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Mar 24 2000: Autograph Hounding 101

Well, there’s one surefire way to get an autograph, and that’s to buy something pre-signed. But where’s the fun in that? The point is not to have the autograph, so much as to have the record of having been there, in the same place at the same time, as the player himself. That’s why people sign contracts–to verify their existence and agreement. Ok, sure, you could just take a lot of photos–which I did while I could–but the autograph is a special kind of juju that passes from player to fan. It is the validation of the relationship, player to fan, in some ways: the player is basically writing “I was here” on something the fan values and keeps. (Hmm, think about those people who get the player to sign right on their arm…)

Anyway, based on everything I saw this past month, here are all the tips I got from other fans, and what worked for me, to get autographs during Spring training, when the players are at their most accessible.

Autograph Hound Checklist

  • Pens — make sure you have more than one pen, since sometimes a player will absent-mindedly abscond with yours. Sharpies (indelible markers) are very good, write on all surfaces, and don’t smear. The gift shop at Legends Field thoughtfully stocks them. Another favorite type of pen is the “spraypaint marker” or “outliner”–you can buy them in stationery stores and office supply places. You have to shake these pens up before use, though, so it’s hard to keep them freshly shaken for use at a moments’ notice. They do show up nicely, gold or silver, on dark colored items (like a dark blue Yankee batting helmet, for example).
  • Balls–Baseballs are an ideal autograph item for the simple reason that if the players are not that close to you (i.e. over the top of the dugout or over a high fence) the ball can be easily tossed to the player. Many autograph hounds swear by the “official” baseballs of the major leagues, which bear the stamp of the commissioner. Once again, Legends Field stocks a special version that also has the Yankee top hat logo on it, that is, if its the Yankees you are looking for.
  • Other Things Than Balls–Sometimes, if the crowd is big, the players may seem to favor more out of the way or unique autograph items. This one fellow had a giant baseball, like the size of a volleyball, that was very popular with the players–also, he could fit about fifty signatures on it! Baseball cards, photos, magazine covers, program books–all have their advantages in various situations. Baseball cards are ideal for situations where you are separated from the players by a high chain link fence, because they are small enough to slip right through, and players can easily grab them and sign them without having to throw things over the top.
  • Program Book or Roster–You may want this to get autographs on, but you’ll also want it to be able to look up the names and numbers of the players you don’t recognize in person. A lot of these guys look different than they do on tv (especially if they aren’t wearing caps), and with spring training prospects and invitees, you may not know them all.
  • Sunblock–You may be standing in one spot for an hour or more, in the Florida sun, and you don’t want to be burned and cranky when your favorite player comes along! Bottled water is a good idea, too.
  • Clipboard–Optional, but useful, if you have a magazine or photo to be signed,which is flimsy. The clipboard makes it easier for the player, and can be more easily slid across the top of the dugout, for example.

Where and When to Go During Spring Training

  • Open Practices–Before exhibition play even starts, in February, most major league camps open their practice sessions to the public. Check your team’s web site for where they practice and what times. (There’s also pretty comprehensive info at http://www.majorleaguebaseball.com/). After they are done practicing for the day (usually by 1pm or so), many players will sign some autographs along the edge of the field/stands. Derek Jeter is known for sometimes staying for an hour to sign autographs.
  • Pre-game arrival— Once games start, it’s best to arrive at the ball field 2.5 to 3 hours prior to the game time, which should be about when the visiting team is coming. If you are trying to get autographs from the visitors, see where their bus pulls up! Usually it will be behind a fence, but as players come off the bus, and walk to the clubhouse (if there is one), they may be able to sign at the fence along the way. Try to see where this clubhouse is, and position yourself along where they will walk.
  • Post-game departure–When players come out of the game, or after the game is done, they will probably retrace these steps back to the bus. They may be less hurried then, as well, if they came out of the game early.
  • Pre-game practice outside field–If you’re trying to get autographs from the home team, they may be practicing on a different field from the main field, if their spring training complex has more than one, or they may be spread across several fields. Again, look for where the players will walk to and from the field, to their clubhouse/locker room. Line up along the fence, along the walkways, and wave!
  • Pre-game Dugout–If your team is taking batting practice on the main field, most Spring Training parks will let you line up at the top of the team’s dugout and along the sides, for a while (before the people whose seats those are arrive and want to sit in them!) Players going in and out of the dugout will sometimes pause and sign. A great place for photos, too–no chain link fence in the way.
  • “Bullpen”–Some of these spring training/minor league fields don’t have a bullpen, and the pitchers just sit on the field between the foul pole and third base (or first). In between innings, when nothing may be going on, they may turn around and sign.
  • Outfield/Foul Pole–By the foul pole is also a good place to catch players who have come out of the exhibition game early, and who are doing wind sprints in the outfield. After they are done with their workout, of course.
  • Parking Lot?–If you are there for the home team, some people have told me they have also caught players after the game, when the players were on their way to the player parking lot after getting showered and changed. I never stuck around that long, and I would imagine where the players park varies from field to field, so check out the situation.

Strategies

  • Unique & Varied Items — as mentioned above, sometimes players will gravitate toward the more unique items, whereas other times balls are really the best thing. Have a few things for all situations!
  • Four In A Group–my brother thinks that if the players are going down a line of people, stopping for only a few, that they tend to go to every fourth person. If you have four people standing in a row, then, you have a better chance of at least one of you getting picked. You can also help each other, then, juggling balls, pens, etc… and trying to keep the players’ attention.
  • Be Polite–Players don’t like jerks, and neither will the people around you. It’s a game of luck, partly, so don’t be sour if the people around you get some and you don’t. Say please and thank you and don’t elbow your neighbors.
  • Be Vocal–you do have to speak up though! If you just stand there, unless you are alone, you’ll get skipped. Some people call players by their first name, some “Mister _____”, some by their nicknames. I think all were effective at one point or another. Some had various lines like, “Hey, Tino, how about one for a fellow first baseman?” or “Mr. Cloninger, one for this old Braves fan?” Couldn’t tell if these worked better than just their names and “Please.”
  • Women and Children First–it seems some players at least have a penchant for women and kids. Kids are irresistible sometimes, but they can also get moved out of the way and their voices can get drowned out. But they say that memorabilia sellers will use women and kids as “mules” to get signatures, since they have such a better chance. It may be true–most of the autographs we got this Spring were gotten by my brother’s girlfriend…

What NOT To Do

  • Don’t Be Upset If You Don’t Get One–Autograph hounding is at least half luck. If you don’t get one, don’t let it ruin your day. Remember these guys are there to do a job–they are at work. If they get a little time to autograph, it is a bonus for the fans. But they don’t do it every day, even if they want to, and they can’t get to every person, even if they want to. Respect the players’ limits.
  • Don’t Bother Players During the Game–Someone who is in the on deck circle, getting ready to warm up in the bullpen, or about to go out on the field, is not in a mindset to dilly dally. Sometimes players who aren’t playing, or who are done for the day and out of the game, will sign.
  • Don’t Bother Players Who Are Doing Something–Whether they are talking to someone, taking practice swings on the side, or doing wind sprints in the outfield, it would be rude to interrupt. When they look done, though, call out!
  • Don’t Walk On Top of the Dugout–this gets you thrown out of just about everywhere.
  • Don’t Throw Items to Players Out of Turn–we witnessed several mishaps where over-eager fans threw items to players to be signed, and either threw out of turn and lost their Sharpies, or in one case actually hit the player and made him give up on signing any more for right then. When they say “one at a time” they mean it! Wait until they make eye contact and signal for you to throw.

That’s everything I can think of right now. If you can’t make it to Spring Training, some players do card shows and appearances during the off season. The Yankees have an annual “fan fest” mass autographing session at Madison Square Garden, which I’ve never been to but I hear is wild. Some people have been able to get autographs from players near the dugouts at major league games, before the games. I imagine I’ll find out about all these options as time goes on…

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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