The young Yankees fan who lost his autographs

Elyjah Blankenberg, 11, is a young baseball player and Yankees fan living in Venice, Florida. In March, he lost his beloved autograph collection, but he ended up gaining so much more. Illustration by Señor Salme

FOR AN HOUR, Elyjah Blankenberg carefully went through his baseball card collection. He wanted the perfect mix of Orioles and Yankees cards -- but mostly Yankees -- for the biggest adventure of his life: His first mad dash to try to get autographs at a baseball game.

Blankenberg has a nice-sized collection, including lots of cards from his beloved Yankees. He wanted a good card, but not too good because an unverified signature usually makes a card less valuable. Blankenberg also knew from asking around that some of the melees along the clubhouse rails can result in bent or banged-up cards.

After meticulous curation, Blankenberg eventually settled on the right blend to take to the March 19 spring game in Sarasota, Florida, and he took particular pains about finding the absolute perfect DJ LeMahieu card. Blankenberg is an elite 11-year-old baseball player teammates and coaches call "DJ" after LeMahieu because of his ability to play anywhere on a baseball field and rake from any spot in the order.

Elyjah's dad, John, and mom, Colleen Spencer, piled him into the car for the 40-minute drive from Venice, Florida, over to the Yankees-Orioles game at Ed Smith Stadium. They noticed how nervous Elyjah was. He's an uber shy kid, and the idea of running up and down the bleachers trying to get players' attention -- this was his World Series Game 7.

During batting practice, he managed to sneak into a horde around Josh Donaldson, held his ground in the pack and got a card signed. "I can do this," he thought.

As BP wound down, though, he felt the butterflies grow. Blankenberg has a very quiet voice -- he often will say one or two short sentences and then make eye contact with one of his parents, who'll jump in and elaborate. When he's asked how he's hitting this year so far, Elyjah looks toward his dad, John, and then says ".767" in such a library tone that his dad repeats it, a few decibels louder.

It's that same voice that Elyjah knew he'd need if LeMahieu ever got within earshot. He waited and waited and waited. No LeMahieu.

And then ... here came the Yankees' big, 6-foot-4, do-everything infielder. He got lucky that a bunch of other kids started yelling his name, and he joined in. "DJ! Over here," he heard himself yell. He almost couldn't believe he was doing it.

LeMahieu came over and signed a string of autographs as more kids and parents swarmed. As with Donaldson, Elyjah anchored himself into the mayhem and held his card out. After a few minutes, LeMahieu's hand drifted over toward his, and Elyjah felt his card get pulled away. He felt incredible joy and relief as he watched LeMahieu sign the card, then hand it back. He had done it.

But the signed card was almost irrelevant to his mom and dad. They'd just wanted him to find his voice, literally and figuratively, to give it a shot. "I felt like I'd seen him go from a boy to a man in that moment," his dad says.

Both parents were beaming in the stands when Elyjah came back and said he wanted to try to get more autographs after the game. A buddy who had tagged along that day had told Elyjah how to set up near the players' parking lot, where you could hang out alongside parade-type railing and try to get signatures as Yankees walked to their cars.

When the game was over, sure enough, his parents followed as Elyjah nestled in among about 10 kids and their parents. The space was wide open, just pavement and a railing. The whole area was about the size of an outdoor basketball court. Elyjah had just begun to settle in along the fencing alongside the horde when some Yankees started to meander out.

But as Elyjah reached down into his armpit, he felt nothing but his shirt. His hands went up and down his body and his head spun around, again and again. But nothing.

His autographs were gone.

FOR THE NEXT 60 SECONDS, Elyjah and his parents retraced their steps in a mad dash. Elyjah must have checked his armpits 50 times as he ran up and down the same stretch of pavement he had traveled. No luck.

After a minute or two, they had rewalked the small area and the book was nowhere to be found. Elyjah fell apart, beginning to cry as his parents tried to hug him.

But his sadness was an infectious disease, and pretty soon John and Colleen were losing it, too. They summoned some nearby security guards and told them that they thought he had dropped the autograph book and that they suspected someone had run off with it.

By the three-minute mark, security had joined the hunt, roaming up and down the open area and even helping Elyjah and his parents dig through some shrubs he hadn't even gone near.

Around that time, even as heartbreak was setting in, Elyjah's mom and dad noticed a heartwarming sight -- all of those other autograph-hunting kids and their parents had heard what happened and turned away from the departing Yankees players to scatter across the area and join the investigation. A few kids even went as far as to run into the nearby fan parking lot and start stopping moving cars.

"Have you seen a binder with baseball cards and albums?" they yelled through the windows. They got nothing but a bunch of sad head shakes.

By the 15-minute mark, most Yankees players had left and reality was setting in. Elyjah Blankenberg's autograph book had vanished. He thinks he dropped it. Did someone then accidentally pick it up and walk off? Did someone purposely take it? Did somebody toss it in the trash without thinking? He shrugs his shoulders, but his parents are certain about what happened.

"I hate to say this," Colleen begins. She looks like she genuinely hates what she is thinking, and it looks like she might just let that sentence hang. But then she finishes her thought. "But I'm sure somebody else took off with it."

John and Elyjah kept looking around anyway, drifting over the same small chunk of pavement. Somewhere deep down, they both knew they'd seen the last of the book. But they couldn't stop looking. It was like lifting up the same couch cushion for the 10th time on a remote hunt.

"It wasn't the value of the cards and the autographs," John says. "It was that the cards -- especially the LeMahieu card -- had been the result of one of those big life moments, where Elyjah had worked up the courage to ask for his autographs. And now it was gone."

The whole group was too distraught to eat on the way home. In fact, John says he was so woozy and emotionally drained that he had to think really hard about how to get home despite being very familiar with the roads. "The worst car ride of our lives," he says.

But they eventually got home and collapsed that Saturday night, hoping against hope that maybe somebody would turn in the binder to security and they'd get a call the next day to come pick it up.

By the next evening, though, Colleen had sat with it long enough. All three of them moped around the house on Sunday. In one last-ditch moment of Super Mommedness, Colleen decided to go to a place she rarely went, a place she dreaded -- social media.

After an unbearable silent dinner, she posted a broken-hearted message around 7 p.m., explaining to the world what her young son had lost and what it would mean to get it back.

It was a half-court heave, and the whole family went to bed that night unaware that an unlikely savior was about to emerge overnight: the internet.

CYNTHIA MCLAUGHLIN WAS HEADED for Publix on Sunday night for some groceries when a colleague flagged an interesting Facebook post from a nearby mom. McLaughlin, an anchor at Sarasota's Suncoast News Network, checked out Colleen Spencer's post, and it piqued her interest. SNN covers a nice chunk of central Florida, including Venice (Elyjah's hometown). So this could be right up the network's alley, McLaughlin thought.

She made a mental note to check it out again later that night to see if it had gotten any traction. And when she did, she saw that Colleen's post had skyrocketed, with 1,300 shares just on Facebook. A Twitter user, DynastyCLE -- a Cleveland-area photographer and autograph hound named Ryan Mossor in real life -- had passed it along within the collector community, and pretty soon Colleen's plea had exploded on Facebook and Twitter.

For people like Mossor, they understood the pressure and the joy of landing That One Autograph I Always Wanted, and also the agony of it suddenly being gone. "That would have devastated me," Mossor says. "I feel like a lot of people felt like me. We felt his loss."

By the time McLaughlin had stocked up her fridge and checked back in on it, Mossor and hundreds of die-hard collectors had given Elyjah's story momentum that couldn't be ignored. So McLaughlin replied to Spencer's post, asking if she could get the story. "I think of these kinds of stories as recharge stories," she says. "You see so much bad stuff on social media. Doing something like this ... it was overwhelming, in a good way."

Spencer responded and agreed to do the story -- as long as she didn't have to be on camera. But then Elyjah said he'd rather not be on camera, either. "I didn't want all the attention," he says. "I just wanted my binder back."

Mom and Dad coached him up a bit, and he eventually caved in and agreed to go on camera to tell his story, with his dad appearing, too. McLaughlin's piece aired March 22 and injected a new twist into the whole story: an address to help Elyjah rebuild his card collection and an email for anyone who wanted to return his album, no questions asked.

When Elyjah got ready for bed that night, he told his parents that the interview had taken a lot out of him and that he was worried some of his classmates might goof on him, either for losing his autograph book or for being Mr. TV Cool Guy. In his quiet voice, he asked, "Do I have to go to school tomorrow?"

If that sounds silly, close your eyes and visualize sixth grade again, and you'll sign up for some truancy, too. Mom and Dad debated it but eventually said he could skip. So Elyjah stayed home, hoping the whole thing would blow over.

The sad reality settled in over the next 24 hours. If somebody had swiped the book, was that person really going to see the broadcast, package it up and mail it in? Elyjah began to accept that he probably wasn't ever going to ever see his autograph book again.

But as he closed his eyes the next night, ready to return to school after the day at home, resigned to the permanent MIA status of his autographs, what Elyjah didn't realize was that his mom's viral plea, paired with McLaughlin's mailing address, had galvanized an army of people to frantically look for envelopes, tape and stamps. As Mossor describes, many thought, "I might not have Elyjah Blankenberg's autograph collection, but I have something I'd like to give him."

Ten days later, in early April, Elyjah and his parents got a call from McLaughlin with stunning news. Over the week and a half since her piece had run, SNN had gotten a steady stream of packages and even some visits from locals, all with something they desperately wanted Elyjah to have.

McLaughlin asked whether they'd be interested in a follow-up piece in which she and a crew could film Elyjah sitting down at a local card shop opening everything on camera.

"How much stuff is it?" Colleen asked.

"Make sure you empty out your trunk," McLaughlin said.

Elyjah initially didn't want to do it. He was nervous about being on TV again, and he wasn't sure how he was going to feel opening up everything live. The other kids had been fine in school after the first TV piece, but another appearance talking about his lost autographs? He felt as if he might be taunting the taunting gods.

His parents talked to him about the need to set aside his individual worry and show gratitude for such a remarkable response. That this was an exciting development, an opportunity to start a new collection from the gifts he'd apparently been sent. But more than anything else, they said, one thought persuaded him to agree to it. "What if somebody did mail your album back?" John said.

On the day of the shoot, the SNN crew was running a half-hour late, so Elyjah roamed the card shop, pacing back and forth. Finally, McLaughlin & Co. arrived and lugged in two giant plastic totes, all loaded with packages of different sizes. "Maybe my autographs are in there somewhere," Elyjah whispered to his dad.

McLaughlin had Elyjah sit at a table and start to open up everything, with him reading each letter out loud. He was nervous, for sure, but he also felt an indescribable feeling that hits all autograph collectors in these moments -- every item is a mysterious gift from somewhere far away that is full of intrigue. It's Indiana Jones opening up the unknown tomb, every time.

Elyjah reached for the biggest package first, a large rectangular box from New York. He ripped it open and pulled out a framed Peyton Manning autographed magazine cover, a signed hockey puck from Bobby Orr and then a slew of autographed baseballs: Nolan Ryan, Ozzie Smith, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Sammy Sosa. The sender, Dr. Neil Berliner, is a psychiatrist and comedy writer, and a lifelong collector, and he said he wanted to help Elyjah start over.

Then Elyjah began to work his way through the pile, one letter after another. Many expressed sadness that Elyjah's album had gone missing, with their own tales of heartbreak. Some had been devastated when their parents threw out an important piece of memorabilia. Others said they lost a prized item to flooding or a fire. "The letters were so personal," John says.

And every one of those people included an autograph or two from their own collections, something for Elyjah to reboot his collection. Topps also sent him some unopened boxes of cards. The Orioles sent him a game-used third base, with every player's signature on it.

The opening went on and on for almost two hours, and Elyjah was still only halfway through the totes when McLaughlin and Elyjah's parents decided to call it a night. John and Colleen said he could take the rest of the packages home to open the next day. But Elyjah couldn't wait, and neither could Mom and Dad. They spent another two hours that night tearing open the last 75 or so packages at home.

Right before they had left the card shop, the entire crew paused as Elyjah began to read one last letter, a letter that would change his life, perhaps more than any other he had received. It had a return address about 100 miles away in Florida, from a 64-year-old man.

The man said he'd seen the first SNN broadcast and looked down at all the scars running up and down his arms, and he felt like he needed to give Elyjah something, something really important to him, something he'd been given when his own tragic story went viral in 1968.

"As Elyjah read that letter," John says, "I felt my knees getting weak."

IN THE SUMMER OF 1968, Steve Samples went down to the local beach with his dad. He was 10 years old, and he spent chunks of most days in the water. He was one of those kids who was half fish, connected to the ocean in a way even he couldn't fully explain.

As he flopped around in the water, he suddenly saw a fin coming directly at him. With only a second to think, Samples turned his back as a 10-foot bullhead shark's open mouth exploded out of the water and bit into his body. The shark attacked his lower back and buttocks, repeatedly latching its jaw and then pulling the boy to the bottom of the ocean floor. Bystanders later told police the bullhead had been one of 6-8 sharks circling Samples and biting him.

Two surfers sprinted through the water and got to Samples around the same time as his dad. All three men waved their arms, which scared off the sharks. The whole attack lasted maybe 30 seconds, probably less.

They pulled the little boy up and out of the water, and Samples can still remember seeing the blood spurt from his body like it was coming from a water gun. They plopped him down on a surfboard and pushed him toward shore.

Within minutes, an ambulance had Samples in the back and en route to emergency surgery to see whether doctors could save his ravaged body. He underwent four hours of surgery, and the lead doctor told the family the team had stopped counting after 2,000 stitches to sew his body back together. The sharks had torn apart his lower back, and one had nearly bit off Samples' right arm.

But miraculously, doctors saved his entire body. He would later require multiple tendon relocations to try to boost the strength in what he calls a drop foot and a drop hand -- he only ever regained about half strength in one foot and in the hand that had been in the shark's mouth.

The next few weeks were brutal. Samples' family found out that local shark fishermen had baited that entire area the night before with chum, drawing in the sharks that attacked him. Samples' stitches continued to pop out in certain areas, setting him back over and over again. His friends started to call him "Shark Bait," a name he didn't like at first but has grown to love.

And then one day a package arrived. Samples' story had gone viral by 1968 standards, appearing in newspapers and newscasts all over the country, and the New York Yankees took notice. The team, an aging 83-79 squad headlined by legends like Mickey Mantle, Gene Michael and Mel Stottlemyre, signed a baseball, packed it with a team yearbook and sent it to Samples.

He hadn't been a huge Yankees fan until that day. The ball was a treasured, special gift at the exact moment in his life when he needed something kind to offset something so cruel.

Samples went back to school the next year with a scarred, still-recovering body. But he was going to be OK, and the baseball had played a part in that. He has spent the next five decades living his life, working at Pratt & Whitney testing rockets, getting married, getting divorced, getting married again, getting divorced again, and as he chuckles about a lifetime of many loves, he says he got married again the day before. He's leaving later on this late-April day to begin a trip up the coast with his new wife.

Through it all, Samples says the one thread that had held together his life was the Yankees ball. It had helped him get past the shark attack, past the scarring and chronic pain, past the ups and downs of marriage and divorce, past it all.

"When I saw the newscast, I knew what I had to do," he says. "The ball needed to be passed along to the right person. This was the right time, and Elyjah was the right person."

IN THE WEEKS AFTER getting all of the Elyjah fan mail, Colleen and John had their son focused on three core things -- school, his Little League baseball season and writing thank-you notes. So, so many thank-you notes, enough that Elyjah found himself constantly shaking out his right hand.

The gratitude portion of the exercise was essential for Colleen and John, though. They met about 13 years ago when Colleen was working as a waitress at a local Perkins and she got introduced to her new manager, a guy named John Blankenberg. Human resources violations be damned, a few weeks later, they went to Chili's and a Jeff Dunham show, and they've been together ever since.

Last year, on April 16, the whole family's world got turned upside down when John began to have breathing issues. It was just shortness of breath for a while, but it kept getting worse and worse until he went to an asthma specialist, who recommended X-rays at a nearby hospital. When he got the X-rays, the hospital wouldn't let him leave -- later, his doctor told him he was one sneeze away from instant death.

The problem wasn't his lungs. His heart had a leaky valve that caused it to gradually retain blood and balloon to the point where it was smushing his lungs and slowly choking him. He was scheduled for immediate surgery, and nurses and staff members instructed John and everybody around him not to let him move. He had to just lie in the bed until they took him in for what was an eight-hour procedure.

The surgery went as well as humanly possible, but John was down for the count for a few months. Elyjah's Little League teammates and their parents stepped up to raise money to help the family and provide rides to and from games for him as Colleen spent long hours at the hospital and later at home, taking care of John.

After six weeks or so, John could hobble around with a cane, and he made it to the final weekend of games just in time to see Elyjah and his teammates win the league title, finishing 21-1 behind their star player. The kid they call "DJ" for his versatility played mostly shortstop while batting third and fourth in the lineup. When he explains the link between his nickname and his favorite player, there's a slight drop-off in his voice. It seems like he's still thinking about the prized autograph that got away.

A year later, John is back on his feet, working as a window salesman. Colleen has been helping out a friend who runs a business helping people organize their homes better. And Elyjah is still raking for what he hopes will be a second straight league title.

Colleen says she wishes she could give the world an update via social media. She had gotten a barrage of messages from people right after the incident, including a healthy supply of people who said they had "a friend of a friend" who might be able to get an autograph for Elyjah. One woman in Georgia said she knew DJ LeMahieu's mother-in-law and would try to get something from LeMahieu to replace the lost autograph.

But, as now mandated by internet law, Colleen's Facebook account was recently hacked and she is locked out. "The person changed my profile to ... something a little more adult," she says. "Can you put in the article that that's not me?"

At SNN, the packages have continued to roll in from all over the country. McLaughlin might not do a third installment in the Internet's Quest To Make Elyjah Whole Again, but she does plan to get him another tote or two in the near future. Maybe the binder will be in there. Maybe it won't. But Elyjah also had something happen recently that has him feeling more content than ever should he never get his autographs back.

A few weeks ago, right after school and right before a big Little League game, Elyjah walked through the front door expecting to have to hammer out a couple of thank-you notes before putting his uniform on. But his mom said she had a surprise for him.

Elyjah walked into the kitchen and found a package. It had a Georgia return address and an ungodly amount of tape. Elyjah methodically ripped it open, needing scissors to slice through all that tape. The note inside was short and sweet. "I hope this gets you going again," the woman wrote.

Along with the note, Elyjah pulled out a DJ LeMahieu card and a signed ball. It read, "To Elyjah, DJ LeMahieu. #26," and Elyjah's head jerked up toward his mom. She nodded yes, that was DJ LeMahieu's personalized signature. The Georgia friend-of-a-friend had been real. "I couldn't believe it," Elyjah says. "I feel like one bad thing happened, but then a lot of good things happened since then."

In the few weeks since then, Elyjah has remodeled his room. Memorabilia now flanks his bed in two distinct mounds, one on each side. "He's kind of living within the piles," John says.

His mom says they'll occasionally come in his room late at night and find him asleep in his baseball uniform, with one of the Yankees balls beside him, and John nods along before he jumps in to clarify which ball. "Either the LeMahieu or the 1968 ball," he says.

As his parents say that story toward the end of a video call, Elyjah's head moves back and forth as he listens to them talk. He has answered questions about his missing album for an hour or so, but he has often said only a few words and then left space for his parents to fill in the rest of the thought. They never stampede his words or interrupt him. The family has a love language in which Mom and Dad both gently put periods on his sentences, and if you look real close, you can see him signal to them with his eyes that he's done talking, that it's their turn.

But when they're done telling that quick story about him sleeping in the piles, Elyjah speaks a little louder than he did earlier in the call. He seems to be processing all of it in real time, the ups and downs of the story of his lost autographs, and then the faith in humanity that came after it.

Unprompted, he says, "I think I'll be OK if I don't get the album back."

He thinks about it for a second, and it seems like another moment when his parents might help him out by chiming in. But they're just looking at him and smiling, and finally, he starts to speak again.

"Yeah, I'm OK."