- Doug Williams
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It wasn’t all that long ago that Pedro Martinez was creating magic on the mound and painting the corners of major league strike zones.
Now the retired three-time Cy Young Award winner is tapping into a different reservoir of creativity and producing signature moments in a way that would have been impossible just three years ago.
This time, Pedro’s palette is an iPad, and he and other athletes have begun using the tablet to create a whole new type of autograph -- called an egraph -- to connect with fans across the digital highway.
The new-wave collectible consists of a signed, personalized digital photo with an audio message.
Since Seattle-based Egraphs debuted its product July 12, the company says it has been amazed by the positive public reaction and credits celebrities such as Martinez for its quick takeoff.
Just as he did in his prime, Martinez is showing plenty of flair.
“Pedro spent a crazy amount of time doing each one because he wanted to deliver perfect,” said David Auld, Egraphs’ chief executive officer. “He kept rewriting messages to make sure they were easy to read and wanted to make sure the voice message was really great. The fact he’s willing to spend time to produce something for his fans is just indicative of where their priorities are as players and how great a fan experience this can really generate.”
Other current or former players in the initial rollout -- including Kerry Wood, David Price and David Ortiz -- have been pitching in with an equal enthusiasm that has helped create a buzz greater than anything Auld could have hoped for.
“I’ve been blown away,” Auld said.
To Gabe Kapler, a former major league outfielder who is Egraphs’ director of business development, the buy-in of Martinez is exactly what they had prayed would happen.
“He [Martinez] is laughing and sharing like really, really warm moments with fans and connecting in a personal way,” Kapler said of his former Red Sox teammate’s audio messages.
Egraphs, Auld said, aren’t meant to supplant other types of autographs. Kids will still go to ballparks and hang over the rails in hopes of getting their heroes to sign a ball, hat or T-shirt, and fans can still buy signed memorabilia from shops and teams.
But he says the concept of egraphs is to allow fans near or far to connect with players.
“Each egraph is handwritten individually for the fan,” he said. “They’re not mass produced. The audio message is uniquely recorded for each fan.”
How it works: So far, Egraphs has more than 100 players, retired players or managers signed up to participate. With the addition of seven players Monday, 24 have now been made available. New players will gradually be made available, with as many as 250 expected later this baseball season.
Fans go to egraphs.com, pick a player and a photo to be autographed and then send a message to the athlete that can include directions for what he or she wants the athlete to write on the photo or say in the audio clip. Each egraph costs $50, and that price is expected to hold for several weeks. Prices could fluctuate higher based on demand or other factors.
The player receives the request through an application on his iPad, uses a stylus to write on the photo, clicks a task button to record his message and then sends the egraph back to the fan.
Once received, the photo can be saved, posted on Facebook, a website or Twitter, or made into a print.
How it works (from the player’s side): As Kapler says, most players already have iPads (either their own, or team-issued so they can watch film), so having an iPad app to manage their account is simple. If a batch of egraph requests are sent to them, they can call them up while traveling or at their hotel, do their signatures and messages and send them back using just the iPad and stylus (provided by Egraphs).
Kapler -- whose job it is to recruit players -- says “their eyes light up” when he shows them the technology and how “friction-free” it is for them to handle requests.
He says Egraphs won’t allow a player to be swamped by requests. Each player tells the company how many he wants to do and sends a message about when he wants to do them. At that time, a batch of egraph requests is sent his way. When a limit is reached, a “sold out” tag appears on the athlete’s photo on the website directory of players. As of Monday, 10 players have sold out.
“It’s really not Big Papi’s responsibility to manage this; it’s our responsibility,” Kapler said, using Ortiz as an example. “So the way we see it, if he wants to create 8,000 egraphs, we’ll make that happen, and if he wants to create 20 a year, we’ll say there are 20 available.
“We don’t anticipate that happening because we know how fun it’s going to be for the celebrities, but if a celebrity just wants to create a limited number of egraphs, we’ll help them do that.”
Verification: A voice print and signature profile is created with each player at the time he signs on with Egraphs, and then each egraph is analyzed for authenticity by software when it is submitted.
The money: Egraphs is a business, and businesses make money, so it’s not going to offer egraphs free. So where does that $50 go? It’s split between Egraphs and the player.
“The athletes do participate in the revenue, certainly,” Auld said. “The breakdown we don’t actually disclose.” He doesn’t believe money is necessarily the driving force for the players.
“I would say I have yet to meet the player who is interested in the direct financial benefits,” Auld said. “These guys really see it as a way to provide a great experience back to their fans. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the recent ones that Pedro Martinez did, but there’s a guy who has made enough money that he doesn’t have to worry about making more money, and he produced these really amazing egraphs.”
The connection: Anyone can go on the Egraphs site and check out some of the photos and messages done by the players.
As Auld noted, they aren’t mass produced. They include names, which make them more mementos than memorabilia for investment.
In one, Martinez signs his photo, “To Steve, I’m not your daddy, but my fastball is wicked hardcore.” He adds the audio message: “Hey, Steve, this is Pedro. Who needs a gyroball when you have a circle change-up and a 98 mile per hour fastball (laughs). Take care, man. Love you.”
Although nothing can ever replace a one-on-one, in-person connection between a fan and a player, an egraph provides a different option for a fan who might live thousands of miles away.
“A lot of these guys, they have huge fan bases in their hometowns and these people can’t get to them anymore, or from the college they played in,” Auld said. “Not everyone is a local fan, and it’s really hard to communicate and interact with players when they’re 3,000 miles away.”
The future: Egraphs started small by design when it went live, just with baseball and primarily with players from the Red Sox and Rays.
“We don’t want a lot of disappointed fans showing up at this point, and so we’d much rather have a lot of happy fans,” Auld said. “We’re trying to manage expectation as much as we can.”
Now, other players have been made available on the site, and Auld hopes eventually to add athletes from other sports and non-sports celebrities, too.
The digital highway goes everywhere.
“We would love to branch out to sports, the entertainment world,” he said. “We really think anyone who has fans and would love to talk to them, we’d like to facilitate that interaction.”