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Egraphs revolutionizing fan experience with athletes

"Always give an autograph when somebody asks you."
-- Tommy Lasorda

"It's definitely a dream come true to be recognized and to be able to sign autographs. But it's also a lot of hard work and can be draining."
-- Christina Aguilera

When I think of autographs, I think of the first signature I got as a boy, when Bob Feller walked the aisles at our Minor League ballpark and offered to sign anyone's game program on a special night. I think of Cal Ripken Jr. standing outside the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the wee hours just before his own 2007 induction, accommodating every last autograph request instead of sleeping early before giving his ultimate speech.

I think of Don Mattingly signing at his traditional place along the first-base-side seats every homestand without fail at old Yankee Stadium; rounding up as many players on one team as possible on a single ball and then the thrill of identifying them later; obliging the $50 fee for a Mickey Mantle signature at a 1991 convention; and just admiring Ozzie Smith's fresh signature on the sweet spot of a new ball one night at his restaurant in St. Louis.

That's baseball, that's sports, that's entertainment. It always has been part of the national pastime, part of the relationship between celebrity and admirer. Today, the world of autograph collecting is better than ever, because in addition to the traditional means, the next-generation treasures called egraphs were launched after the All-Star Game and are drawing rave reviews among fans as shareable digital signatures complete with personalized audio recording.

Egraphs are licensed by Major League Baseball and MLB Advanced Media, and they help players create and send autographs in a process that is initiated by the fan. About 120 current and former players, as well as such managers as Ozzie Guillen, Joe Maddon and Mattingly, are participating at the outset, and more are being added rapidly, with other sports and entertainers to follow. You can see examples from Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey and retired legend Pedro Martinez.

"I think it's pretty cool," Giants reliever Sergio Romo said. "It's an easier, more direct way to interact with fans. I get to do it on my iPad and it's pretty simple. I think it'll work. It's got a good purpose, and it's simple and direct. I get to personalize things and whatnot. I've got a few requests, and it's kind of gratifying to get the response I've gotten."

"What's appealing about this is that it's an easy way to get in touch with your fan base," Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal said before Wednesday night's game at Dodger Stadium. "I think it's a really cool thing to do. It feels like more of a one-on-one thing."

"Players are loving it. I see every celebrity that wants to interact in this way with their fans utilizing our platform," said Gabe Kapler, who hung up his cleats in 2010 after 12 Major League seasons and now serves as director of business development for Egraphs. "I see millions of fans being impacted by this personal approach to celebrity encounters."

Here's how it works: Connect with your star. Once you choose an available player, begin to personalize your own request, either suggesting what you want him to write, or let him wing it. When a player goes live on the site, it usually is for a period of two weeks, and they will determine whether they can handle 25 or 50 or whatever number is manageable. Fans will get the complete egraphs back within two weeks of the date they requested. The company wants players to be engaged and they want fans to know these are personal without a long wait.

Egraphs runs biometric tests on the signature and audio messages. When verified for authenticity, the company then sends the egraph to the fan.

"To Steve, I'm not your daddy, but my fastball is wicked hardcore," Martinez writes in one egraph. His audio message says: "Hey, Steve, this is Pedro. Who needs a gyroball when you have a circle changeup and a 98-mph fastball (laughs). Take care, man. Love you."

In an 18-year Major League career, Martinez was selected to eight All-Star teams, won three Cy Young awards, struck out 3,154 batters and led the Red Sox to their 2004 World Series title. His last season was 2009, so he will be eligible for the 2015 Hall of Fame class. By then, he probably will have granted numerous egraph requests, and those could be viewed as even more valuable -- at least to the person holding it -- should he make it into Cooperstown.

"Pedro and I were teammates. This guy is about as caring as any individual you will ever meet," Kapler said. "That's his personality. It's warm, it's charismatic, it's funny, it's sensitive. Fans just want to see that part of a celebrity.

"We're not trying to replace anything, but sometimes the autograph world can be cold, moving on from one scribble to the next. This is a shared experience. I just feel the fan is getting something he never had a chance to get before."

What egraph would Kapler want most if this had existed before?

"Charles Barkley would have been the guy for me," Kapler said. "He was 6-4 1/2, outrebounding the monsters, the seven-footers. He was funny and his personality was huge on the court. Off the court, he made some bad and good decisions, but he was always entertaining. I was just fascinated by the guy.

"If he could take a moment out of his day to say something to me -- which is what our platform does, with fan requesting to a celeb -- I would say, 'I saw you play at the Spectrum and I saw your powerful dunks. It's so cool that you have such a big personality.' He would maybe say, 'Gabe, thanks so much for checking me out at the Spectrum. I love that you like to watch me dunk. Hopefully you will see me do it again.' It's that back-and-forth."

The idea for creating Egraphs originated with Brian Auld, an executive with the Rays. He realized it is not always easy for fans to connect with their favorite players in a meaningful way. There was a gap and he wondered whether technology could be the answer. Fortuitously, Auld's brother David worked in high tech, so Brian brought the question to him.

In August 2011, Brian and David convened a weekend-long brainstorming session with tech insiders and engineers, and they knew at that point they were on to something. Within weeks, the core group of founders lined up seed financing, quit their jobs, moved to Seattle and began the work of changing Egraphs from concept to reality.

Convenience is one of the big reasons players are jumping on this bandwagon.

"They appreciate the technology," Kapler said. "They carry around their iPads anyhow. They're on the buses and planes anyhow. It's a good way for them to utilize their time appropriately. Instead of just sitting back and listening to their music, while they are listening to their music they are changing lives and making dreams come true.

"They are doing it in their own space and time."

Gabe Kapler