ST. PETERSBURG — Rays manager Joe Maddon thinks back to when he was 10 years old, growing up in Hazleton, Pa., and how he would have felt to get an autographed picture from Bob Gibson and hear a personalized message from his favorite major-league baseball player.
"That would have been incredible," said Maddon, who still has a St. Louis Cardinals yearbook with autographs from Lou Brock, Curt Flood and others from a game he attended in the mid 1960s. "I would have been really enthralled to be able to get in touch with one of my baseball idols."
Maddon is on the other end now, responding to fan mail asking for his signature. And he's part of a new product created by a Rays executive that will be unveiled today, offering "the next generation" of the autograph experience.
Egraphs.com will offer fans another way to interact with their favorite players. Through that website, for $50 fans can get a high-resolution photograph from stars such as Rays ace David Price emailed to them with a personalized autograph signed electronically by the player, as well as receive an audio greeting of up to 30 seconds.
It's not intended to replace the joys of a traditional autograph — fans waiting with Sharpies in outstretched hands after a game, or kids mailing players a baseball card and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Instead of SASEs, tomorrow's autographs come as JPEGs.
"We certainly aren't out to eliminate (those)," said Brian Auld, the Rays senior vice president for business operations who came up with the idea last summer with help from his tech-savvy brother, David, a Stanford graduate who was working as a strategist for Microsoft in Seattle.
The product is aimed at fans who can't get autographs in person: Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson has a strong following in his native Iowa, for instance, as does outfielder Sam Fuld in New Hampshire.
"Now we can connect these guys to their hometowns, to fans around the world, to wherever there's some little kid wearing the number of some player," Brian Auld said.
The company is promising enough that Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg is among the initial investors.
Five years ago, the technology didn't allow for such an enterprise, but players can do everything involved on an iPad tablet. A simple application walks them through an Egraph in less than a minute, notifying them of the fan's name and some context, allowing them to record a voice message and sign the photo with a stylus.
Players like the convenience of being able to respond to fans wherever and whenever they want: at home on the couch, in the airport waiting for a flight, anywhere they have a spare minute.
"That flexibility is what is most attractive to the players," said former Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler, now the director of business development for Egraphs.
Price said the Egraphs were a topic of conversation at Tuesday's All-Star Game in Kansas City, Mo., with the Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton among those talking to him about the new product.
Price's lone autograph memory from his childhood was getting Phoenix Suns guard Dan Majerle to sign a napkin at an Arizona restaurant, a memento he has since lost. Price believes one advantage of the Egraph is it will be harder for fans to misplace over time.
"I feel like it gives fans a chance for us to write them a little note, get our signature and get a little voice memo," he said. "They get to pick the picture they want, and it's something they can have in their email, have forever. It's not something they'll lose."
The product's creators sought to address flaws in the conventional autograph experience — even if a player stays late after a game to sign 20 autographs, he might leave another 10 fans disappointed. Players also are wary of signing autographs, knowing some collectors intend to sell a signed item for profit on eBay. Players' contracts with Egraphs have no exclusivity discouraging them from continuing to sign autographs for fans as they have in the past.
The autographed photos will be authenticated using both signature recognition and voice analysis software. If a player tries to have his agent sign a photo or the clubhouse ball boy record the audio message, the fake will be recognized and rejected.
"If the fan doesn't believe that I did it just for him, he's not interested," Kapler said. "He has to know it's personal."
For now, Egraphs has a lineup of nearly 100 baseball players, including Price, Maddon, Hellickson and James Shields of the Rays, as well as Red Sox players Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. But the Aulds see room for expansion, not only to other professional sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA, but to music and movie stars as well.
If fans want an 8-by-10 framed photo with a certificate of authenticity, that will be available for an additional $45. The website launches at 10 a.m. today. The product will have signage behind home plate for two innings of Friday's Rays-Red Sox broadcast.
Price recorded a demo for Rays fan Dick Vitale, thanking him for his support and giving him grief for his season tickets being on the visiting team's side of the field.
And before you think this is another way for millionaire players to get rich off fans — players will get an undisclosed percentage of the transaction — Maddon said he will donate all proceeds from his signings to his Hazleton Integration Project in his hometown in Pennsylvania.