tops and booty shorts. Whenever a camera's light hits the group, they start dancing, like motion-activated sprinklers. Canseco, a quivering mountain of a man, is wearing skintight jeans with the words "TRUTH HURTS" embroidered down the leg.
The room is packed, but it feels strangely sapped of energy, as though a storm just barreled through. A dealer explains: Johnny Football was here. "He came and left so quickly," he laments. "He probably had curfew." Much to the collectors' dismay, the quarterback didn't stop to sign autographs.
This crowd is disappointed because Manziel's signature is valuable, not because they're Browns fans. The VIPs are mostly wealthy out-of-towners, businessmen with tinted glasses and sculpted goatees. There's only one guy in a Browns hat and T-shirt, and he's sitting alone at the bar. "Oh, I'm not here for this thing," says Mike Franklin, a 54-year-old salesman. "I work part time for the PA company."
Franklin's relationship with the Browns began when he was 4 years old. That year, his father took him to his first game -- the 1964 championship. It was the last time, of course, that Cleveland would take home the title. Franklin spent the next several decades praying for a repeat, persevering through innumerable losses. When the Browns left, he waited for them to return. Eventually, his sons became fans. So did their kids. Today, all three generations go to the stadium together.
When Manziel showed up earlier tonight, Franklin happened to be standing near the PA system. So the only non-collector at the party worked up the courage to ask Johnny Football for a signature. "I told him, 'You're bringing new life to this city,'" he says, doffing his cap to reveal Manziel's loopy scrawl on the brim.
SPEND ENOUGH TIME at the National, and a taxonomy emerges: There are casual fans, hard-core fans and collectors. The third group consists of men lugging roller suitcases full of memorabilia and diagrams of exactly where they want the athletes to sign their gear. When they approach the stars, they are polite, but awkwardly disengaged, as though purchasing drugs at a pharmacy.
The line for Jason Kipnis' autograph contains the convention's rarest breed -- women. A teenage girl whose Indians T-shirt is cropped above her navel marches up to the All-Star second baseman and beams, revealing a full set of braces. "I want it to say: 'To Sidney. LOVE, Jason Kipnis.'" Another woman tells him she brought her bachelorette party. She squeezes next to Kipnis for a photograph, clutching his sculpted shoulder like a buoy. When she walks away, Kipnis chuckles nervously. "She really got cheek to cheek."
Kipnis' manager, Terry Francona, drops by; retired Browns players Al "Bubba" Baker and Hanford Dixon are here. The athletes come in waves, signing side by side, so it feels like a high school reunion. In one corner, Baker, who owns a local barbecue joint, chats with Eddie George. ("How's the sauce?" George asks. "Is it vinegar-based?") At the other end of the row, Jim Palmer embraces Wade Boggs. Kenny Lofton, still wiry and alert at 47, is interrupted mid-autograph by former teammate Dave Winfield, who whoops at him from across the room: "WHAT UP, K-LO?"
Then there's Jim Brown. The soft-spoken Hall of Fame running back, now 78, sits perfectly still, a cane topped with a gold horse's head resting between his legs. Every 45 seconds, a new autograph seeker steps forward and asks a short question, as though addressing an oracle:
"Think the Browns are gonna do all right this year?"
"I like our chances," he whispers.
"What was the hardest hit you ever took?"
Shannon Steffy, a blond, burly man on crutches, walks up with his son, Evan, in tow. "How are you doing, sir? Mind if I shake your hand?"
Later, as Steffy waits for Evan to use the bathroom, he explains that he inherited his allegiance to the Browns from his own father, who died of cancer a few months ago. Steffy has a tattoo of the Dawg Pound logo on one calf; he lost his other leg when he was 2. Once, as a young boy, he snuck his dad's beers into Municipal Stadium inside his pinned-up pant leg. "I was more than happy to do it," he says. "I thought it was cool."
No one wakes up one morning and decides to root for a losing team. It's not a choice but a birthright -- a rusty heirloom passed down from generation to generation, gradually accruing shades of meaning and worth that are imperceptible to outsiders. Sean Walsh's father was absent when he was a kid, so his mother taught him about football and took him to Browns games; he hates Modell because the owner announced the team's departure on her birthday. Chris Lee convinced his now-wife, Jenny, to give up the Steelers for him. He proposed to her at a Browns game, and they got married 10 years ago on Monday, July 19 -- Kosar's number. They went to the National on their honeymoon.
Amanda Petzinger, who came to the convention to meet Jim Thome, has attended Indians games since she was a little girl. Petzinger lives in Cincinnati now, but she still watches games on television and then calls her dad at night. When he retires from his teaching job, she says, she wants to accompany him to his first Opening Day. "I'm gonna take the day off, drive up, and we're gonna do it the way it's supposed to be done."
In 1997, when the Indians made it to the World Series, it was impossible to get tickets; Petzinger was resigned to watching the playoffs from home. Her stepmother wasn't a big baseball fan, but she wanted the family to experience the playoffs, so she went all-out -- grilled hot dogs, bought peanuts and souvenir cups, made everyone wear jerseys and hats. "She brought the stadium to us," says Petzinger, her voice halting a little. She can't remember whether the Indians won or lost that night.