Fanfest nation: Pursuing 'access' and game-worn pants

Every winter, teams across the majors gift fans with a convention-like event devoted to autographs, season tickets... and also a good deal of complaining.

The Red Lacquer Room

The Red Lacquer Room at Chicago's Palmer House Hilton is bursting with antiquated beauty. Its charm is over a century old and purposely devoid of modern touches, content to remain a pristine relic instead of trying to keep up with the times.

The floor is carpeted, an intricately woven pattern that these days, in the age of mass production, is reserved for area rugs. The walls are blood red and balanced with window treatments that are so delicately precise in both structure and form that it wouldn't be surprising to learn they were actually stitched with gold. Every surface in the sprawling space is painted, upholstered, or gold-plated. It's the sort of space from which Liberace would undoubtedly have drawn design inspiration. The chandeliers are imported from Austria and suspended from the ceiling centered within hand-painted murals.

The Red Lacquer Room has entertained dignitaries and hosted countless wedding celebrations. The acoustics are perfect for string quartets and operatic vocals. That is not the purpose to which it is being put today; no soprano coloratura stands at the microphone in the middle of the room, but rather a middle-aged man wearing a blue t-shirt that reads "Caesar's Palace" on the back, the garment a shade of aqua that hasn't had a name since the clothes-wearing population collectively stopped wearing it back in the 1990s. Behind him stand four other such men, each waiting patiently for his chance to take the microphone.

On the stage in front of him, which isn't original to the space and is constructed of steel girders and draped in black velvet to temper its harshness, are the three men that everyone has been waiting to see. When the trio entered, the room erupted in applause, and as they each perched one cheek on their high stools and balanced their weight on their landing foot, they waved to the people that they knew were there but couldn't see because of the blinding up-lights that surrounded the stage. The greeting was near perfect. There was enough feeling behind it to show it wasn't forced and just enough hoots and hollers to convey that there was no hostility.

Not yet, at least.

Every seat in the Red Lacquer Room was full aside from the few that had self-consciously been left as buffers for patrons who are distrustful of the closeness of strangers, but no one wore tuxedos -- but for the man in the Caesar's Palace giveaway it was black T-shirt instead of black tie. Those who were tardy, myself included, stood along the perimeter waiting for the event to begin. It was SoxFest, the annual event at which the Chicago White Sox gave their fans the one thing they crave perhaps more than another championship: that mysterious, ill-defined thing called "access." That exchange is a two-way street: The Sox use that desire to stoke fans for the coming season and hit them with an early chance to buy in in the form of tickets.

What those fans do with that access is another matter.

Connect Four and the Black List

Many major league teams hold an annual fanfest of some kind, and the White Sox are no exception. Each team structures their celebration in different ways. Some teams, particularly those whose fanbase is comprised of a sprawling multi-state constituency, opt for caravans and travel to different locations for pop-up events. Others, mostly the ones in warmer climates, hold their fan festivities at the ballpark and allow attendees to get a glimpse at the parts of the park that are off-limits during the season.

Both Chicago teams hold three-day conventions at two of the nicest hotels in the city, turning the most grandiose spaces into casual zones for batting cages, memorabilia garage sales, and concession stands full of ballpark food. It's not every day that you can see a small child with leftover nacho cheese smeared on his face and fingers carrying a stuffed Southpaw attempting to stick his head between the rails of an ancient staircase, but on this particular weekend in January, you can. Monday morning, when the cleanup from the event begins, the maintenance staff will pack away the chairs, throw away any unclaimed baseball cards, and try to figure out what sort of cleaning supplies will remove the Miller Lite which sloshed out of the plastic cups as people made their way in for seminars from the Red Lacquer Room's delicate carpet.

Southpaw_medium

Fan festivals serve to fuel fans by giving them the two things they crave the most: Access to the team and positive lasting memories. When done properly those two circles can intersect, so the organization attempts to skillfully weave nostalgia and insiderness with a third, and perhaps most important, principle from the team's standpoint: marketing and ticket sales.

The layout of the Palmer House is not really conducive to this sort of event, not just because of a grandeur incongruous with the crowd-worn shabbiness of the ballpark, but also due to its lack of main concourse for gathering and, by default, marketing. It's a labyrinth of escalators, elevators, and long hallways that are lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and no seating. There's a SoxFest brochure that details where things are located, but directional signage is lacking, as if the goal were to get lost enough that you linger in your surroundings longer than you might have otherwise. You know you're doing alright if you're headed in the same direction as the marching throngs of patrons wearing black and white pinstripes or if you haven't walked yourself into a corner that's being manned by a White Sox Guest Services employee who tells you that, even with a media credential, you shouldn't be there.

The setup does, however, lend itself to stealth marketing tactics through subtle product placement. There aren't signs to tell you where to go, but there are plenty of poster boards on easels that encourage attendees to stop by the ticket-sales booths and the social media lounge, and to sign up for,  "The Black List," an incentive program that gives fans access (there's that word, again) to advance ticket sales, videos, and "breaking news" emails that are actually distilled press releases. There is a sort of mastery in this approach that allows the organization to spoon-feed everyone vegetables under the guise of fun and excitement. In that sense, the White Sox nailed it.

On the fourth floor, there is an entire room dedicated to fair-like amusements. There is table tennis, which has nothing to do with baseball, but has a line to play regardless. Next to that, two gentlemen from the Louisville Slugger museum are there. One dons white gloves and has a collection of bats from former Sox players for fans to hold. The other wears safety goggles and stands behind a computer numerical control (CNC) machine, and whittles a solid timber out of its infancy and into a baseball bat while people watch.

Latheguy_medium

There's pop-a-shot (also not baseball-related), a batting cage, and a speed pitch machine, all of which are intended for children but get used by the occasional balding man who tosses a few jump-shots into the inflatable hoop under the pretense that his son wanted to play. There are picture opportunities with life-sized cardboard facsimiles of Harold Reynolds and Bob Costas, as well as with the giant costumes that interns wear for the player race during Sunday games. Admission to the room of fun is included in the price of entry, but first you have to make it past four booths that line the hallway: ticket sales, season-ticket sales, group and corporate sales, and spring-training ticket sales.

The ticket sale employees are more delicate in their approach than Greenpeace standing on the corner imploring you to Save the Whales would be, but they make their presence known. They hand out calendars and fliers and attempt to engage the passers-by before they lose them to the concession stand. Even with a media credential around my neck, they were anxious to speak to me. I stood near the booth briefly and the refrain of, "How many times did you get to the park last year?" and, "Will we be seeing you in Arizona?" rang out. Even  if people don't buy then and there, their presence has at least planted the seed for future purchases; in some cases the eager young salesmen took down their information to call them at a later date, "Glengarry Glen Ross" style.

The positive lasting memories part of the equation is being fulfilled in rooms named after Presidents Adams and Monroe. In hourly intervals there are opportunities to get autographs and photos taken with players, a privilege that is granted to the first 200 or 300 fans through a wristband system. People queue up hours in advance and wait in winding metal mazes like you'd see at Disney World to control excess crowds. The lines are long and boring, subtracting from the time that could be spent in the fun center or in the Red Lacquer Room, but fans either sleep on the floor or talk about the Sox with other patrons. The veterans who have been here before carry five-gallon buckets with them and use them both to stash any merchandise they brought from home or purchased in at the team's garage sale and as portable seating in the arduous lines that net either an autograph or a photo-op on the other side.

Aside from certain hallways and a handful of events that require VIP SoxFest status, access is unfettered. Fans are free to sit in the hotel's lobby and have a drink. They are free to take in seminars in the Red Lacquer Room. They can sit on the floor of the hallway playing on their Twitter account, or stand inches away from radio personalities doing a live-broadcast on WSCR 670 the Score. They can toss beanbags with Adam Eaton, play Connect Four with Nate Jones, or wave to the newest addition, Jose Abreu, who was occasionally spotted in the hallway. There was no limit on the amount of time that one could spend flipping through old baseball cards, and, when given her choice of game-worn pants to purchase for $10, a middle-age lady argued to no one in particular that it was such a steal that she could afford to own both Jake Peavy's and Gordon Beckham's pants.

I wandered SoxFest for hours, talking to as many people as I could about their experience (though, admittedly, most were way more interested in standing in line or eating pizza than actually talking to me). When I asked the purpose of their visit, the first word they inevitably reached for was, "Access." That was the reasons they shelled out $100 for the weekend.

Wishing Jose Abreu a Happy Birthday

Saturday morning in the Red Lacquer Room felt like a shareholder meeting where businessmen gather to discuss the trials and tribulations of last year's business, because, in a sense, it was. However, instead of questions being fired by stakeholders -- that is, those who draw financial dividends from success and lose money in failure -- the three men on the stage -- manager Robin Ventura, general manager Rick Hahn, and broadcaster Hawk Harrelson -- were there to field questions not from those who have tangible stakes in the health of the organization, but have made a metaphorical investment nonetheless.

This is where the access part gets tricky.

This particular seminar was entitled "Recharged & Remade: Your 2014 White Sox." Anyone could ask a question by waiting their turn for the microphone in the center aisle.

The first interlocutor asked Hahn why A.J. Pierzynski was no longer the team's catcher, which was met with raucous applause from fans who are fed up with the sub-replacement level catchers the team fielded in his absence. Hahn did his best to explain the aging curve of baseball players and the desire to move towards a younger core, but the man who asked the question didn't even hear him, as he was too busy high-fiving strangers.

HE ASKED THE MANAGER WHAT HE WOULD DO TO GAIN BACK THE CREDIBILITY HE LOST WITH HIS PLAYERS.

The second questioner, bitten by the more positive feelings of fandom, grabbed the microphone and said, "It's a lot of fun to come up here [to ask a question], and it's pretty damn cool!" and used his one chance to speak to the mastermind behind building the team's roster about future fanfest events instead of something relevant to baseball.

When the man in the Caesar's Palace T-shirt got his chance, he fixed Ventura with a stare and asked the manager what he would do to gain back the credibility he lost with his players during the 99-loss season, as though he had some insider information about clubhouse chaos that even the media wasn't privy to. Ventura, who just signed a contract extension earlier in the week, is as quick-witted as managers come, but after a long pause he became slightly defensive and said that it would be simple for him since he hadn't lost it in the first place.

Buckets_medium

Then things got lazy and predictable. There were complaints about how painful it is to watch Adam Dunn bat, how awful Josh Phegley and Tyler Flowers are behind the plate, and who the starters would be next season. One man so brazenly offered to help Hahn and Ventura with lineup construction. After the third question relating to future fan events, Hahn reminded those in attendance that he's not the director of marketing, and said, almost pleadingly, that he'd be happy to answer baseball-related questions. It didn't seem as if the fans were willfully dragging the panel off topic, but that some were just too awestruck to actually pose a relevant question. In a later session, someone stood in a long line just to wish Jose Abreu a happy birthday.

These happy few were met with a different kind of exuberance by others who wanted to use their "access" not to gain more knowledge, but to air their grievances. To the credit of the three-man panel, at no point did things feel like they were unraveling, not even when someone told Ventura that they preferred Ozzie Guillen as a manager and asked Ventura if he, "actually had a pulse." Throughout the inquisition, Ventura and Harrelson showed they were adept at deflecting hostility with humor, and Hahn leaned on phrases like, "I'm certain that I'm even more upset than you are" when fans vented about last year's losses.

Maybe they are used to being held accountable when the stakes are low, but the "Recharged & Rebuilding: Your 2014 White Sox"  seminar was more like a group-led "Rehash & Recapitulate 2013's Failures." It was a caricature of a town-hall meeting, something you'd see on Parks and Recreation, but instead of debating corn syrup, Sweetums bars, and ham and mayonnaise sandwiches, the townspeople shouted about Wins Above Replacement and batting averages.

It was an hour of beating dead horses and pursuing irrelevancies. This wasn't accountability and it wasn't affection, it was just a room full of sports talk-radio callers who wanted to escalate their complaints to the top of the ladder and lend their insight into Beckham's ongoing batting slump or Alexei Ramirez's mental errors. It was uncomfortable at times, being a bystander at a mutiny. The lack of empathy for the real difficulties inherent in running a team, particularly one that was neglected by the previous general manager as badly as the White Sox were in recent years, seemed particularly and unfair -- Ventura and Hahn didn't create the situation, they were trying to repair it. The untempered hostility took on a personal dimension when I realized that the lady standing next to me was married to one of the players whose name elicited boos every time it was mentioned. After each chorus, she would wince and shudder visibly.

The Happening

A year from now, there will be another SoxFest, and they'll all be there again. Barring unlikely seasons from Tyler Flowers, Josh Phegley, or Adrian Nieto, they'll still be asking about Pierzynski, who will be 38 years old by then, and even if the Sox improve over last season's 99 losses, there will still tough questions to answer in the Red Lacquer Room.

No one will think twice about it once the session ends -- for some, their lasting memory will be that they were happy just to be in the same room with the second-rate stars of their also-ran team, and for others they will be able to boast as to how they gave those baseball fat-cats a piece of their minds -- indeed, as soon as the words were spoken they were being bragged about on Twitter.

As for the rest, they'll leave the ballroom, wait in line to meet players, and they'll peruse the apparel and game-used equipment in the garage sale, hoping to find a helmet worn by Brent Morel or Aaron Rowand. They'll get their access and lasting memories, and in return, the organization will see a spike in ticket sales from satisfied and dissatisfied customers alike.

In the final analysis, they all got what they wanted. In the 21st century, "access" doesn't mean getting to be an appreciative audience, passively basking in proximity to those we are normally restricted to watching on television or from the stands, but being a participant. That can mean wearing someone else's pants or assuming that one has the place, the knowledge, and the standing to mind-read an entire clubhouse vis-à-vis its feelings regarding the manager.

The White Sox and teams like them bestow an incredible gift on a self-selected subset of their fans. In exchange for being able to subject attendees to a subtle but omnipresent sales push, they erase the fan/team divide: for this one weekend, everyone is Jerry Reinsdorf. It must be galling at times, being subjected to affection and hostility, both unearned in roughly equal measure, but that's the irony of a fanfest. You'd think that it would be the White Sox making the equivalent of a timeshare presentation, but it's really the team getting the hard sell, fan after fan saying, "Listen to me! I'm one of you!"

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