VIERA, Fla. — Jose Lobaton was opening a pile of fan mail at Nationals Park last season when he stumbled across a letter he had to share. Bryce Harper has the adjacent locker, so the backup catcher turned and read it to him.
Harper, who went on to become the National League MVP, laughed hysterically. Lobaton, a backup catcher, wasn’t quite as amused.
“Loby is what, thirty-something? Late twenties?” Harper said later. “It was funny because Loby was like, ‘This kid told me I’m the future of the game!’ ”
Reliever Shawn Kelley can sympathize. When he was with the New York Yankees, he received baseball cards in the mail from fans seeking signatures from Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter.
“I get it,” Kelley said. “But people are so desperate for autographs and will try anything. I’m not ever going to say anything. I just toss it or hand it to the clubbie [clubhouse manager] and he’ll take care of it.”
All professional athletes — active or retired — receive fan mail, most from people seeking autographs. But Washington Nationals players also receive unusual items, unexpected gifts and letters from the other side of the world.
"I get birthday party invitations," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I've never been. Usually my summers are pretty busy. People may not understand that."
Often, fans send baseball cards, photos or balls to be signed. Starter Stephen Strasburg said he enjoys fan mail but that it's time-consuming both to sign dozens of items and re-seal the pre-paid envelopes.
“I want to be around my family as much as I can because I don’t see them that much during the season,” he said. “So I push it off and then try to knock it out in one day.”
Like most of his teammates, Strasburg answers as much of his mail as he can. But players say they can tell by the formatting, addresses and frequency of requests when a letter is from someone looking for items to sell. And when players build a reputation for answering their mail, the small world of autograph collectors takes notice.
New faces in familiar places
“I enjoy fan mail to an extent,” third baseman Anthony Rendon said. “There are a lot of people out there [asking] for their own benefit. It’s hard to look past it. If it’s from a child and in their handwriting and there’s some messed-up letters, then that’s the stuff I enjoy because I feel like I’m making an impact on them.”
Several players said the best fan mail comes from Asia, particularly Japan. Harper said he keeps all the intricate drawings of him sent from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Rendon said he saved a drawing of him and a hand-knit pouch from Japan. Strasburg said the letters from Japan are in broken English — “their translating software isn’t that good” — but that he appreciates the little gifts he receives. Once, he received small, ornate folding fans and some yen, the Japanese currency. Another time, he got stickers with images of him pitching.
“My daughter loves them,” Strasburg said. “She’s really into stickers right now, so she has them all over.”
Sometimes players receive heartfelt letters from fans going through tough times, but those can also be bizarre. When he was with the Oakland Athletics, starter Gio Gonzalez said, he received a letter from a fan that read: "Hey, I'm low on cash and my mortgage needs to be paid. Can you help me? Can you give me like $9,000?" Gonzalez didn't.
Starter Bronson Arroyo said he once received a photo of a tattoo of his autograph a fan had placed behind her ear. Tanner Roark said he got a letter last season, typed out on ornate office paper, that read: "Hey Tanner, I think you should shave your beard and look more like Jordan Zimmermann, just because it'll look more professional. He's very professional."
“I still have it,” Roark said of the letter. “It was hilarious and awesome. It’s funny. Who writes that stuff?”
In many ways, fan mail feels antiquated. Before the prevalence of social media, fan mail had been the main way to interact with baseball players. Now, players say they get requests for photos when they run into fans or are asked to tweet “happy birthday” back. Longtime clubhouse and equipment manager Mike Wallace said the amount of fan mail received by players now is noticeably less than even a few years ago.
"Before, you'd see mail in big boxes because there was so much," catcher Wilson Ramos said. "Now it's less. Technology has advanced to the point that people have other ways of reaching you or taking a photo with you."
Fan mail comes to Space Coast Stadium or Nationals Park, and clubhouse assistants, such as Andrew and Gregory Melnick, sort it and place it in players’ lockers. Wallace said that, this spring, Trea Turner has received the most fan mail. On a recent morning, Turner proudly displayed a small Coast Guard flag he had received as a gift.
Despite years of opening fan mail, Harper said he still finds it “scary and weird” to do so because “you never know” what is in the envelope, box or letter. Harper — who receives wedding invitations — said he prefers fans come to the field to get an autograph or interact with him. Last week, a fan took a selfie photo with him and then, in an application on his smartphone, had Harper sign it. There was no need to wait for the photo to be printed and mailed to be autographed.
“That was really cool, actually,” Harper said.
Some players say they don’t like to receive fan mail away from the ballpark because of privacy and security concerns.
“A lot of people find my parents’ address,” Turner said. “I guess it’s not a secret anymore. You can find anything on the Internet. My parents get a lot of my fan mail.”
One of the best letters Turner has received was one sent to his parents’ house from a little kid. Turner doesn’t remember the fan’s name or where he was from, but the kid drew a picture of a dog on a piece of paper and asked that Turner draw one to send back. Turner drew a cartoon dog, signed his name and mailed it back. There was no baseball card, picture or ball to sign. But why?
“I couldn’t tell you,” Turner said, laughing. “He just wanted a picture of a dog.”