Thanks to social media, fans have closer access to professional athletes than ever before. And it's opening up a world of amazing possibilities.
In years past when you wanted to interact with a professional athlete, your best bet was to arrive early at the stadium, search for a spot where a player might walk by and then shout at them in hopes of getting their attention.
Now you just need a smartphone.
Social media has changed the landscape of our society -- and the landscape of sports fandom, in particular. Folks can debate the effects on human interaction of sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, but for the purposes of this story, one thing is certain -- with the help of social media, fans have better access than ever to the professional athletes they cheer for. Whether a user or not, it's hard to ignore Twitter these days. Both its benefits and drawbacks are many, but it has become an incredible source for gathering information. And from a fan's perspective, it's the best way to learn more about their favorite athlete -- by reading posts directly from the athlete themselves.
It's not enough to track what a player does between the lines anymore. In the ongoing pursuit of a personal connection with our favorite Major Leaguers, off-the-field activities now garner nearly the same level of attention as those that take place on the field. And luckily many ballplayers oblige, tweeting pictures of themselves around town, giving their own unfiltered opinions of the most recent game action and even directly answering questions from fans.
Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips famously stopped by a little league game in Ohio after a 14-year-old tweeted at him, asking him if he'd like to watch him play. David Price delivered coffee to a fan who asked for their own cup after seeing a picture he tweeted of his morning Starbucks run.
Though not entirely common, instances like these keep popping up across the country as Twitter becomes more widely used. But with current technology providing the ability to send a personal message directly to a Major Leaguer, the ultimate question presents itself: if you could have 30 minutes with a major league baseball player, how would you spend it?
Enter Rays super utility player Elliot Johnson.
Johnson is not your average Major Leaguer. He has an air of commonality that makes it easy for fans to interact with him. He wasn't drafted. He spent six years in the Rays farm system before his first stint in the big leagues. And three more before finally sticking in the majors. That, in part with his approachable, amusing personality, makes his account -- @elliotjohnson9 -- a unique and entertaining feed to "follow" on Twitter.
"I remember what it was like to not be a Major League baseball player," Johnson said. "So I try to give everyone who follows me a little taste of what it's like."
And few do it better than Johnson. He held a daily "Name That Rays Tattoo" game during spring training, posting pictures of his teammates' tattoos and awarding prizes to the first person to guess who they belonged to. He surprised fans by explaining that he and his fellow Minor Leaguers only made $850 a month when he first signed in 2002. He even tweeted his version of a ballplayer's bucket list: "Make it to the Show, get a hit, hit a home run, get a walk-off hit, homer against the Yankees, hit a homer over the Green Monster and win a World Series -- only one more item to check off the list!"
"Unique and creative is what I'm going for," Johnson explained. "Who wants to read the same thing over and over again? I know I don't. I'm only interested in stuff that stands out."
So it was no surprise when Johnson tweeted this message before a random game in June.
"I've always been curious to know what a fan would want to do with a MLB player if they had 30 minutes to spend with them? What would you do?"
What followed was more than 300 responses from fans, most of which requested a simple game of catch or to take batting practice with the team. But as he mentioned, Johnson wanted unique and creative. So when St. Leo University student Sarah Nobles tweeted that she wanted to "play the carnival games at the Trop," he knew immediately he had a winner.
What Nobles didn't know was that it wasn't just a hypothetical question from Johnson. He sent her a message telling her that he loved her response and wanted to invite her and her family to Tropicana Field to make her idea a reality.
"I thought I was being pranked," Nobles remembered. "I couldn't believe he had reached out to me like that."
So before a home game, Nobles and her family -- mom Colleen, sister Maddy, brother Alex and cousin Tim -- arrived at Grand Slam Alley, a carnival area located in Left Field Street. A few minutes after gaining a friendly competitive advantage by testing their skills at some of the games, the family was thrilled to meet Johnson and the friend he brought along: outfielder Sam Fuld.
From there, it was as if the group was lifelong friends who were spending the night at the state fair. Johnson and Fuld seemed more like fun relatives than recent acquaintances. And the way they fiercely competed gave weight to that description. It became clear quickly that in the world of carnival games, there is no advantage to being a professional athlete.
For 45 minutes, first-place prizes were spread fairly evenly as the group played skee-ball, whack-a-mole, ball toss and putt-putt. Then they took pictures, signed autographs and talked about Rays baseball for a few minutes before parting ways.
"I started my Twitter account because I saw that Rays players were on it," Nobles said. "I feel more connected to them because I get to see what they do and hear what they think ... I never imagined something like this could happen, though."
Thanks to social media and generous players like Elliot Johnson, she'll no longer have to imagine. She'll just have to keep the battery charged on her smartphone.
Jonathan Gantt (@Jonathan_Gantt) is a writer for Inside Pitch magazine and a Communications Coordinator for the Tampa Bay Rays. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.