ST. PETERSBURG — This weekend's Tampa Bay Rays Fan Fest was a chance for players and fans to forge a personal connection during the offseason.
Parents snapped smartphone pictures of third-baseman Evan Longoria reading aloud to a circle of youngsters.
Ben Zobrist made surprise phone calls to fans who couldn't make it out to the Trop on Saturday.
During a Q&A session, lifelong Rays fan Marci Jacobs even offered to sketch a portrait of new catcher Ryan Hanigan's Australian shepherd that recently won best in breed at the Westminster Kennel Club.
Actually, her friend Janet White volunteered Jacobs' talents, telling Hanigan that Jacobs already already drawn up an excellent likeness of David's Price's dog, Astro, which has been seen hanging in the pitcher's locker in TV interviews.
Hanigan promised to take them up on it.
“We've been Rays' fans since the beginning,” said White, of St. Petersburg. “We're old ladies that come to the games.”
Jacobs recalls her parents bringing her from Chicago to St. Petersburg each spring when she was a little girl for spring training.
“I'd get Ted Williams autograph, Joe Dimaggio's autograph,” she said. “In those days, you'd just walk on up to them with a pencil and they were fine with that.”
Getting an autograph is a bit more formal now. Fan Fest draws thousands, and adults had to book online in advance and pay to get a signature from one of 14 players Saturday, though kids could still get one for free from select players.
The young also got a chance to practice their pitching and batting and get a fist bump or high five from players after running the bases.
With the season opener against the Toronto Blue Jays a little more than a month away on March 31, some fans were already getting ready for another shot at the postseason.
“I'm planning to buy my playoff tickets as soon as I can,” said Emily Lecher.
Tickets go on sale March 1.
Lecher was among the last in line to get pitcher Grant Balfour to call her son, Alex, who is serving in the U.S. Coast Guard in Hawaii this year.
“He's just going out of his mind,” she said of her son, who she says had never missed a Fan Fest.
His mother and girlfriend, Bethany Coone, have a plan for how Alex can follow the Rays along with them: virtual tailgating.
“He'll be doing the same thing 5,000 miles away,” Coone said.