Dustin Pedroia has talked with WEEI hosts every week all winter. Kevin Youkilis made a November appearance at the Lowell Spinners' alumni dinner. Tim Wakefield received an award for community service in New York. New acquisitions John Lackey and Jeremy Hermida joined Youkilis and several minor leaguers at the Boston baseball writers' dinner in mid-January. Reporters have caught up with Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz and Jonathan Papelbon by phone to find out how their offseasons have gone. There are ways for fans to keep tabs on their favorite players.
Nothing, though, beats seeing them in person. That's been virtually impossible for fans without special access or without the means to fork over a Benjamin Franklin or two. Even the "New Stars for Young Stars" autograph event required fans to purchase a $150 ticket for admission -- and the most prominent player to attend was middle reliever Manny Delcarmen.
(It is important to note that the proceeds from the above events went to charity. A good cause, however, doesn't make the price any less steep.)
The most prominent player to attend the Hot Stove, Cool Music roundtable with Peter Gammons and Theo Epstein was Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena. Not a single Red Sox player was there. Fans purchasing tickets to the Lowell Spinners' dinner even were advised that Youkilis would not be signing autographs.
Is that strange? Should it be?
The Red Sox enjoy one of the largest and most passionate fan bases in the major leagues. Fenway Park has sold out its 38,000-plus seats for more than 500 straight games. Red Sox fans flock to Camden Yards in Baltimore and Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay and the Rogers Centre in Toronto when they can't get tickets in Boston. Even National League stadiums are not immune.
During the season, though, it's not easy for fans to find ways to meet or collect autographs from their favorite players. Batting practice for the home team ends about 10 minutes after the Fenway Park gets open, and players rarely sign more than a couple of autographs on their way off the field. Spring training presents a great opportunity to meet players in an informal environment, but a March trip to Florida isn't exactly a cheap undertaking for a family.
Offseason events, then, seem to be the best chance for fans to get close to the team to which they devote so much time, energy and passion -- but those events start at $150 per person and don't even include the bulk of the players on the Red Sox roster.
Many other teams have the right idea. Here's a quick sampling of offseason events hosted by major-league teams this winter -- and commentary from the big names in attendance:
Baltimore ($10 for adults, $5 for kids): "Both Nick Markakis and Luke Scott used the winter to grow full-length beards, a style prohibited by the team's strict facial hair policy. Markakis took a lot of heat for his beard -- from peers and fans alike -- and said he was glad to be back in Baltimore."
Detroit ($14/$7): "I was here at about 9:15," pitcher Rick Porcello said, "and there was a line of fans wrapped around the corner."
Milwaukee ($15/$9): "All but three Brewers attended -- Craig Counsell already had a commitment for Sunday before he re-signed with the team, Todd Coffey was stuck in North Carolina by a snowstorm and Carlos Gomez has the flu."
Minnesota ($12/$6): "A line of fans stretched nearly 40 yards behind Joe Mauer, following the Twins catcher as he tried to weave his way through the crowd on the Metrodome field on Friday night."
Seattle ($10/$5): "We talked to some of the fans during our autograph session and they were thanking us for what we did last year as a team, how much it meant to them and how it brought a spark into getting into the Mariners," reliever Mark Lowe said. (New acquisition Chone Figgins highlighted the list of attendees.) "That was good to hear. You don't expect something like that to come out of a fan's mouth."
San Francisco (free): Scheduled for Saturday. Attendees to include Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval as well as former players Vida Blue and Will Clark and prospects Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey.
Tampa Bay (free admission, $20 for autographs) Scheduled for Feb. 20. From last year's event: "You can feel the energy in here," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, wearing a broad smile as he signed autographs. "You can tell it's different than the past. I hope we can take some of this momentum into the season."
The Atlanta Braves did not hold an on-site festival, but their winter caravan includes appearances by stars like Yunel Escobar, Tommy Hanson, Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Jones and Tim Hudson, in fact, will be at the Publix Supermarket in Marietta, Ga., at 4:30 p.m. today.
Not every team made it particularly easy for fans to meet their favorite players and collect a few autographs. The St. Louis Cardinals held a widely attended "Winter Warm-Up" program in early January that cost $40 for adults and $10 for kids. An extra autograph ticket was required for 22 of the players in attendance, including Matt Holliday ($100), Chris Carpenter ($50) and -- this is incredible -- Brad Penny ($10).
The Yankees, of course, hold no such event -- apart from taking the World Series trophy on a trip with team executives on a tour of Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong. The Mets and Phillies, two other Northeast teams with passionate fan bases, likewise do nothing of the kind in their home cities.
That tends to be the exception.
Instead of anything like the above events, the Red Sox put together the "Red Sox Road Trip" featuring, as its most prominent face, Wally the Green Monster. The point of the caravan into all six New England states was to distribute more than 6,000 ticket vouchers -- vouchers good for "the guaranteed purchase" of two regular-season tickets.
"Similar to last year's highly successful trip, this road trip will give us a chance to visit our loyal fans in their towns and say a special thank you for their unwavering commitment," Red Sox executive Sam Kennedy said in a press release announcing the event. "As we bring the warmth of baseball and thoughts of spring to our fans during these cold winter days, we hope that the ticket vouchers we deliver will enable them to join us at Fenway Park for what promises to be an exciting 2010 season."
That's right: The ticket vouchers are good for the purchase of two regular-season tickets. The tickets aren't free. The tickets aren't even discounted in any way. The vouchers simply allow the holder to purchase full-price tickets in advance of the general public to one regular-season game.
To recap: A Giants fan need only show up at AT&T Park on Saturday to get an autograph from Tim Lincecum -- free of charge. Should a Red Sox fan want to shake the hand of Jacoby Ellsbury or Dustin Pedroia, though, he or she had better book a trip down to Fort Myers, Fla., and hope he or she is in the right place when the right players make themselves available.
The best they can do otherwise is to see Wally the Green Monster and receive a piece of paper that entitles them to buy two tickets at full price. It's a wonder receipt of the voucher doesn't come with a contractual obligation to buy hot dogs and beer.
At least you can listen to Dustin Pedroia on WEEI, right?