The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many changes to daily life in 2020. This included the way that baseball games were played. The most obvious difference being that no fans were allowed to attend games, we still see many of the smaller changes in effect three years later.
My favorite part of attending games, from when I became a fan to right before the pandemic, was hanging out near the home dugout during pregame. While the players were completing their stretches and workouts on field, I was able to snap some up-close pictures and hope that they would come my way for a quick selfie.
This was made possible by the lack of netting down the third baseline. The netting now stretches down the entire baseline to protect fans in foul territory from stray baseballs. While the addition of this netting was not caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it still adds to the lack of accessibility to the players that has come about over the last three years.
Before this netting was implemented, I was able to hand the players gifts I had made for them, have bigger items such as jerseys signed, and even have my arm around them for photos. Now it just looks like I’m getting my picture with an exhibit at the zoo. The netting is definitely a good thing as it protects the fans, but it makes me miss that personal element that I used to have with the players.
Another easy way to meet players in the past was to hang out near the players’ parking lot before and after the game. I was never a huge fan of doing this because they deserve some time alone before and after the stress of the game, but I did do it once after my birthday in 2019.
After the game against the Houston Astros, my brother and I went to the parking lot just to see if we could get some quick autographs. We were near the back, so most of the players went towards the crowd up front. We thought the night was a lost cause until a very important player walked out of Progressive Field and to his car.
As Nick Wittgren placed his belongings in his vehicle, I waved to him to let him know that we were there. He came over to us shortly after and immediately struck up a conversation. I wanted to let him know that in just a few short weeks, I would be heading to his Alma Mater - Purdue University - to begin my college career.
“That’s awesome!” he told me, “You’re going to love it there.”
He signed my jersey for me and took a picture with me before wishing me luck in my adventures and heading out. That will forever be my favorite baseball memory because it marked the beginning of a close relationship with him. Even though he doesn’t play for Cleveland anymore, we still keep in touch from time to time to wish each other well and get a few life updates.
At the start of the pandemic, the players’ parking lot was blocked off with black tarps, and I have not seen it back open since. It was ultimately a good decision for the safety of the players, but it’s just another element of the game that I miss having around.
One of the most accessible and affordable ways to meet the players is the yearly fan convention, Guards Fest. With general admission just $15, you’re bound to run into a few of them while walking around the festivities at the Huntington Convention Center. However, if you want a guarantee to meet some players, you can purchase an autograph session add-on ticket for just $35. You’re guaranteed to meet anywhere from three to five players per session for a fraction of the price of an up-close game ticket.
I attended my first convention in 2018 without adding on the autograph session ticket. Still, I was able to attend fan Q&A sessions with the players, watch them play silly games on stage, and meet some other team employees. The following year, my brother and I purchased autograph session tickets and met more players than I could have imagined.
From names like José Ramírez and Corey Kluber to up-and-comers like Will Brennan and Jhonkensy Noel, you never know who you’ll meet at this convention. We had decided to make it a yearly occasion until — you guessed it — the pandemic. The very next year, the convention was was held for the last time right before the worldwide shutdown occurred.
This past January was my first time back at the convention since 2019, and it was just as fun as I had remembered. From the autograph sessions to just walking around getting to know other Guardians fans, it’s my favorite baseball event each year outside of the regular season.
So, what’s the point of all of this? Basically to say how much player accessibility means to me as a fan. I’m not saying that the players need to be accessible to the fans each minute of the day, it’s just to show how much it means to the fans to be given opportunities to meet their favorite players.
Who knows, maybe that young kid that got a ball from José Ramírez when he was five years old will be his generation’s Ramírez on the field.