ST. PETERSBURG — When Tim Virgilio first dreamed up the idea eight years ago of sending hand-written letters to baseball players asking them to sign cards that he could sell to raise money for veterans in need, he set a modest goal of just $500.
His Signatures for Soldiers charity has raised more than $148,000 for Military Missions in Action, which aids disabled and homeless veterans by helping provide housing and making modifications like constructing wheelchair ramps and roll-in-showers, widening doorways, and lowering cabinets and countertops.
In what has become an annual summer ritual, Virgilio and wife Michelle packed up all the items he has collected — which this year includes about 25,000 signed cards across all sports — into a van and traveled to the annual National Sports Collectors Convention. This year’s convention —the largest sports card and collectibles show in the country — starts Wednesday in Atlantic City, N.J., and this will be Signatures for Soldiers’ fourth year at the event.
“When I started this, it was to raise money,” Virgilio said. “In eight years, it’s transformed into more than that. The goal is still to raise money, but it’s also to help do some education about the difficulties that our veterans have, about homelessness, disabilities, whether it’s physical, emotional, mental health, and why, as a society, we should really still continue to support these men and women when they come back.”
Last year, he raised $27,000 as the convention’s official charity. This year, the Signatures for Soldiers online silent auction, which runs through Saturday and includes items autographed by Hall of Famers like Mariano Rivera and Steph Curry, will likely make at least $50,000 on its own.
Virgilio’s greatest asset early on was social media. It allowed him to reach athletes directly, and many were eager to not just sign cards for him, but donate their own memorabilia.
“Without that, I’d still be working on $500,” Virgilio said.
Donations by the dozens
Virgilio’s best recruiting tool was word of mouth, and once his cause caught on in baseball clubhouses and locker rooms in other professional sports, he was shocked at his reach.
Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., a Tampa native, donated his Memorial Day hat and cleats. Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, another Tampa native, delivered a signed Yankees jersey. Capitals forward T.J. Oshie mailed Virgilio a game-used hockey stick. Last year, Mariners All-Star outfielder Mitch Haniger donated seven pairs of signed game-worn cleats, and when the Mariners were in town to play the Rays in April, he offered up six more pairs.
Virgilio’s inventory of signed cards now includes baseball, football, basketball, hockey, professional wrestling, golf and auto racing. Even at the convention, which draws some of the top retired athletes, people donate their unused VIP package autograph tickets to help grow the charity’s inventory of signatures.
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Requesting, collecting and organizing, and collating items to sell is a remarkable task, and Virgilio — who works full time as a licensed clinical social worker for combat veterans — runs the charity on a completely volunteer basis.
Adam Jones, a six-time All-Star outfielder with the Orioles, responded to Virgilio on Twitter while the Orioles were in St. Petersburg playing the Rays. Virgilio was going to the game the following night so he told Jones he’d be by the bullpen before first pitch.
“Sure enough, I stand by the bullpen and I see his head pop out of the dugout, pops back in, comes out, bat in hand, comes walking over, shakes my hand, starts talking to me, gives me the bat to go ahead and sell,” Virgilio said. “It’s just been things like that. It’s been very organic. It’s been very genuine.”
Jones, whose father and brother served in the Navy, said it was a “no-brainer” to reach out.
“What he’s doing is noble, it’s extremely time consuming,” Jones said. “He’s just not out there just getting your autograph and just wanting to go sell it and make money. No, the autographs are going to a fantastic cause. It’s going toward people..”
“A lot of the military people struggle when they come back from their tours and fighting and I just wanted to show appreciation for someone who’s going to bat for them,” Jones added.
Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro met Virgilio about five years ago when the charity was still in its early stages. This past offseason, Quatraro delivered some signed items that he had collected from players who had expressed interest in helping a charity involved with the military.
“The passion he has for it and the fact that he started it all from scratch and what it’s grown into, I think he just really genuinely has it in his heart to help people and that really became evident from talking to him,” Quatraro said. “It just genuinely seems to come out of the goodness of his heart.”
Even though Virgilio’s auction will include many big-ticket items that will draw bids in the thousands, he grew Signatures for Soldiers on the premise that every dollar counts. On a recent afternoon, he thumbed through cards signed by Boggs that are priced modestly at $30 each. But most of his inventory is cards that range from $1 to $5.
“I’m not that famous,” said Mike Heath, a Tampa native who played in the majors for 14 years and has regularly signed cards for Virgilio. “But it made me feel good that he thought about me to be a part of this.”
Virgilio is now looking to expand Signatures for Soldiers to make a greater impact locally. His charity just received 501(c)3 non-profit status and is working with the Housing and Urban Development/Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing in Pinellas County.
“If the veteran needs bed sheets, a comforter, pillow, then that’s what we’re gonna purchase and deliver it,” Virgilio said. “If they need pots and pans, silverware, flatware, cups, if they need gas cards to get to and from work or to and from appointments, if they need gift cards to put food in the refrigerator — whatever that gap is — that’s where we’re gonna start. There are organizations in the community that do those types of things, but they do them for everybody, not just veterans.”
Virgilio has also partnered with James Coleman, the founder of Bayboro Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg and a Marine Corps veteran, to work on fundraising events for the charity that will entirely be utilized locally. Signatures for Soldiers will offer grants to other military-based 501(c)3 non-profits in Tampa Bay and nationally.
When Virgilio talks about how far Signatures for Solders has come and the impact it has made in a short time, his eyes often water.
“I mean, who am I?” he said. “I’m not that important in my own head. For people to really buy into this and give a level of trust to me that I’m doing what I say I’m doing, how can I not get emotional? It’s humbling.”