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Kovacevic: Put away Sharpie and shake hands

| Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

Pascal Dupuis was signing autographs outside the Penguins' hotel last week in St. Paul, Minn., moving like an assembly line from one outstretched hand to the next. There were about 20 in all, after which he handed back the last Sharpie, turned around and boarded the team bus.

Not a syllable was spoken, not a smile exchanged.

Dupuis is an eminently affable, approachable human being. Not all professional athletes are. A few can be jerks, as is the case in all walks of life. But one thing most athletes have in common, I can tell you, is grumbling about autographs. And I can't say I blame them.

For one, fans can be terribly rude in how they ask.

"Hey, Walker! Sign my scorecard!"

"Ward! Ward! Hines Ward!"

For another, an increasing portion of the autograph crowd is made up of collectible specialists and eBay hounds. You've seen them. These are the grown men staking out athletes in 20-degree cold on weekday mornings, holding phone-book-sized binders of Mylar-coated sheets of rookie cards.

Evan Meek, the Pirates' reliever, has a personal restriction on how many of those sheets he'll sign - "Never more than one side," he told me this summer - and he's got plenty of company.

It's not that athletes don't like dealing with fans. It's that they really aren't dealing with them at all.

Why not just, you know, talk?

Rewinding way back to childhood, I can recall Mario Lemieux, as a youngster with the Penguins, appearing for a signing session at a Thrift Drug branch in Monroeville. It was a small store, no more than a dozen or so fans. Different times, indeed.

My brother and I waited in line but never sought an autograph. Instead, when our turn came, we asked Lemieux about a certain inside-out move he had recently used to undress Larry Robinson, the superb Montreal defenseman. Despite still-halting English, he explained it in detail. Looked up at us, too. Smiled. Shook hands, and thanked us for coming out.

Years later, Lemieux used exactly that move for the most famous goal of his career, the one that tortured Minnesota's Shawn Chambers and Jon Casey in the 1991 Stanley Cup Final. Few in Pittsburgh could have appreciated it more than me and my brother. And I still do, even as I went on to get to know the man professionally over many years.

Want to see how these athletes really are?

Come watch when the Penguins deliver pizza to college students standing in line for tickets outside Consol Energy Center. That happened last week, in the cold and rain. Dupuis was one of the delivery boys, along with Jordan Staal, James Neal and Deryk Engelland.

A bit later, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma passed out hot chocolate.

One young fan said to Bylsma: "You guys are awesome."

Bylsma quickly came back: "No, you guys are awesome."

Come to PNC Park on Sunday afternoons when the Pirates' players welcome fans at the gates. Autographs aren't allowed, but you'll never see mom and dad more delighted than the couple I saw when Neil Walker knelt down to their daughter and shouted playfully, "What's up, buddy?"

To that child, Walker can be her "buddy" for life.

Come right up to the Steelers' Ike Taylor next time you see him, but keep the pen in your pocket. That's what one woman did in a Phoenix hotel lobby the other day. She was a Pittsburgh transplant and devoted fan, traits that were uncomfortably exposed when she trembled at the mere sight of Taylor.

When she asked if she could take a picture with him, Taylor laughed and said, "Sure, but why don't you sit down first• Can I get you some water?"

The two talked football for a while before Taylor had to leave.

"I just feel blessed to be in my position," Taylor later explained. "With the autographs, it doesn't really bother me whether they're just eBayin' it, or if they're really going to keep it. I don't pay that much mind. But I'll always find time for fans who want to talk, you know?"

I don't know what all that's worth, but the current eBay bidding for a Dupuis-autographed Penguins game program begins at 99 cents.

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