By Rick Firfer
When the Chicago Cubs abandoned the Chicago Hilton & Towers as the site of their annual fan convention a couple of years ago, the Chicago White Sox, seeing an opportunity, took over that space as the site of their annual convention, much to the joy of White Sox fans everywhere. Although the Palmer House Hilton had been a decent place to hold a fan convention, the Hilton & Towers hotel, being much bigger, offered considerably more space for fans to roam around in and interact with players and other fans. As a consequence, this year’s 24th Annual White Sox Fan Convention, popularly known as Soxfest, seemed to be more of a hit with the team’s fans than ever before.
As per usual, the team brought in a large group of players, broadcasters and alumni to sign autographs and pose for photos with the fans, as well as sit on seminar panels to discuss the team’s latest developments and answer the fans’ questions about what to expect during the upcoming season and beyond. Front office personnel, from General Manager Rick Hahn on down, also participated to give fans a glimpse of things going on behind the scenes, and to try to gauge the mood of the fans in regard to the team that has been assembled for the 2016 season.
For the most part, the team executives had to like what they heard and saw at this year’s Soxfest. Based on comments made by fans at the seminars and directly to the execs and the media, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for what is happening to the White Sox. Although the team failed to make a really big splash in the offseason in regard to trades and the free agent market, they did snag a couple of really good additions for the infield, i.e., Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, which had the fans in a really good place as far as enthusiasm went.
Although Lawrie was unable to make it to the convention, Frazier did show up and got a rousing welcome from everyone. He was especially gracious in letting the fans know how glad he was to be with the White Sox and guaranteeing that he will give them a great effort throughout the coming season. Other newcomers at the convention were catchers Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, as well as shortstop Tyler Saladino. Rookie hotshots Carson Fulmer and Eddy Alvarez were also in attendance, attracting a lot of attention from the fans and their teammates. Fulmer, a pitcher, is already being touted as a serious contender for the back end of the White Sox rotation this year, and Alvarez, a versatile position player, had a lot of buzz coming out of the fact that he is a former Olympic medalist in speedskating. If he actually makes it to the major leagues, he could become the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only Winter Olympics silver medalist to become a Major League Baseball player?
As usual, autograph sessions with the players, the manager and coaches and the team alumni were held all three days of the convention. Some of the sessions were held with a single player on the autograph platform, and some were held with multiple players. The multiple player sessions were usually held around a theme, such as the rookies, pitchers, catchers, alumni, etc. The single-player signings usually involved the higher profile players, such as Chris Sale, Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu and Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.
To give everyone a fair chance at snagging the signatures they wanted, the team employs a wristband system at the convention. This required each fan to pore over the signing schedule very carefully so that he or she could rush to the line they wanted for the player they coveted the most. Once at that line, the fan would be given a wristband guaranteeing he or she would get the autograph of the person scheduled to sign at the stage where the fan received the wristband. And once the fan had the wristband, he or she could roam around Soxfest doing whatever they wanted until the signing was scheduled to begin. Then, they had to get back to the line so they would not miss the signing.
Of course, some people stayed in the line for several hours just to make certain they were near the front. That way, they could get through the line faster and perhaps get to another line during the same signing period in order to get a wristband for another player before that signing period was over. The problem, you see, was that you could only have one wristband at a time, so the fans had to hustle from line to line, as time permitted, during each signing session if they wanted to get more than one autograph during the same period.
The more popular players had longer lines, so it was hard to get through those in time to run to another line. However, with respect to some of the rookies and retired players, the lines were not too long and you could dash back and forth to pick up multiple signatures. Some deep-pocketed fans could also purchase premium “speed passes” that allowed them to bypass the lines and go directly to the stage for an autograph. That really helped the people who seriously wanted an autograph from every player in attendance.
Another good place to get autographs was in the seminar rooms, after the seminars ended. The reason for this was the willingness of most players to hang around after the sessions to sign for fans who came up to the front of the room. Although these impromptu autograph sessions were fun for both the players and the fans, they often had to be cut short because the room had to be cleared for the next seminar. So, you really could not count on anything at the seminars, but if you did score it was a great feeling according to most of the fans who did this.
The seminars were also a good place to get intelligence on what the team was up to in regard to assembling its major league roster, as well as the moves being made to shore up the minor league system. General Manager Rick Hahn, said there was heavy lifting to be done by the team right up to Opening Day. Manager Robin Ventura talked about how he and the coaches go about making certain the players are performing up to expectations, including holding meetings with them throughout the season. The rookies, at their seminar, gave the fans a considerable amount of insight into what it feels like being an aspiring major league baseball player.
The photo booths were also an interesting place to be over the weekend. No autographs were allowed at the booths, but the fans got to hang with the players a bit while waiting for their photo to be taken with whoever was in the booth at the time. Some of the alumni who played on the 2005 World Series championship team also brought the World Series trophy to the booth with them, so that the trophy got in the photo with the player and the lucky fans. Carl Everett was one of the retired players who really seemed to enjoy this part of his time at Soxfest. Some other players, like Melky Cabrera, were recruited by the marketing department to walk around the convention taking selfies with the fans. And still others, like Alex Avila, got snagged to do radio interviews with some of the local radio stations that set up mobile broadcast operations at Soxfest.
One of my personal favorite events at Soxfest is the media interview session prior to the opening ceremonies on Friday afternoon. That is when the media gets to ask the players whatever comes to mind. Most of the interviewers ask the usual questions about what the players did during the offseason to get ready for Spring Training and the new season, and what the players’ expectations for themselves and the team are for the coming season. But you would expect a reporter from SCD to get at the really interesting stuff, like whether the players like to sign autographs, or whether they collected baseball cards when they were younger. The players seem to enjoy these questions quite a bit, because they can talk about things that don’t relate to the pressures of the game.
For example, Todd Frazier, the team’s major acquisition going into 2016, reported that he was an avid card collector when he was a kid, and that all of his cards are still in the attic of his parents’ home. Frazier was a huge Boston Red Sox fan and loved to collect the cards of Manny Ramirez and Mo Vaughn. But he also followed professional basketball and collected Michael Jordan cards, as well as Shaquille O’Neill rookie cards and those of his favorite player, Charles Barkley. Frazier also likes to sign autographs for the fans, particularly the kids because he remembers how tough it was to get an autograph when he was a kid, and he wants to help make up for that. He is not a big fan, however, of signing for people whom he perceives to be dealers because he knows they are just going to be selling his autograph. He also occasionally likes to pick up some souvenirs from other players whose skills and abilities he admires. Mainly, he likes signed bats, jerseys and photos.
Rookie phenom Carson Fulmer was not a big collector when he was a kid, although he would purchase an occasional pack of cards at Wal-Mart for the pleasure of opening it to see whose cards he got. He is also not a big memorabilia guy, but does have some interest in picking up some jerseys and signed baseballs if he gets the chance. His favorite players as a youngster were Nolan Ryan and Mariano Rivera. He does not mind signing autographs for the fans, but he says he tries to keep things under control. He looks for the kids first when time is short.
Another newcomer to the White Sox, Adam Engel, grew up in Loveland, Ohio, so naturally he was a Cincinnati Reds fan, enjoying the play of Barry Larkin, Ken Griffey Jr. and Bret Boone. Although he, himself, is not a collector, he does enjoy interacting with the fans, especially the younger ones. He says he will sign for anyone if he has the time, even the dealers.
Trey Michalczewski, besides having one of the more difficult names in baseball to pronounce, was also a big card collector as a kid, mainly because his dad was a collector and he caught the bug from him. Trey liked hockey cards in particular, and remembers always handling them carefully and putting them in plastic holders to minimize potential damage. He also enjoys signing autographs, and will do it for anyone as long as they are respectful, except when it might be inconvenient, like when he is eating dinner. He will sign a couple of autographs for each individual if asked, but he does not like to sign blank pieces of paper. Not that anyone can blame him. He has not yet appeared at any card shows, but imagines he will eventually do them if the promoters want him.
Newcomer Jacob May, another Cincinnati area native, also liked Ken Griffey Jr., as well as Adam Dunn and Todd Frazier. May was not much of a collector and preferred to talk about his experience as a rookie, especially how he intends to soak up everything he can at Spring Training, like a sponge. He knows he has to treat the veterans with respect and not step on any toes. He really just wants to see how the veterans go about their business so he can emulate them when the time comes for him. As for signing autographs, he knows it is part of the job, so he tries to accommodate when he can.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic new player the team has this year is infielder Eddy Alvarez, the former Olympian. With his irrepressible smile and great sense of humor, he quickly became a favorite of the fans at Soxfest. He says he loves signing autographs, especially for the youngsters because he used to be one of those kids. His favorite players as a youngster were Cliff Floyd and Ivan Rodriquez because he grew up in Miami and was a huge Marlins fan. He and his brother loved collecting cards and still have them in a closet at their Mom’s home in a blue cushioned book. His silver medal in speedskating at the 2014 Winter Olympics led to autograph show opportunities for him, but nothing like the baseball card shows that most collectors attend. That is something he would like to do some day, however.
All in all, the White Sox should pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Everyone – the fans, the players, the front office people, the media – had the time of their lives at this year’s Soxfest. Now, they can’t wait for the 2017 Soxfest, when everyone hopes the team will be hoisting another World Series trophy.