As a New Englander, the first sign that winter’s death grip is loosening comes from a ballpark over 1,000 miles away in Florida. Spring training is underway and while the snow in my backyard may persist past Opening Day, a new season is nearly upon us. A new graphing season that is. And as baseball teams figure out how to improve on the previous year’s performance, you too should think about your autograph game plan for 2014. I put together the following guide to help ensure you get more hits than strikeouts (or at least an All-Star-caliber batting average).
This guide isn’t a straightforward as the NBA playbook from a year ago—major league baseball teams simply operate on a schedule with a lot more variability. The result? Your time commitment is probably going to be more significant and you are constantly taking risks based on incomplete information and… well, your gut. But let’s focus on the positive—baseball offers many more chances during the season (heck, the series) to get that coveted player’s autograph. Here is a rundown of those opportunities.
Arrival (Evening Before the Game)
If the visiting team has an off-day before the start of the series expect them to arrive to the hotel early evening—around 5 p.m.—giving players time to have dinner, relax and get a good night’s rest. You’re faced with a number of challenges in this first graphing opportunity. First, the team comes off the bus all at once and the number of collectors is usually low. Less competition sounds like a good thing but it actually makes graphing multiple players difficult. Players often stop and pick up their bags—it slows them down but also gives them a convenient excuse not to sign (i.e., full hands). Your best bet is to stick around and wait for players to head out for dinner and hope they’re in an accommodating mood. Odds are you’re in for a late night.
In the event of a back-to-back game, you can estimate arrival time with the following equation:
Time game ends + 1.5 hours (postgame interviews/travel to airport) + duration of flight + travel time to hotel = Arrival time
Before the Game (Hotel)
Unlike NBA teams who take two scheduled buses, many major league players take taxis to the ballpark before the charters arrive. To further complicate matters, the range of times during which they leave can be extremely wide. You may see a player head to lunch around noon and then take a taxi from the eatery directly to the park. Others—particularly starting pitchers who won’t play that night—may not head out until after 3 p.m. As a general rule you’ll see members of the coaching staff beginning around 12 p.m. and a bulk of the roster between one and three o’clock. If you’re willing to put the time in you have an excellent shot at the entire team as they depart individually or in small groups.
Before the Game (Ballpark)
Huge group of graphers at the team hotel? You may decide to take your chances at the ballpark on the receiving end of those taxis (and buses). Unless you have a comrade at the hotel who can tip you off when a players leaves—and in what type of vehicle—you’re going to be testing your reaction time to see how quickly you can pull an item out when a target steps out of a taxi. I suggest you do a dry run to get the lay of the land at your local ballpark. At Fenway there are at least three possible entrances a player could use, adding to the complexity of pregame graphing at the ballpark.
If you’re waiting for a team bus, access varies depending on the venue. (Count Fenway out—they drive into a fenced off area.)
We’ve been talking about getting visiting player graphs thus far, but pregame at the park offers your first opportunity to get home players. In Boston, several players live nearby and walk to the stadium. You also may have luck with the players’ parking lot depending on the setup. During your dry run, make sure to scope out which direction(s) they arrive from and the level of accessibility once they park. The home team is usually in by 3:30 p.m. but each player has his own habits. Show up a few times and you’ll get to know their preferences.
Inside the Ballpark
As kids this is where we got signatures from our heroes. We all have memories of hanging over the railing while screaming out players’ names with a baseball in our hand. It still affords a graphing opportunity, particularly between the dugout and outfield where players return from stretching, spring and shagging fly balls. On the infield side of the dugout you face obstacles, including community groups and media blocking the path of players heading in from that direction. Some players only sign at the ballpark and you’ll get to know their habits (usually after being denied multiple times at the hotel!).
If you decide to bring cards to get signed, check out my post on “The Best Way to Carry Your Cards When Getting Autographs”.
About twenty minutes after the game ends you may see the first players trickle out of the ballpark. The bus will leave about an hour after the last out. Stake out the same entry spots used by athletes who took taxis before the game. Keep your eyes peeled because the postgame crowd will obstruct your sight lines and cause confusion. Remember that scene in Skyfall when Bond is looking for Silva in the subway terminal? That will be you, over and over again.
You may also get lucky with the home team—basically, it’s the pregame ritual in reverse but after the game players will be traveling—whether by car or on foot—at a less leisurely pace (because they’re tired, with family, headed to a meal, etc.).
With the exception of the last game of the series (when the team will head directly to the airport), postgame at the hotel provides decent opportunities, particularly if it happens to be a day game. The returning cabs and buses give you a shot at the entire team but fatigue is a factor (not just from participating in the game, but signing autographs throughout the day). Again, the ideal scenario is that players go out and you have multiple chances when they leave and return to the hotel. In 2009 I got Johan Santana on a ball and Jose Reyes on a bat at 3 a.m. when they returned from a long, late night out on the town. When graphing, patience pays off. But, you have to be willing to accept the cost.
When and where is your favorite time and place to get MLB autographs on game day?