On her 22nd birthday this summer, Sarah Wagner of suburban Wheaton, Ill., who describes herself as a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs, opened an email to find an incredible surprise — a recorded message from her favorite Cubs player:
"Hey, Sarah! Kerry Wood here! Thanks for your message and I hope you're having a great summer!"
"When I heard for the first time, I instantly smiled," says Wagner. "I think my hands probably went over like my mouth, like, 'Oh my gosh, Kerry Wood is talking to me, even though he has no idea who I am!' "
Wagner had received an Egraph as a birthday present from her mother, and in addition to that personalized recorded greeting from Wood, Wagner got an autographed digital photograph of the now retired Chicago Cubs pitcher, with his signature, and a personal note he wrote on it.
And she didn't have to wait in line, stand outside the locker room or interrupt Wood's dinner to get it.
"Egraphs is a shared experience between a celebrity and a fan immortalized forever, sort of the new generation of autographs," says former Major League outfielder Gabe Kapler, who is now director of business development for the new electronic memorabilia startup company, Egraphs.
"When you open up an Egraph on your computer, iPhone, tablet, whatever it may be, you will see a high resolution beautiful photograph of your favorite player or celebrity doing their thing," Kapler added. "On that photograph will be this handwritten message personalized to you, based on some information you've given to him."
Here's how it works: Fans choose from a list of more than 130 current and former Major League Baseball players on the Egraphs website, then select one of the handful of action photos offered of that player, and provide some information or a message about themselves or the person they are buying the Egraph for.
Using a stylus and a custom application developed by Egraphs, the player signs that photograph on his iPad, writes a short personal message, and then records a personal greeting to the recipient using the microphone on the iPad.
Launched in July, Egraphs charges between $25 and $100, depending on the player. For an additional fee, the fan can also get a framed copy of the signed photograph and a certificate of authenticity.
Players get a percentage of the fee Egraph charges. The company wouldn't say how much that percentage is, but because the number of Egraphs per player is limited, it's not likely to add up to a lot of money, especially compared to a Major League players' salary.
Some, including Wood, donate their share of the fee to charity.
Kapler says many players like being able to interact with fans in this personal way at a time that is convenient for them.
For some players and fans, the message can be quite serious and meaningful.
Texas Rangers' slugger Josh Hamilton told a fan named Nancy, "Glad to hear you are doing well from the cancer. Cancer has been very prevalent in my family so my prayers go out to you and your family as well. Praying for good health and long life and a long time coming to Rangers' games. Best wishes and God Bless."
And for happier circumstances, some players like to have fun with the message. For a Washington Nationals fan's 50th birthday, the Nats' Michael Morse recorded a message that included, "You're gettin' old, bro."
As a former player, Kapler knows those kinds of interactions between players and fans are almost impossible to create in person these days.
"I think there are so many barriers to make that happen," he says. Security concerns often keep fans at a distance from star players. And after a game, players can be exhausted, pressed for time or maybe even angry with themselves or their team's performance, so it can be difficult to satisfy fans waiting outside the locker room or along the players' fenced-in parking lot after the game for autographs.
"That sort of scenario is almost set up to fail for the fan," Kapler says.
Sarah Wagner has a few treasured autographs of favorite players that she got the conventional way, including on a baseball glove, baseballs and a couple of photos. But she says almost every time she got those, it was a somewhat rushed experience. She says she's touched to know Wood took the time to sign and say something directly to her.
"It was still a really cool experience and I still have it, so it's not like it's done and gone away, which is nice."
Wagner says she likes being able to whip out her iPhone to play the recorded greeting and show off the signed Egraph to friends.
The company hopes to add Egraphs from football and basketball players, as well as entertainers and celebrities to its current roster of baseball stars.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, a tech story for those of you glued to the Major League Baseball playoffs. You can put away that shoebox of baseball cards. A company called Egraphs is selling digital-signed photos of famous players. They are delivered to your computer or smartphone along with an audio message from the player. NPR's David Schaper explains.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: On her 22nd birthday this summer, Sarah Wagner of suburban Wheaton, Illinois, a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs, opened an email to find an incredible surprise.
KERRY WOOD: Hey, Sarah. Kerry Wood here. Thanks for your message. I hope you enjoy this Egraph and hope you're having a great summer.
SARAH WAGNER: When I heard for the first time, I instantly smiled.
SCHAPER: Wagner describes opening an Egraph from her favorite Cubs player.
WAGNER: I think my hands probably went over like my mouth, like, oh, my gosh, Kerry Wood's talking to me, even though he has no idea who I am.
SCHAPER: In addition to that personalized recorded greeting, Sarah Wagner has an autographed digital photograph of the now retired Chicago Cubs pitcher, and he also wrote a personal message on it. And she didn't have to wait in line, stand outside the locker room or interrupt Kerry Wood's dinner to get it.
GABE KAPLER: Egraphs is a shared experience between a celebrity and a fan immortalized forever, sort of the new generation of autographs.
SCHAPER: Gabe Kapler played 13 years in the Major Leagues and is now director of business development for Egraphs. And he says an Egraph includes a high-resolution digital image of a favorite player.
KAPLER: On that photograph will be this handwritten message personalized to you based on some information that you've given to him.
SCHAPER: For example, you could tell Kerry Wood where you were when he struck out 20 Houston Astros in a game in 1998, how excited you were when he hit a home run in game seven of the 2003 National League Championship Series or how crushed you when the Cubs later lost that game.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGHING)
SCHAPER: Some players like to have fun with the message. For a Washington Nationals fan's 50th birthday, the Nats' Michael Morse recorded: You're getting old, bro. And Kapler says those kinds of interactions between players and fans are almost impossible to create in person these days.
KAPLER: I just think there's so many barriers to make that happen.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: David. David, will you sign a few, please, yeah?
SCHAPER: I'm standing outside of Wrigley Field in Chicago after the last game of the season. The Cubs actually won this game but lost more than 100 others, making it another miserable year in Chicago baseball. But that's not stopping several dozen fans from lining up along the fence of the players' parking lot here in hopes of getting a couple of autographs.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on, David. You got time? Sign a few please?
SCHAPER: The fans plead with the players for a few free signatures but only a couple oblige. Twenty-seven-year old Edgar Ruiz of suburban Elgin says he loves to play this game after the game of trying to put himself in the best place to get a player to sign something.
EDGAR RUIZ: Yeah. It's a hobby. You know, it's kind of like fishing. Sometimes you catch one, and sometimes you don't.
SCHAPER: Ruiz says he's been able to get several autographs that he cherishes this way. But many times, he comes away empty-handed. Still, he says he prefers to get autographs this old fashioned way. And so, too, does 52-year-old Mark Weyermuller of Chicago.
MARK WEYERMULLER: I like an autograph. I have quite a few autographs. And if you can get him to sign it in person, especially if it's for your kids or something, and you get a picture with it, that means a lot.
SCHAPER: But Weyermuller admits it's much more difficult to get players to sign autographs in person today than when he was growing up. And in that way, 54-year-old Cubs fan James Connelly of Chicago sees Egraphs as a way for baseball players to connect with the younger generation.
JAMES CONNELLY: Well, with so many people - and again, I'm 54 - but so many people on Twitter and Facebook and other social medias, sometimes you got to change with the changes, go with the new motion.
SCHAPER: Egraphs sell for 25 to $100, depending on the player, who gets a percentage of that fee. The company did not say how much that percentage is, but because players only do a limited number of Egraphs, it's not a lot, especially compared to Major League salaries. And several, including Kerry Wood, donate their cut of that fee to charity.
Egraphs are available from 130 current and former baseball players. And the company may add football and basketball players soon. David Schaper. NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.