By Barry Blair
As I sit here writing this, Spring Training camps are opening to players all across Arizona and Florida. This week it is pitchers and catchers, within the next few days, all the rest of the players will arrive.
Unlike the old days when players showed up to camp to work themselves into playing condition, today’s players show up ready to go. Baseball is their full time job and they treat it as such. Personal trainers and offseason workouts are the norm if you want to get ahead.
So, if you are planning a trip to one of these sunny climates to take in some baseball and hopefully secure some autographs from your favorite players for your collection, you had better come prepared and be ready to go as well. The atmosphere is much more relaxed and most of the players will try to oblige you. As in any endeavor, the better prepared you are, the more success you should have.
Each team will have as many as 60 to 70 players in their camps at the start. That number is fluid and constantly changing. Their A, AA, and AAA players will be there as well, working on adjacent fields. When the big league teams break camp at the end of March, each team will have 25 players on their opening day rosters. As you see, the longer camp goes, the numbers go down. Some players are released, some are traded, and the younger ones are sent down to the minor league camps, which may be just across the street. Keep an eye on the daily transactions.
Buy your tickets in advance
Get the spring training schedule and determine which games you want to see. Then, buy your tickets in advance. A lot of the spring games sell out, some on the first day they go on sale, especially games involving bigger named teams. If you want to see the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, or Dodgers, don’t wait until you get there. The same holds true for teams with big name stars like the Angels’ Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. Ichiro is making his final go with the Mariners and there will be a buzz wherever he goes. If you wait too long, you’ll be buying tickets on the secondary market. Plot out where you are going, and when.
Do your homework
So you have determined what teams you will see. How do you know what players will be there? The best place to start is with the team’s 40-man roster. You can easily find this list on the internet. All of these players will be starting out in the big league camp. Most all of them, at this point in their careers, should be on a baseball card by this time.
Also, the team will put out a list of players not on the 40 man that are invited to camp as well. This will include some veteran players who are signed to minor league contracts, hoping to have a good spring and play themselves onto an opening day roster. It also includes top minor leaguers who are not yet eligible for the 40 man that the club wants to start taking a look at against top flight competition. So make yourself a list of players and try to obtain one of their cards before you make the trip. Visit your local card shop, shop online, or attend a show with your list.
Spring camps are full of coaches, most of whom are former players. You will have the big league staff along with their minor league counterparts. Most teams also have former players who are listed as roving instructors. Last year, at the Braves complex, I ran across both Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff, who were on the back lots working with the minor leaguers. If you check the team’s websites, you can obtain a list of all their coaches.
All the teams have special guest instructors at their camps every spring. Just about all living Hall of Famers are invited back by their former teams to work the camps for a few days, along with other top former players and managers. It is not unusual to see the likes of Cal Ripkin, Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Chipper Jones, and Bill Mazeroski still in uniform, making an appearance, and working with the young guys. Check with the home teams you are going to see for this list and the dates they will be there.
Most of the teams broadcasters are at spring training as well, the vast majority of whom are former players. There is a good chance you may run into them around the stadium concourses, before or after the games. Also, former players who are now broadcasters for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and The MLB Network are working at many of the games. Have some of their cards with you as well, just in case.
Most teams sell on field pregame packages that will give you special access to the players and the staff. It will cost you more, but it can be well worth it, especially if it is your favorite team.
Around the stadiums
On the days that teams travel, you can usually find some of the teams’ bigger name players at the home park working out early in the mornings. Not everyone makes the bus trips, and a lot of the more established stars may be left behind to workout on their own. You can usually catch them as they leave the field at the end of their workout and a lot of them will stop and sign. Most of the time, you can enter the parks for free on non-game days.
What cards to use
I usually start rounding up cards to use at some point in the late summer or early fall of the year before, when I attend shows. Usually I go to Tampa and Orlando each spring, so I look for cards of players on the teams located in these areas. My favorite newer cards to get signed are the Allen & Ginter and the Topps Heritage, due to their non-gloss finish.
If you do have to use a card with a glossy finish, make sure you rub it down real good before you go, as there is no worse feeling than getting a signature and it be smeared or bubbled. Most of these cards you can find at your favorite shows for a nickel or a dime apiece, except for the really big name stars.
For the older cards I need, I prefer Topps or Upper Deck. The Fleer sets from the 1980s have great head shots of players that are ideal for signing. I make a list of players I need, Google their cards, select images, and then pick out the one I think will be best for an autograph. Stay away from cards with players with dark jerseys or backgrounds. Some of the younger players still in the minors can be found on Bowman cards, before they show up any place else.
You will sometimes encounter players who do not yet have a baseball card, even at the big league games. For those, I carry some team cards and The Autograph Cards. They are also good for a player who you may run across whose card you don’t have. Your ticket stub is good for this as well.
I have found that The Autograph Cards that are black with the gold stitching are a great looking card to get signed by really good players. My thing is autographed cards, but I also carry two or three balls with me in case I run across a player that I would want to sign one of those, such as a HOFer. Each spring, they make official major league balls with that year’s spring training logo on them. These are great for signing, and they are sold in the gift shops. You may also find some enterprising kids selling game-used ones outside the stadium. The smaller parks mean more foul balls go out of the stadiums. Stay away from the cheaper logo balls that the teams sell as the ink doesn’t hold up very well on their covers in the long run.
Sharpies and pens
I carry an array of Sharpie pens with me at all times. A couple of black ones, a couple of blue ones, a gold one, and a silver one for the cards. You never know what you might need. Keep a ball point pen with you for the baseballs.
Key spots at the ballpark
There are always key places at a ballpark where players might sign, and it varies from stadium to stadium. The best thing is to get there when the gates open and check it out. If it is your first time there, you will find that there is usually a group of fans clustered in a certain area.
That is a pretty good sign that it is a spot where some players will stop. Dive in and chat them up and you will pick up valuable information on who signs and where. You also meet some interesting people who will tell you about what they collect.
Also be aware that you will soon figure out that some of these people are there at every game and the home team usually figures this out and stays away from them. A lot of players avoid the fans who have a whole page of their cards laid out and want them to sign them all. They make it hard on the guy who is looking for the one autograph of certain players. The best place I have found, is usually just down the line from the end of the dugouts, where many players will stop and sign as they come and go before the game. This usually lasts right up until the time the National Anthems are played.
In closing, always remember that these guys are working and baseball is their job. A lot of them are fighting for a spot on the roster or even for a chance to start the season in the high minor leagues with a chance for an in-season call up. Respect that. Most, but not all players, will sign at the right opportunity. Patience is a virtue in this pursuit. There is also some luck involved as well.
Good luck to you. Hope to see you there.
Barry Blair is an author/writer who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at email@example.com. You can also visit his website www.rightfieldpress.com.