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Published: Thursday, 6/24/2010

Mud Hens embrace interaction with fans

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Ian Springer took his lucky bat to Fifth Third Field last Friday and presented it to one of his favorite players, Max St-Pierre.

"I told him, 'I don't think I can use that bat - it's aluminum,'" St-Pierre said, since pro baseball players are allowed to use only wood bats. "But then I told him, 'I've got a bat for you.'"

Moments later St-Pierre returned with a bat for Springer, a 17-year-old with Down syndrome.

The bat was signed by the entire Mud Hens team.

Soon after that Ian joined Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish at home plate for the exchange of lineup cards with the opposing manager and umpires.

"Ian is still talking about that meeting," said his father, Glen Springer. "This is by far the biggest thing that has ever happened to Ian.

"It was overwhelming to us how well the Mud Hens treated Ian."

Hens manager Larry Parrish walks Ian Springer to home plate to give the umpire the lineup. Hens manager Larry Parrish walks Ian Springer to home plate to give the umpire the lineup.
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While Ian Springer's experience may be atypical, it isn't unusual. In fact, fan interaction - talking to fans and signing autographs - is as much a part of the Mud Hens' day as swinging the bat and throwing the ball.

The relationship between Springer and St-Pierre was forged following the Hens' game May 14.

"I had just been promoted to Toledo, and it was time for new [catcher's] gear, so I was going to give my gear to someone," St-Pierre said. "I saw [Ian] behind the other kids [asking for autographs]. I could tell he loved baseball, and I could tell right away he would love the gear."

So St-Pierre gave Springer his shin guards and chest protector. The reaction, according to the Mud Hens catcher, was priceless.

"Everyone crowded around him to touch the gear," St-Pierre said. "I hope it made his day - I hope it made him feel important."

Not every fan who comes to Fifth Third Field will receive a complete set of catcher's equipment from a player. But several Hens said they are honored to sign autographs.

"I love to sign, because who knows how long this business is going to last?" outfielder Jeff Frazier said. "As soon as my playing days are over, I know there probably won't be dozens of kids asking for an autograph. So I enjoy it while I do it.

"I consider it a huge compliment. I think some players may take [signing autographs] for granted, but I'm going to enjoy it while I can."

Frazier wasn't the only Hen who said he enjoyed signing autographs or meeting fans.

"I don't think there's anyone in our clubhouse who would reject signing an autograph for someone who genuinely wanted to keep it as a souvenir," infielder

Jeff Larish said. "But there are people who have you sign dozens of cards, and then sell them, and that turns the players off.

"But I'll never turn down a kid if I've got time. I love to see that excitement."

There are certain rules fans can follow to increase their chances of bringing home a souvenir.

One is obvious: Be polite.

"•'Please' and 'thank you' go a long way," Larish said. "Kids and adults who feel entitled [to an autograph] turn everybody off."

Frazier agreed, adding, "Saying 'please' is definitely a way to catch my attention. Some people say 'please,' but there are a lot of people who don't. Saying 'please' turns my head in a second.

"If you call out the actual name of the player, that helps too. A lot of time people just yell, 'Hey, hey,' or 'Hey 35' [Frazier's number]. If someone yells out my name, boom! I'm there."

Pitcher Ruddy Lugo said playing the name game is a skill.

"One thing people should do: Call the players by their first name," he said. "One thing people should not do: Call the players by their last name.

"Everyone calls us by our last names, so you'll make an impact if you call me by my first name."

Another thing to consider is asking for an autograph at the right time.

"There are times when we come out to stretch, we're trying to get something done," Larish said. "After we're done, there are a lot of guys who don't have a problem doing that. But if we're getting ready for a game, it's hard to stop and sign.

"After the game is tough, because it's usually a long game after a long day's worth of work. Before the game definitely is better. It's the most appropriate time."

And the outcome of the game may affect the team's signing mood.

"Not to be mean, but if the game's a loss, I'm ducking my head straight into the tunnel [and going to the clubhouse]," Frazier said. "That's not the time to ask.

"After a win? You've got a better shot. That's another reason to root for us to win, right?"

Pitchers, especially starters, also have a protocol of not speaking to anyone on the day they are pitching.

"Usually the day I'm pitching, I don't sign autographs," Lugo said. "I'm focused so much, getting ready to work, that I don't want to break that concentration.

"And during the game is not a good time [to ask for an autograph]. We feel bad, but we get fined if we sign autographs during the game. We're doing our jobs then, and we have to pay attention then."

And asking for expensive items such as bats and gloves probably won't work.

"That wears on us," Lugo said. "We only have certain bats and certain gloves to use. We get that all the time.

"If we get a foul ball or a broken bat, we can give that away because we can't use that. But we can't just give everything away."

One thing the Mud Hens can give is their time. Players and coaches enjoy talking to fans, and many Hens spend time away from the park meeting youth and special interest groups.

Cheri Pastula, the Mud Hens' manager of community relations, said players will fill dozens of requests from hospitals, schools, and youth programs during the season.

"It's not difficult finding players to fulfill the requests we get," Pastula said. "We've learned that different types of appearances appeal to different players, and we've never had problems finding players for appearances.

Pastula said both the franchise and the players understand why it is important to interact with the public outside of the ballpark.

"The players like to make the appearances because they enjoy the reaction [they get]," she said. "They realize that the kids look up to them as role models, and the players understand what a big deal it is for them to be there."

Glen Springer remembered that three Mud Hens - Josh Rainwater, Scot Drucker, and Robbie Weinhardt - met Ian and some of the other players in the Miracle League in Northwood earlier this season.

"And those players were fabulous," Glen Springer said. "They took pictures with the kids, signed autographs. They played with the kids, and they were good sports.

"It meant a lot to those players - and their parents - to learn that guys who play a game for a living were willing to spend time with kids who are less fortunate. The Mud Hens are fortunate that they have a bunch of guys who 'get it.'•"

Contact John Wagner at:

jwagner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6481.



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