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Making a Fan for Life: The Importance of Baseball Player Interactions with Fans

Last year, I traveled with my 8-year-old son Caleb to Pittsburgh to see the St. Louis Cardinals play the Pirates in April. It was cold outside (under 40 degrees if I remember correctly), but my son insisted on being first in-line at the gate so he could see all of batting practice. During batting practice, my son spotted Harrison Bader. When my son called out, Harrison signaled to my son that he would come by “after I finish BP.” Sure enough, after finishing his turns at bat, and despite the cold temperatures, Harrison Bader came over to us, signed some autographs, and took a picture with my son. After that 15-second interaction, for the remainder of the summer, my son was a Harrison Bader fanatic. Every diving catch during my son’s baseball practice was called “making a Bader,” and my son would regularly tell everyone about meeting “the best outfielder in the majors!” Through that simple interaction, Harrison Bader made my son’s entire season, gained a fan for life, and instilled a happy memory of a lifetime.

As a young kid, I remember calling out to players at baseball games, much like Caleb did in Pittsburgh. I remember the thrill of getting an autograph from a hero and easily identified with Caleb's thrill of a lifetime, courtesy of Harrison Bader. In fact, I still have baseballs signed by Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken, Jr. that I obtained at baseball stadiums as a child (Thanks, Mom, for not throwing them out!)

Unfortunately, as is well known by fans and players alike, some fans take advantage of these kind interactions by players. Whether it’s eBay Sellers who push kids at games aside to get multiple autographs or people who stalk a player at his home, insensitive and selfish people do exist who cause players to have negative interaction with fans. In fact, apparently, some of these interactions occurred with Miles Mikolas this Winter, which caused Miles to tweet: "Dear everyone sending me autograph requests to my home adress , I will not sign them . Please respect my privacy during the offseason. I will do my best to sign during the season if you mail it to the stadium thank you." Clearly, some disrespectful fan(s) had improperly interacted with Miles, and Miles Mikolas let them know about it through social media. I'm truly disheartened that some disrespectful fans hounded Miles, but I also truly hope he doesn't stop interacting with fans.

Nonetheless, just as there are some fans that will take advantage of players’ kindness, there are many more -- like my son Caleb -- who benefit greatly from baseball players’ time and generosity. In fact, there may indeed have been one of these insensitive “fans” in Pittsburgh on that cold April day receiving a Harrison Bader autograph along with my son. However, that player interaction with Harrison was so special to my son, that the presence of disrespectful fans shouldn’t matter. The existence of these insensitive people does not mean that the player interaction system is broken. Every system will have people who take advantage of the it, but those negative interactions do not (in my opinion) outweigh the benefit of the great ones. The truly special interactions -- like that day in April between Harrison and Caleb -- make all the difference in the world.

Unfortunately, all players don’t act the way Harrison Bader did last year. While I don't remember the first baseball player autograph I requested as a child, I do remember the last. When I was a little older that my son is now, I actually saw one of my heroes -- Barry Bonds -- in a hotel lobby standing around while my family ate dinner (I’m pretty sure it was after an afternoon baseball game that we had attended, and in which Bonds had played). Mr. Bonds was just standing there leaning against the wall. With my father’s permission, I walked over to Barry Bonds and said: “Mr. Bonds, can I please have your autograph?” Barry Bonds responded (and I’ll never forget how he said it): “Get the hell away from me kid!” I remember walking back to the dinner table dejected, but with the understanding that his rejection was indeed his right. No harm, no foul... even if I was disappointed.

Nonetheless, 2-3 minutes later -- and I'm not exaggerating -- the hotel manager came to our table and ordered us to leave the hotel immediately. When my father asked “Why?”, the manager told him, “Because we have been informed by Mr. Bonds that your son has been harassing Mr. Bonds, such harassment is not tolerated, and Mr. Bonds is demanding that you leave.” My father staunchly defended my actions and told the manager that hotel guests (such as us) had every right to speak to other hotel guests, and that his son had been as polite as possible. Fortunately, after a confirmation that we were indeed guests, the manager allowed us to stay “as long as we no longer harassed other guests.” I am pretty sure that this was the last baseball autograph request I made as a kid. I remember feeling guilty, like I had done something wrong, despite my father reassuring me that I had done nothing wrong. One of my heroes had tried to throw me out of a hotel, so clearly, I was wrong in some way… (even though I knew, internally, I had done nothing wrong).

Fortunately -- as I have learned from recent interactions with my son -- many players today are not like Barry Bonds decades ago. Along with Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong also signed an autograph for Caleb on that cold April day in Pittsburgh. And in an incident at last year during warm-ups at Spring Training, Adam Wainwright fist-bumped my son and told him that he remembered my son from one of Adam’s charity events last winter. Whether Adam actually remembered my son or not is irrelevant… My son was so thrilled by the fist-bump and interaction with Adam Wainwright, that he regularly tells family and friends that “Adam Wainwright is my good friend!” Now, whenever we see Adam Wainwright pitch, my son tells everyone around him how he knows “Adam.” Once again, Adam Wainwright has made a fan for life.

These interactions are invaluable to a young child, and also – in my view – teach a child how to properly treat other people in life. No matter how important or famous one is, one should always treat others with respect and kindness. As another example of how to treat people, Caleb knows to (1) always refer to players with a "Mr." title, (2) always say please (no matter how loud you are), and (3) always thank the player. Bottom line: How you treat others makes a difference -- for players and fans alike.

I’m always disheartened when I hear stories about either (a) fans treating players’ kindness with rudeness or (b) players responding with rudeness to fans. Somewhere in the baseball world, I’m hopeful that karma exists. Regardless, however, I’m truly thankful for those players who realize how important their interactions with fans truly are, and in turn, those who treat the fans with kindness and respect. And Caleb... I'm sure he'll be making many more "Baders" in little league this Spring.


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