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Report from the ground at Guards Fest

Insights from the Guardians’ premier offseason fan event

Division Series - New York Yankees v Cleveland Guardians - Game Four Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Covering the Corner had boots on the ground last weekend — literally, this is January in northeast Ohio — for the Guardians’ premier fan event.

This was my fourth time attending a Cleveland fan fest, but the first time since 2020, given that 2021’s event was called off due to COVID/the lockout. I cannot speak to how things were at the morning’s season ticket-holder’s event because I’m still at the “buy-a-six-pack-every-year” level of expendable fandom income, but I wanted to share some general insights from my own experience of the event and from some comments I was able to hear from Guardians players and employees. Hopefully, the tips I offer here will be helpful resources for anyone planning to attend the event in future years.

I parked in the parking garage directly across the street for $15 about an hour and 15 minutes before the event started. Had I arrived a little earlier, I probably could have found street parking for cheaper as I saw other fans walking from those spots about a block away. I arrived outside the event in time to stand at the corner of the building, with about 30-40 people ahead of me in line. I saw many, many fans with Guardians gear, showing that the new logo and name are being quickly embraced now that merchandise is more readily available and the team has enjoyed on-field success.

In past events, it’s taken longer for me to enter the building, but the Guardians event staff had things better planned out this time around and the line moved very quickly once the doors opened at 1:30 p.m. This allowed me and my friend, Griffin, to walk around and see what stations and spots of interest were available before we went to our one autograph session at 3 p.m.

The majority of tables on the main floor were set up for local authors of baseball books and for-profit and not-for-profit organizations connected to the Cleveland Guardians and their players. There was a mainstage set up for interviews with the Cleveland Guardians front office employees, coaches, and players, a side stage set up for music and mascots, a center stage set up for the radio flagship WTAM 1100, and local food and entertainment trucks pulled into the arena. Players and team employees wandered the floor, mostly heading to batting and pitching cages and the mini-baseball field set up for kids to interact and play with them, and to go pick up some cute puppies made available by the APL for adoption.

In past years, it was easier to stop the players and ask for autographs (I’ve been collecting some items for my children who will inevitably not care about a baseball autographed by Dan Otero, but, you never know), but this year staff seemed to be a little more committed to keeping players from getting waylaid by auto-seeking fans. I saw players stopping specifically for kids when they likely weren’t supposed to, which is great. I’m a grown man, I’m 40 (Mike Gundy-voice). They have no way of knowing that I’m not going to go sell whatever they sign for me, so while I had hoped to get the gregarious George Valera to sign a ball from the Dominican Republic, I completely understood when I was asked to allow Valera to go to his next stop when I saw him walking by and asked if he could sign. If I want to get my (probably ungrateful) children a ball signed by the future outfield Messiah, I’ll make the trek down to Columbus this summer.

This is something for fans to remember for future seasons: The only way to be sure to get an autograph, even if your kids are old enough and able to join you, is to pay for an actual autograph session. Your best chance of getting an autograph outside of these sessions, however, is at the WTAM booth, at the cages and the mini-field, and at the pen where the APL holds their puppies, but there are no guarantees that they can or will sign there.

Speaking of the autograph sessions, you are allowed to enter the area with the five ballrooms where players sign them half an hour before your session starts. I recommend entering as soon as possible so that you can get your items signed and then head back to the mainstage to hear talks from the players and team brass, which are always informative and entertaining. Griffin and I were probably the seventh and eighth people in line.

In the afternoon session, autograph session B had two shifts of players: At 2 p.m., Triston McKenzie, Will Brennan, and Tyler Freeman were signing, but as we were allowed to enter, Josh and Bo Naylor and Angel Martinez swapped in. If you attend future events, be sure to check that any lines forming are for the time for which you have a ticket because things can get confusing with the first session finishing while the other is about to start. The support staff will tell you which players are in the current session but each room if you ask, but there is no way to know specifically who will be in your session unless you buy one session, get in line right away, get your autographs, and then figure out which players are signing concurrently in another room and go get a ticket for that session immediately afterward. Thankfully, this should be well within the realm of possibility if you are intent on getting one particular player’s signature.

After the Naylor brothers and Martinez sat down, the line moved quickly. When you get up to the table, you are not able to take a selfie, but if you have someone with you who doesn’t have a ticket, they can take photos of you as you are at the table getting your items signed. The players have a variety of writing instruments so they can sign almost anything you bring up there, though I’m sure there are limits. I have found every player to be very gracious over the years, but it’s nice to prepare something brief to say, “I loved your home runs against the White Sox,” “I’m excited for you to be our catcher,” “you’re my favorite middle-infield prospect.” The players will smile at the personal touch and thank you.

I appreciated how the Guardians seemingly have at least one fan-favorite like Triston McKenzie, Steven Kwan, Josh Naylor, and Oscar Gonzalez in every session, and I loved that they planned for the two brothers Naylor to sign together.

After getting a couple of baseballs signed for my kids, we went to the main stage to hear Carl Willis and Mike Chernoff talk about the 2022 season and what we should look forward to in 2023 and beyond. On the way, we randomly saw and shook hands with Guardians President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti who was just mingling with fans for a good hour — a man of the people, apparently.

Chernoff is excellent at his job, of course, but I think I can confirm the scuttlebutt that he is perhaps not as smooth a public speaker as Antonetti. He spoke about how the Guardians’ only 2022 free agent addition was Luke Maile (maybe forgetting about Bryan Shaw? Which, honestly, I envy the ability to do that) and that they made no additions at the trade deadline.

At one point Chernoff said, “Luckily, that worked out!” and I have to admit, I winced. Sure, yes, it was a delight of a season and I will always remember it with joy and fondness. But really anything that doesn’t result in at least a pennant and, preferably, a World Series title, can it really be said to have “worked out?” I feel like Antonetti would have found a way to say something like, “We chose a path of giving our young players a chance to succeed and we were able to achieve our goals of winning the division and a playoff series but fell short of our ultimate goal. So, we will continue to reevaluate our approach to see how we can take the next step as an organization to achieve more for our fans and our players in the future.”

Chernoff seems a little more uncomfortable, which has its own charm.

He spoke briefly about the José Ramírez extension talks and it is, once again, abundantly clear that José is only here because he was willing to take a significant discount and bet on the organization continuing to surround him with a competitive roster. Chernoff said that José’s agent, Rafa Nieves, and Paul Dolan were both on the phone as Antonetti, Chernoff, José, and the team’s interpreter hammered out a deal during the late innings of the last game of spring training. You could clearly sense his relief and thankfulness for this decision by José.

Completely my perspective: I sense the front office was doing their best under the financial guidelines ownership gave them and it was only an extraordinary level of commitment to this organization that enabled them to lockdown their franchise player long-term.

Speaking of José, he was unable to join because of a family commitment but sent in a video saying how much he loves and appreciates Guardians fans. Shane Bieber was also unable to join as he and his fiancée were getting married that weekend (fans could sign a large card to congratulate the happy couple).

The Guardians are blessed that so many players broke out in 2022 or the autograph sessions this year would have been pretty disappointing. As it is, I didn’t hear anyone complaining about missing the two faces of the franchise.

The last attraction I was able to enjoy at the event was a pitching Q&A with Carl Willis, Trevor Stephan, Eli Morgan, Sam McDowell, and Brian Anderson. Aside from being one of the best pitchers in franchise history, McDowell is now an 80-year-old man with no filter, so that was super entertaining. Anderson is a professional broadcaster for the Tampa Bay Rays and I spent the whole time hoping the team would find a way to someday have him replace Rick Manning (all due respect) and/or Jensen Lewis. Stephan and Morgan were charming and personable, talking about their splitter and changeup, respectively, and how much of a calming and centering influence Carl Willis is.

Willis is a delight to listen to if you didn’t already know. Everything from his gruff, bullfrog of a voice to his calm, homespun manner, to his decades’ worth of experience coaching excellent pitchers for the Mariners, Red Sox, and Guardians was worth the price of admission in itself.

While I wouldn’t be surprised if Willis is very aware of analytical insights, it sounds like his main role is to help his pitchers stay in the right mindset and committed to their game plan. He mentioned that there was a time period when he wouldn’t go out to talk to Morgan on the mound because the act of going out just made Morgan more nervous. This awareness of his players’ emotional and mental state helps explain, for me, why folks like Ruben Niebla have been allowed to leave, for better or worse. Willis is a comforting presence, I’d listen to him read an audiobook, anytime, and immediately feel ready to do my best at whatever tasks my day held for me.

I highly recommend Guards Fest to Guardians fans in the future. It seems especially built for parents/grandparents who have children ages 6-13 (a good focus in my humble opinion), but fans of any age will find something fun to observe and interact with, and good memories to revisit. I think it’s worth planning to make a trip into town for one at least once in your life. Who doesn’t want to experience some winter in January in Cleveland, anyway?

No matter what the temperature is outside, seeing our favorite Guardians in their jerseys, being reminded of the highlights of the previous season, and beginning to dream dreams of the season to come is sure to bring a warm smile to any Cleveland baseball fan’s face.