FOR A HOURElyjah Blankenberg went through his collection of baseball cards. He wanted the perfect combination ofAnd For the most amazing adventure of his life, he tried to get autographs at a Yankees game.
Blankenberg's collection was nice-sized and included many cards from his Yankees team. Blankenberg wanted a great card, but not an inferior one. Too goodA card that is not signed by the owner usually has a lower value. Blankenberg also learned from people that certain melees along clubhouse rails can lead to bent or damaged cards.
Blankenberg curated the perfect blend and selected it to be taken to the March 19th spring game in Sarasota. He was particularly careful about selecting the best.card. Blankenberg, an 11-year old baseball player, is a star. His teammates and coaches call him “DJ” after LeMahieu due to his ability to play anywhere and rake at any spot on the field.
Elyjah was piled into the car by John Spencer's dad and Colleen Spencer's mom for the 40-minute trip from Venice, Florida to the Yankees/Orioles game at Ed Smith Stadium. They were shocked at how nervous Elyjah was. Elyjah is a shy child and ran up and down the bleachers to try and get attention. This was his World Series Game 7.
He managed to sneak in to a Josh Donaldson horde during batting practice. But he held his ground in the pack, and he got a signed card. He thought, “I can do it.”
BP began to feel the butterflies grow after he had slowed down. Blankenberg speaks in a quiet voice. He often says a few short sentences before looking at one of his parents. Then he'll start to elaborate. Elyjah turns to John, his father, and speaks “.767” with such a library tone, that John repeats it a few decibels more.
Elyjah knew that this voice was the one he needed if LeMahieu got in his way. He waited. No LeMahieu.
The Yankees' big, 6-foot-4 infielder was born. Lucky for him, a lot of kids began yelling his name and he joined the fray. “DJ! He heard himself shouting “DJ!” He nearly couldn't believe what he was doing.
LeMahieu stopped by and signed autographs for a number of kids and their parents as they flooded the area. Elyjah held his card out, much like Donaldson. Elyjah felt the card being pulled from his hand after a while. LeMahieu moved his hand toward Elyjah's. As LeMahieu signed the card, Elyjah felt immense joy and relief. It was done.
For his dad and mom, the signed card was almost non-relevant. They just wanted him find his voice and give it a try. His dad said that he felt as if he had seen his son transform from a boy into a man in that instant.
Elyjah, who was beaming in the stands with both parents, said that he would try to get more autographs following the game. Elyjah was accompanied by a friend who had tagged along on that day. He showed him how to set up next to the players' lot. Here you could sit alongside the parade-type railing to try and get signatures while the Yankees walked towards their cars.
After the game was finished, Elyjah and his parents followed suit as Elyjah sat among approximately 10 children and their parents. The area was large and open with only a few steps and a railing. The entire area was roughly the same size as an outdoor basketball court. Elyjah was just beginning to settle down along the fencing with the horde, when some Yankees began to meander.
Elyjah felt nothing as he reached into his armpit to feel his shirt. His hands moved up and down his body, and his head turned around and back again. But nothing.
His autographs were lost.
FOR THE NEXT 60 SECONDSElyjah ran madly with his parents to retrace their steps. Elyjah must've checked his armpits fifty times as he ran the same route he had traveled. No luck.
After retracing the small area, Elyjah began to cry. The book was not found. Elyjah began to fall apart and his parents tried to comfort him.
But his sadness was infectious, and John and Colleen soon lost it too. They called some security guards nearby and said that they believed he had dropped the autograph book.
Three minutes later, security joined the hunt and began to roam the open area, helping Elyjah's parents and digging through some shrubs he hadn’t seen.
Elyjah was feeling heartbroken at the time. However, Elyjah and his mom noticed a touching sight. Every autograph-hunting child and their parents had heard about what had happened and turned away the Yankees players. They began to spread out across the region and joined the investigation. Some children even ran to the nearby fan parking lot to stop cars moving.
“Have y'all ever seen a binder full of baseball cards and albums?” They yelled out through the windows. They received nothing but a few sad head shakes.
The 15-minute mark was when most Yankees players left. Reality was beginning to set in. Elyjah Blankenberg had lost his autograph book. He believes he lost it. Did someone else then pick it up by accident and take it with them? Did anyone deliberately take it? Did someone toss it in a trash can without thinking about? He shrugs, but his parents are certain of what happened.
Colleen starts, “I hate to tell you this,” she says. It looks as if she truly hates what she's thinking. She then finishes her thought. “But, I'm sure someone else took it off with it.”
John and Elyjah looked around, drifting over the small patch of pavement. They both knew deep down that they had seen the end of the book. They couldn't stop staring. It was like going on a distant hunt and lifting the same couch cushion 10 times.
John says, “It was not the value of cards and autographs.” “It was that the cards, particularly the LeMahieu cards, had been the result a life-changing moment in which Elyjah had the courage to ask for his autographs. And it was gone.”
The entire group was too upset to eat on their way home. John claims that John was so weary and emotional that he couldn't even think about how to get back home. He is not familiar with the roads. He describes it as “the worst car ride of all our lives.”
But they did manage to get home and fell asleep on Saturday night. Hoping against hope that somebody would surrender the binder and security would call them the next day to collect it.
Colleen was done with the task by the evening. They all moaned around the house Sunday. Colleen made a last-ditch effort to Super Momminess and decided to visit social media, which she had dread about.
After an uncontrollable dinner, she sent a brokenhearted message to the world at 7:07 p.m., explaining what her young son had lost, and what it meant to get it back.
It was a half court heave and the entire family went to sleep that night not knowing that the internet was their unlikely savior.
CYNTHIA MACLAUGHLIN WAS HEADEDWhen a colleague spotted a post on Facebook from a local mom, she suggested that Publix be used for some groceries. McLaughlin was an anchor at Sarasota’s Suncoast News Network and saw Colleen Spencer’s post. It piqued her curiosity. SSN covers central Florida including Venice, Elyjah's hometown. McLaughlin believed that this would be a good fit for the network.
She decided to make a mental note of it and check back later in the night to see if it had gained any traction. When she checked it out again, Colleen's post had risen to 1,300 Facebook shares. DynastyCLE, a Twitter user and autograph hound from Cleveland, had shared the post with the collector community and Colleen's plea exploded on Twitter and Facebook.
Mossor and others like him understood the joy and pressure of landing that One Autograph I Always Desired, as well as the pain of losing it. Mossor states, “That would've devastated me.” “I feel like many people felt the same way as me. We felt his pain.”
McLaughlin was already restocking her fridge, and checking back in, and Mossor and hundreds more collectors had given Elyjah a momentum that could not be ignored. McLaughlin replied in kind to Spencer's message, asking if she could obtain the story. “These kinds of stories can be referred to as recharge stories,” McLaughlin says. You see so much negative stuff on social media. It was overwhelming to do something like this, but it was a positive experience.”
Spencer agreed and said she would do the story, provided that she wasn't required to be on camera. Elyjah stated that he would prefer not to be on camera. He says, “I didn’t want all of the attention.” “I just wanted my binder to be back.”
He was coached by his parents, but he finally gave in to his father's pressure and said he would be on camera to share his story. McLaughlin's piece aired March 22nd and added a new twist to the story. He provided an address to Elyjah to rebuild his cards collection and sent an email to anyone who wanted to send his album back, without any questions.
Elyjah went to bed the next night after telling his parents that the interview had taken a lot from him and that he was nervous about some of his classmates mocking him for having lost his autograph book or being Mr. TV Cool Guy. He asked in a quiet voice: “Do I have to get to school tomorrow?”
If this sounds absurd, close your eyes and picture sixth grade. Then you can sign up to truancy. He could skip, but Mom and Dad disagreed. Elyjah decided to stay home in the hope that everything would be sorted out.
Over the next 24 hour, the reality was a sad one. Did the person who had stolen the book really see the broadcast? Would they package it up and mail them in? Elyjah started to accept the fact that he would never see his autographed book again.
Elyjah closed his eyes and was ready for school. However, Elyjah did not realize that McLaughlin's viral plea combined with McLaughlin’s mailing address had sparked an army of people who searched tirelessly for envelopes, tape, stamps, and tape. Mossor explains that many people thought, “I may not have Elyjah Blankenberg’s autograph collection, however, I have something I’d like to gift him.”
Elyjah's parents received a call from McLaughlin in the early hours of April 10 days later. SSN had received a steady stream packages and visits from locals over the past week and a quarter since her article ran. All of them included something Elyjah desperately needed.
McLaughlin contacted them to ask if they would be interested in a sequel piece. She and a crew could film Elyjah seated at a local card shop, opening everything on camera.
“How much stuff does it contain?” Colleen asked.
McLaughlin advised, “Make sure that you empty your trunk.”
Elyjah initially refused to do it. Elyjah was anxious about appearing on television again and wasn't sure how it would feel to open up all his personal details live. While the other children were fine at school after the TV piece, they were not as comfortable when he made another appearance to talk about his lost autographs. He felt as if he was taunting the taunting gods.
His parents discussed with him the need to put aside individual worries and show gratitude for such an extraordinary response. This was an exciting opportunity to create a new collection using the gifts he received. They said that he agreed to the idea because of one thought. “What if someone did send your album back?” John stated.
Elyjah wandered around the card shop, pausing back and forth, as the SSN crew ran half an hour late on the day of the shoot. McLaughlin and Co. finally arrived and brought two huge plastic bags, each containing packages of various sizes. Elyjah whispered to him, “Maybe my autographs were in there somewhere.”
McLaughlin asked Elyjah to sit down at a table, and begin opening everything. He then read each letter aloud. Although he was nervous, McLaughlin had Elyjah sit down at a table and begin to open everything. He also felt an indescribable sensation that all autograph collectors feel in these moments: every item is a mysterious, intrigue-filled gift from faraway places. Every time, it's Indiana Jones opening the mysterious tomb.
Elyjah went first to the largest package, a rectangular New York box. Elyjah opened the box and found a Peyton Manning signed magazine cover. He also pulled out a signed Bobby Orr hockey puck and a collection of autographed baseballs including Nolan Ryan and Ozzie Smith. Dr. Neil Berliner is a comedian and psychiatrist who wanted to help Elyjah.
Elyjah then began to go through each letter one by one. Many shared their sadness at Elyjah's loss, and told their stories of heartbreak. Some were shocked when their parents lost an important piece of memorabilia. Some claimed they lost their prized item due to flooding or fire. John says that the letters were so intimate.
Each of these people also included autographs from their collections. This allowed Elyjah the opportunity to relaunch his collection. Topps also gave him unopened boxes full of cards. The Orioles gave him a game-used third base with all the signatures of every player.
Elyjah was only halfway through his totes when McLaughlin, Elyjah's parents, decided to call it quits. John and Colleen told him he could bring the remaining packages home to open the following day. Elyjah, as well as Mom and Dad, couldn't wait. They continued to open the remaining 75 packages for two more hours.
Just before they left the card shop the crew paused and Elyjah started to read one final letter. This letter would likely change Elyjah's life more than any other. The letter was addressed to a 64-year old man and had a return address 100 miles away in Florida.
He said that he had seen the first SSN broadcast. As he looked down at the scars on his arms, he felt the need to give Elyjah some kind of something. Something that was really important to him.
John says that Elyjah was reading the letter and John felt his knees weaken.
1968 SOME SUMMERSSteve Samples and his father went to the beach. He was ten years old and spent most of his time in the water. He was half fish, and was connected to the ocean in ways that even he could not fully understand.
He was fumbling around in the water when suddenly a fin appeared at him. Samples turned his back and saw a bullhead shark, 10 feet long, bursting out of the water. It bit into Samples' body. The shark grabbed Samples' lower back, buttocks and pulled him to the bottom of a seafloor. Later, witnesses told police that the bullhead was one of six to eight sharks that had attacked Samples and bit him.
Two surfers ran through the water, and reached Samples in the same time frame as his dad. Three men raised their arms to scare the sharks. The whole thing lasted about 30 seconds, most likely less.
Samples recalls the boy being pulled up out of the water. He could feel the blood rushing from his body, as though it was coming from an automatic water gun. They laid him down on a board and pushed him toward the shore.
In minutes, the ambulance was able to place Samples in his back. It then took him to emergency surgery to determine if he could be saved. After four hours of surgery, the leading doctor informed his family that they had stopped counting the number of stitches needed to stitch his body back together. Samples was almost bitten by one of the sharks, which tore apart his lower back.
His entire body was saved miraculously by doctors. Later, he would need multiple tendon relocations in an attempt to increase the strength of what he called a drop foot or a drop hand. He only ever gained about half his strength in the one foot and the hand that was in the shark's mouth.
The following few weeks were very brutal. Samples' family discovered that the local shark fishermen had lured the entire area with chum the night before, drawing in the sharks who attacked him. Samples' stitches continued popping out in certain areas, causing him to be re-injured. He started calling his friends “Shark Bait”, a name that he did not like at first, but now loves.
One day, a package was delivered. Samples' story became a national sensation, reaching newspapers and newscasts throughout the country. The Yankees noticed. The team, an 83-79 team led by legends such as Gene Michael, Mickey Mantle and Mel Stottlemyre signed a baseball and packed it with a yearbook. Samples received it.
He had never been a Yankees fan up until that moment. He needed something to balance the cruelness of his past. The ball was a special, treasured gift.
Samples returned to school in the following year with a scarred body that was still recovering. The baseball had helped him get through it. But, he was going be OK. He spent the next fifty years living his life. He worked for Pratt Whitney testing rockets. He got married, got divorced, got married again and got divorced again. And he laughs as he recalls how he was married again the day before. He is leaving this April day to embark on a journey up the coast with his wife.
Samples claims that the Yankees' ball was the only thing that has held his life together through it all. It helped him overcome the shark attack, scarring, chronic pain, and all the other challenges.
He says, “When I saw the newscast I knew what I needed to do.” “The ball needed be passed on to the right people. Elyjah was the right person at the right moment.
IN THE WEEKS BEFOREColleen & John directed their son to three main things, school, Little League baseball season and writing Thank You Notes, after collecting all of the Elyjah fanmail. Elyjah began shaking his right arm constantly because of all the thank-you notes.
John and Colleen found the gratitude portion of this exercise to be extremely important. Colleen met John 13 years ago while working as a waitress in a Perkin's restaurant. John introduced Colleen to her manager, John Blankenberg. They met at Chili's and went to a Jeff Dunham concert a few weeks later.
John developed breathing problems last April 16th, which turned the family's life upside down. He experienced shortness of breath at first, but then it got worse. Finally, he saw an asthma specialist who recommended that he get X-rays taken at a local hospital. The hospital refused to let him go after he had taken the X-rays. Later, his doctor said that he was just one sneeze away of instant death.
His lungs weren't the problem. A leaky valve had caused his heart to retain blood, ballooning to the point that it was slowly choking his lungs. John was to undergo immediate surgery. Staff and nurses instructed John not to let him move. He was instructed to stay in bed for eight hours until they brought him in.
John was not able to return home for the surgery, although it went well. Elyjah’s Little League teammates and parents raised funds to support the family. They also provided rides from and to the games for John while Colleen spent long hours at work and then at home caring for John.
John could walk with a cane after six weeks. John made it to Sunday's final games just in the time to witness Elyjah win the league title. Elyjah finished 21-1 ahead of their star player. For his versatility, “DJ” is the name they gave to the boy. He played shortstop and batted third and fourth in their lineup. His voice drops slightly when he talks about the connection between his nickname, and his favorite player. He seems to be thinking about the autograph that was stolen.
John was back on his feet a year later and is now a window salesman. Colleen is helping a friend organize their home better. Elyjah still hopes to win the league title for the second time.
Colleen said that she wishes she could update the world via social media. Colleen received a flood of messages right away, including from people who claimed they knew someone who could help Elyjah get autographs. One Georgian woman said that she knew DJ LeMahieu’s mother-in law and would try to get a replacement autograph from LeMahieu.
However, Colleen's facebook account was hacked as required by internet law. She's now locked out. She says, “The person altered my profile to…something a bit more adult.” “Can I put in an article that isn't me?”
The packages continue to arrive at SSN from all parts of the country. McLaughlin may not be able to complete the third installment of the Internet's Quest To make Elyjah whole again, but she plans on buying him another bag or two in the near future. The binder might be in there. It might not. Elyjah had a recent event that made him feel more content than ever, even if he didn't get his autographs back.
Elyjah entered the house expecting to be asked to make a few thank-you notes before he put his uniform on. But Elyjah's mom revealed that she had a surprise for her son.
Elyjah entered the kitchen to find a package. It contained a Georgia return address, as well as a large amount of tape. Elyjah opened it slowly, using scissors to remove all the tape. The short note was sweet and simple. The woman wrote, “I hope you get going again.”
Elyjah also pulled out a DJ LeMahieu note and a signed ball. The note read, “To Elyjah DJ LeMahieu.” Elyjah jerked his head toward his mother, and #26 appeared. She nodded, and that was DJ LeMahieu’s personalized signature. The Georgia friend of a friend was actually real. Elyjah states, “I couldn’t believe that.” “It feels like one bad thing happened. But then, a lot more good things have happened.”
Elyjah will be remodeling his bedroom over the next few weeks. Two distinct mounds of Memorabilia flank his bed, one on either side. John states, “He kind of lives within the piles.”
His mom claims that they will sometimes find John asleep in his baseball uniform with one of the Yankees balls beside it at night. John nods as John jumps in to clarify which Yankees ball. He says, “Either the LeMahieu ball or the 1968 ball.”
Elyjah's head bobs back and forth as his parents tell the story. While he may have answered questions about his missing albums for over an hour, he sometimes only spoke a few words before leaving space for his parents. They did not interrupt him or stampede his words. Mom and Dad have a love language that the family uses to put periods between his sentences. If you look closely, you can also see him signaling to them that he is done speaking and that it's time for them.
Elyjah is now speaking louder than usual after they finish telling the story about him sleeping in the piles. Elyjah seems to be processing everything in real-time, including the ups and downs in the story about his lost autographs and the faith in humanity that followed.
He says, unprompted, “I think it will be OK if the album isn't returned to me.”
It seems that he is thinking about it for a second and his parents may be able to help him by adding their voice. He finally starts speaking again, even though they are just staring at him and smiling.
“Yeah, I'm OK.”