By David Moriah
A visit to spring training in either Arizona or Florida has always been, and continues to be, a great way for fans to get up close to players and come home with a bushel full of autographs and photographs. Nevertheless, catching up to your favorite player and securing his signature is not without its challenges and frustrations, even in the more fan-friendly environment of spring training.
Here are stories from Arizona’s Cactus League, spring home to 15 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams, which this SCD reporter observed in March.
Signing in the Arizona sun
First, a visit to the Texas Rangers camp in Surprise, Ariz., a site they share with the Kansas City Royals. My arrival revealed a virtual mob of several hundred Rangers fans swarming the team’s practice fields before an afternoon game. Several Rangers players made extraordinary efforts to satisfy all who sought their signatures. Pitcher Colby Lewis and catcher Mike Napoli, both key members of the defending American League champions, signed patiently for 20-30 minutes.
As the action shifted to the ballpark, fans lined up along the Rangers dugout were also rewarded, as slugger Josh Hamilton, first baseman Mitch Moreland and long-time Ranger favorite Michael Young all took turns signing.
On the other hand, the quest for an autograph from the Seattle Mariners’ Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki proved elusive. A late afternoon visit to the Mariners practice fields in Peoria, Ariz., a site the Mariners share with the San Diego Padres, hours before an evening game found Suzuki taking his swings before a remarkably small cluster of fans, two or three dozen at most. When the workout ended, a handful of autograph seekers called out to Suzuki, including a few Japanese fans who implored him in his native language to sign, but Suzuki retreated to the clubhouse without acknowledging the fans. The word from regulars at the Mariners camp was that an Ichiro signature at the park is equivalent to a lightning strike – perhaps not an impossible event, but rare nevertheless.
Cactus League autograph seekers could either position themselves in hopes of a lightning strike, or go for the sure bet. In Arizona, the good news is that there were plenty of sure bets.
One such place was the camp of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., a site the Dodgers share with the Chicago White Sox. (Note: The trend in recent years has been for teams to split the expense of a costly training site used for only six weeks or so a year between two teams. This affords fans with a great “two-for-one” opportunity to visit a camp and access two teams during the morning practice hours.)
If the Texas Rangers practice fields were swarming with hundreds of their fans, the Dodgers upped the ante to what seemed like thousands. The recent ownership squabbles and on-field decline of the Dodgers fortunes had no apparent effect on the size and enthusiasm of the Dodgers faithful. It seems the Dodgers move to Arizona, after decades of training at historic “Dodgertown” in Vero Beach, Fla., has had the intended impact of drawing more fans from the Los Angeles area.
The Dodgers seem mindful of the public relations benefit of allowing maximum contact between fans and players, and thus constructed their stadium and practice fields with an eye toward giving fans plenty of chances to connect with the team. Players must travel from the practice fields along a walkway, which allows fans to directly ask players for autographs or to pose for pictures. Given the hordes of fans on site, it was hit or miss to land one of their stars, although Clayton Kershaw did his best to accommodate as many as he could following a pre-game workout.
Other Dodger stars were a bit more elusive, with Matt Kemp rushing by without signing and Andre Ethier making a practice of signing only for children.
The Dodgers did guarantee an opportunity for a couple of top-shelf autographs for fans who demonstrated a bit of patience. Manager Don Mattingly made a practice of signing each day at the entrance to the park for any fan who waited in a queue monitored by security personnel, and on the day SCD visited camp, just about all who lined up were accommodated. Another daily occurrence was an autograph session with Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, and though the line was cut off after about 100 or so fans, anyone willing to wait a half hour or so in the Arizona sunshine was able to obtain a signature and an opportunity to banter with the loquacious Dodger legend.
Another superb opportunity to obtain autographs was at the spectacular Salt River Fields, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, now in its second year of operation and continuing to draw capacity crowds of about 12,000 every game. The Diamondbacks, in particular, have embraced the ethic of maximizing autograph opportunities by encouraging its players to sign before every game along the line of infield seats as they made their way from clubhouse to the dugout. The first man to make his way down the line was first mate Kirk Gibson, who was not an especially easy autograph as a player but has turned into a willing signer and role model for D-backs players as the team’s manager.
Another fan-friendly practice by Arizona was its daily free autograph session held on the concourse of the sparkling new stadium. Before each game, two players sign at a table set up for as many fans as can be accommodated in 30 minutes. On the day SCD visited, pitchers David Hernandez and Joe Martinez wielded the Sharpies.
The D-backs partner at the Salt River complex, the Colorado Rockies, were not as deliberate in taking care of autograph seekers, but patient Rockies fans found opportunities to add to their collections, as well. The two biggest names on the team, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton, each took time to sign.
At the other end of the spectrum for autograph-friendly venues was the San Francisco Giants home at Scottsdale Stadium. Unlike the Dodgers/White Sox complex or the Rangers/Royals set of fields, where players walk through fans from practice fields to the game, the Giants practice fields are barricaded behind the fences of Scottsdale Stadium. This SCD reporter walked completely around the stadium complex one morning but came up short in finding a spot to watch pre-game practice or catch autograph opportunities. Post-game, some players walked over to fans waiting near the player parking lot, but it seemed the only likely spot to nab a signature in Scottsdale was along the first base line next to the Giants dugout prior to the game.
The Cactus League now boasts 15 teams training in Arizona, half of the major leagues’ 30 teams. Unless you’re following a favorite team, it’s now a toss-up whether to visit Arizona or Florida in the spring. Arizona does have the advantage of having all of its teams located in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, while Florida’s clubs are more spread out. But don’t be fooled. Phoenix is a sprawling metro, so expect to log a lot of miles on the rental car.
Clearly, the days when spring training was a low-key and uncrowded contrast to the regular season – an autograph seeker’s paradise – are long gone. But the rewards are still there for those who can juggle patience and quickness in pursuit of an autograph. And when the game finally begins, it’s a great atmosphere to enjoy baseball after a long winter without America’s Pastime. The price is right, too, as most Arizona ballparks offer good seats for no more than $20-$30, with lawn seating in the sun beyond the outfield fences running as low as $6.
Next year, book your ticket to Phoenix and bring your sunscreen and Sharpies. You won’t be disappointed.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.