Autographs for Luke’s comeback

Are you an autograph hound? Do you arrive as the gates open to any sporting event and leave when the ushers kick you out for bugging players for their signatures?

Is the green space on the right-field line at Eastwood Field your paradise for the palatte of bats, balls, photographs, blank pieces of paper – even skin?

I admire your dedication.

I’ve been there, too. I’ve fought my way through crowds of bodies and a jungle of arms trying for the same purpose of getting a keepsake to take home from a memorable night at the ballpark.

Tonight, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers are making it easier for you. For a good cause, at that.

It’s the fourth annual Mystery Ball sale to benefit the Luke Holko Fund. Luke, who suffered life-threatening injuries when hit by a foul ball in 2009, is now 7 and enjoying life as a normal child.

“It’s great to see how far he’s come,” said his father, Chad.

Therapy, prayers and donations have helped nurture the process of Luke’s recovery from learning how to walk, speak and eat and also for paying the massive medical bills.

In the final month of the 2009 season, Scrappers fans raised $24,000. Donations came in from all over the country to an account set up at Cortland Banks, while numerous local golf outings and spaghetti dinners helped raise awareness and funds.

The Scrappers front office rolled out the red carpet for Luke on Aug. 8, 2010. Like a first-round draft pick or a superstar free-agent signing, Luke and former Mahoning Valley General Manager Dave Smith held a press conference. Luke was named an honorary Scrapper.

“When it first happened, Dave reached out to us within days,” said Nicole Holko, Luke’s mother. “He was so gracious and welcoming to our family and to show the community how Luke was doing.”

Luke really was a ballplayer that night. He got his own Scrappers No. 11 jersey – the number worn by ex-Scrapper Ben Carlson who hit the foul ball that injured Luke. He got to hang out in the dugout and fist-bump all the players as they ran onto the field. He even got his own baseball card.

“He’s the cutest little boy,” said Annie Stoltenberg, Scrappers promotions intern.

The Mystery Ball event is unique in that there is a wide range of opportunities to cash in on a rare autograph. For $10, you’ll get a bag, in it is a surprise ball that could be signed by the entire Scrappers, Akron Aeros or Columbus Clippers team. Major and minor league teams from across the country pitch in for the effort with signed balls of current or former players.

Balls in years past have featured Lastings Milledge of the Pittsburgh Pirates, even Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline and Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. Tampa Bay Rays Cy Young winner David Price and Cleveland Indians closer Chris Perez headline this year’s ball class. Each year it raises more than $1,500.

“We get a great response from teams across the country,” said Scrapper box office manager Stephanie Novak. “There’s a lot of upcoming prospects and great major league players’ autographs that fans have a chance to get.”

Your help in tonight’s Mystery Ball promotion helps make Luke walk a little taller, speak a little louder and cut down those hospital bills – just a little.

“You always have a lot of fans that come to games and that you talk with or sign autographs for, but you never really develop some sort of relationship with one of them during the season,” said Carlson, who hit the foul ball that injured Luke. “When you go home or switch teams, you kind of lose contact with all those people. I never thought I’d have a lasting relationship like I have with Luke and his family. The Scrappers organization has really reestablished a great relationship with them, too.”

Plus, your owning a small piece of baseball history. You may not be meeting Kaline or Ripken in person, but every signed ball comes with a certificate of authenticity.

And, like always, the Scrappers players will still be signing long into the night for you signature seekers.