Miami Marlins reliever Heath Bell went to games as a kid in Southern California with a baseball and a pen with the goal of getting a player’s autograph.
A day or two later, Bell would be tossing the ball with his buddies and wouldn’t even remember which Major League Baseball player had signed it.
Now a three-time All-Star looking for a one-on-one connection with fans, Bell is among those embracing digital autographs. Two dozen players, including CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, are featured in the launch of Egraphs, which allows fans to order written and audio messages from specific major leaguers for $50 apiece through Aug. 12.
“What really intrigued me is you can personalize,” Bell, 34, said in a clubhouse interview. “Now, we sign something and then they wipe off their name and resell it. This goes to the person I meant it for.”
The first group of Egraphs players to be introduced today in Tampa, Florida, includes David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox. Players such as Sabathia and Dickey will become available on Egraphs over the next month. It will expand to about 250 players, including Bell, on Aug. 12. Eventually, Seattle-based Egraphs wants to provide fans access to football, basketball and other athletes, as well as show-business celebrities.
Egraphs, funded in part by Tampa Bay Rays Principal Owner Stuart Sternberg, who retired from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in 2002, is in a genre of memorabilia that includes companies such as Los Angeles-based Digigraph.me, Inc., which allows fans at arenas to send a text message and receive computer-generated autographed photos on their smart phones during games.
Egraphs was created last September when Brian Auld, 34, the Rays’ senior vice president of business operations and a Harvard Business School graduate, went to his younger brother, David, with the idea of creating authenticated autographs.
David Auld, 28, who had been a Silicon Valley software engineer and was a strategy consultant at Microsoft Corp., gathered four other engineers and founded the company. He now is the chief executive officer of Egraphs.
“Egraphs to us is about creating that personal interaction with a celebrity,” David Auld said in a telephone interview. “There’s just a lot of magic involved when you meet somebody you care about and who’s famous. And it’s really hard to do right now.”
An Egraphs customer will go to a website and pick a player. The customer will then type in a message, such as “Josh, Sorry I’m missing your 14th birthday, but I’ll be on the mound at Yankee Stadium...”, that the player will write and sign. The player also will make an audio recording.
The recipient will get an e-mailed photo of the player with the personalized message and autograph, and a link to the audio greeting. It can be printed, e-mailed to friends or distributed via Facebook and other social media.
“Because we’re a digital product, our consumers are going to have full flexibility,” Gabe Kapler, 36, who played for six major-league teams over 12 seasons and now works at Egraphs, said in an interview before a game in Oakland, California. “If I am trying to remove a framed photograph off my wall and carry it to school with me, it’s not nearly as flexible as taking my iPhone out and saying, ‘Hey, check out what I have.’”
Each player can change his asking price after Aug. 12 depending on demand -- someone with hits in 20 straight games might choose to increase his price as the streak continues.
The individualized nature of the messages might keep prices down, said Stephen R. McDaniel, a University of Maryland professor who studies sports and entertainment marketing, because there will be little resale value.
“If something is signed to a specific person, that has sentimental value but it doesn’t have any practical collectible value,” McDaniel said in a phone interview. “The value-added part of it is the audio recording, but you can’t do anything with that in terms of an after-market.”
Egraphs will be authenticated by voice and signature profiles the company has of each player. The company also will screen all messages to players, as well as the messages sent by those players, to block inappropriate content.
For players, who will write and record their messages on iPads, convenience is the key. Bell said he envisions doing his digital autographs on planes and buses.
“I think it’s great for athletes who travel all the time,” said Kerry Wood, an All-Star pitcher who retired in May after a 14-year career that included 12 years with the Chicago Cubs and the 2010 season with the New York Yankees. “Sometimes we get locked down to having to do our fan mail at the field because that’s where it gets sent.”
Wood, 35, who is part of the Egraphs startup group that also includes former pitcher Pedro Martinez and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, said dealing with digital messages is better than the fans who used to ask him to sign body parts.
“It’s a great way for guys to stay in contact with their fans and be a little bit more personal than just your regular piece of fan mail,” he said while demonstrating how to use the Egraphs system last week at his foundation’s office in Chicago. It took Wood 37 seconds to send a digital autograph and an audio recording to one trial customer.
McDaniel, the Maryland professor, said digital autographs offer a connection for fans who can’t get to a ballpark or a card show, plus an easy way to show off a personalized keepsake.
“There’s a portability factor that you don’t see with other traditional collectables, you generally don’t want to take your autographed baseball to school,” he said.