By Nathan Petrashek
A while back, Disciples of Uecker writer Steve Garczynski and I had a healthy debate about attending the Brewers annual fanfest, On Deck. His position was that the event is (or should be) primarily for kids, where they can meet players and the like, and Steve lamented the fact that many adults have seemingly co-opted the event as a blatant autograph grab.
Steve and I are largely on the same page there (although, as you’ll see, I do get autographs), and that’s not a unique criticism I hear. So I thought it might be interesting to run a sort of journal of my experiences this year (which I didn’t find to be really uncommon from past years I’ve attended), and perhaps that will help others decide if this is an event for them in the future. This will also preserve some of Mark Attanasio’s and Doug Melvin’s comments about the organization, which I’ve shared on Twitter, in a more permanent form.
Departure – 9:00 AM
We leave for On Deck, which starts officially at 10. In the past, we’ve left much earlier, but the Brewers have done a good job of staggering events throughout the day instead of trying to pack everything in the morning. So we didn’t really feel any time pressure.
Arrival – 10:00 AM
If you’ve been at On Deck before, you know all the standing around is thirst-inducing. This year, the new policy is not to allow any outside beverages, which snags a couple of my friend’s Coke Zeros and what was apparently a really expensive bottle of green tea that he doesn’t want to give up. I persuade him to hand over the beverages and we’re on our way upstairs.
Everyone entering is given a coupon to enter the lottery for a “premiere” signatory. This year, there are six: Ryan Braun, Bob Uecker, Yovani Gallardo, Robin Yount, Rollie Fingers, and Jonathan Lucroy. My friend enters the lottery for Lucroy and doesn’t win, while my girlfriend wins a Braun autograph. More on that later.
Yovani Gallardo – 10:30 AM
I entered the lottery for Gallardo, which basically turned out to be “show up and you get one.” Not enough people even requested an autograph, which is pretty unusual … maybe a combination of the drunk driving offense and a down year. I had him sign one of his bobbleheads from 2012. Gallardo didn’t seem really interested in being there, which I’ve found is pretty consistent with his general demeanor.
The event is sparsely attended right now, which is a bit of a surprise. I pretty much expected the free admission this year to draw out masses of humanity, but it’s very pleasant and there’s plenty of room to move around. Lines are not packed and there’s space aplenty for sitting. Incidentally, the team looks to have dramatically expanded seating areas this year.
Merch booths – 11:00 AM
One of my favorite activities at On Deck is browsing the merchandise booths, with vendors bringing in all kinds of memorabilia and autographs. Lately, I haven’t bought much, but a few years ago I found Willie Mays and Willie McCovey signed balls for an absolute steal. Anyway, these stands will basically have anything you can imagine, from a game-used Stan Musial jersey to Milwaukee Braves scorecards from the ’50s. The cool, old school stuff usually carries a pretty hefty price tag; for example, this year I saw a 1959 Milwaukee Braves pennant for $225, and a bat signed by the entire ’57 Braves team for $700. But there are some absolute steals, too; my friend Jason bought a Nolan Ryan ball for $50. Usually there are stands selling autographed balls by current Brewers for between $10 and $20; by the time you factor in cost of a baseball ($32! at the Brewers team store … always bring your own) and time standing in line, you’re way better off picking up one of these if you don’t much value the (sometimes nonexistent) fan interaction.
Khrush, Stormin’ Gorman, and breaking news – 12:00 PM
While my girlfriend offers to grab a Khris Davis autograph, Jason and I try to snag Jim Gantner. Gantner is scheduled at noon, but he’s late to the event and Gorman Thomas (who I also wanted) starts signing in his stead. The guy immediately in front of me is carrying a portfolio of poster-sized photos, and he pulls out three with other signatures from the ’82 team already on them for Thomas to sign. After Thomas signs them all, he gets back in line and racks Thomas for autographs a second time. Unfortunately, that isn’t all that unusual; you see lots of obvious dealer-types milking autograph system. I get one of Thomas’s old bobbleheads signed, then head over by Khris Davis.
After Davis wraps up his signing, we split up again; I head over to snag Jim Gantner, now arrived, and the others get in line early for Segura, who doesn’t start until 2:30. There are already 30 or so people in line for Segura when they get there at 12:45.
The Brewers annually do a large interview session at the main stage, with Bob Uecker emceeing a dialogue among Mark Attanasio, Doug Melvin, Craig Counsell, and a handful of others. This event begins as I wait in line for Gantner. Soon after the front office folks take the stage, news ripples through the crowd that they’ve made the long-delayed Garza signing official. It will be 4 years and $50-some million. This gets folks excited. Including, as I look in front of me about 30 people, Portfolio Man, who is now at the front of the line for Gantner.
Q & A with the front office staff – 1:00 PM
After I finish up with Gantner (another bobblehead), I head over to watch the Attanasio/Melvin/Counsell session. They’re joined by Gord Ash and two new Brewers, 1B Mark Reynolds and LHP Will Smith. The first audience question I catch is about payroll, in response to which Attanasio quips, “I haven’t counted.” Attanasio declines to say whether they’d be willing to push the payroll further after Garza, but does say they’ll be opportunistic, citing Garza and last year’s Lohse deal. Earlier, Roenicke indicated he plans to factor Rickie Weeks into the plans at second base, and the next question asks what they’ll do for flexibility since most position players are one-trick ponies (i.e. Khrush, Scooter/Weeks/Ramirez/Segura). Counsell gives a PR-ish response, but does cite Logan Schafer and Reynolds as examples of versatility (Reynolds can also play 3B, albeit poorly) and suggests that positional flexibility will be key in competition for final roster spots.
Then come a flurry of questions about the generally poor state of the farm system. Attanasio says the Brewers don’t lobby for their players like other teams do (he prefers his front office guys be focusing on their jobs, he says). According to Attanasio, there’s a large marketing component to prospect rankings and the Brewers don’t hype their guys. Attanasio cites Scooter and Khrush as guys that had success but didn’t appear on most prospect lists.
Doug Melvin picks up on this theme, indicating that organizations that publish prospect rankings can become echo chambers for other lists, overlooking good players that don’t have the a hype machine or premiere pedigree. Melvin doesn’t seem to put much stock in outside assessments of the farm system, noting that some teams with what others consider remarkable farm systems still spend hundreds of millions on their big-league clubs. He’s basically saying that if your system is supposedly so good, you shouldn’t need to spend all that money.
Final questions revolve around the newly signed Matt Garza and the delays. Attanasio mentions there are multiple layers of approval, including MLB and MLBPA. Both Attanasio and Melvin dismiss the timing of the announcement as coincidence, with Melvin even remarking that if it had been planned, Garza would have been at On Deck.
The prodigal son returns – 2:45 PM
After the Q & A session ends, I chat with some folks and then head back to the Segura line to reunite with my party. We soon learn that my girlfriend was selected for the Braun autograph sessions, so we head over to the other end of the convention center.
Remember when I mentioned attendance was pretty sparse? Not anymore. The center has been steadily filling throughout the day, what will turn out to be a record-setting attendance of more than 14,000 people. The line for Braun is already forming when we arrive shortly after the announcement, and as the time gets closer it becomes an absolute circus. The media has nearly encircled the area where Braun will eventually be signing, adding to the huge crowd that has come to see him make one of his only public appearances since the suspension. The entire area is jam-packed, and will remain that way for 45 minutes until Braun appears.
Braun is delayed even more as he signs autographs and stops to talk to fans on his way to the stage. As he appears, there is a huge chorus of cheers and it’s pretty apparent he’s going to have a friendly crowd. Nonetheless, the numbers have prompted plenty of additional security, who surround the stage and keep everyone without an autograph ticket at least seven or eight feet away.
To their credit, neither the Brewers nor Braun’s folks ask fans with tickets to refrain from discussing his suspension. If a fan does broach the subject with Braun, I don’t see him visibly react, and in general he’s what you’d expect: smiling, gracious, polite. He’s shaking hands and getting names, talking things up with the fans he meets. Whereas most players simply sign the autograph, Braun seems to take a minute or so with every fan, prompting an event staff member behind me to say his session will go twice as long as it’s supposed to. “It’s okay,” another responds. “He needs this.”
As the session wears on, the media lose interest and begin to wander off. We finish up at about 4:15, when Braun was supposed to end his session, with a huge line still behind us, and make a break for the exit.