LOS ANGELES -- It's a tradition that goes back to baseball's very beginning -- fans come out to the ballpark early in hopes of getting an autograph from a ballplayer.
The Dodgers have always been accommodating to fans on the field level in the past, but with the renovations to that level this past offseason, management did not allow fans to get autographs during the first homestand of the year, which prompted criticism from the media and more than 300 e-mails and scores of phone calls from unhappy fans to the stadium. The organization listened, and everything is back the way it was and more.
"It was a valid criticism, even though there was a rationale to it," said Dodgers chief marketing officer Charles Steinberg. "The point is that you should let families know that they can come out early to the ballpark. There are rewards to coming out early, and we love it when children get to come down to the field, see the players up close, maybe get an autograph."
So the Dodgers have returned to the previous pregame autograph policy. Any fan who would like to enter the Left Field Pavilion or at the left-field field level entrance for batting practice can do so from two hours until 90 minutes before first pitch. Those who choose to take advantage of that opportunity may stay on the field level until batting practice ends, which is 50 minutes before first pitch.
At that time, all fans will be asked to return to their respective seats. So for a 7:10 p.m. PT start, fans can come in at 5:10 pm, watch the last 30 minutes of Dodgers batting practice and all of the opposing team's batting practice. On days when teams do not take batting practice, fans may remain on the field level until 50 minutes before the scheduled start of the game.
Steinberg and the rest of Dodgers management have taken it one step further by allowing fans to come down on Aisle 27 of the field level, which runs right next to the Dodgers dugout, and step out on the field to see their favorite players up close.
"What surprised the children today was that they actually stepped out on to the warning track and everyone got to either meet Matt Kemp today or Andre Eithier or James Loney, Delwyn Young or Blake DeWitt, and everyone had a really good time," said Steinberg.
The Dodgers had already implemented a new viewing area in center field where fans can watch batting practice from the warning track. The team also placed in that area an autograph alley, where, before each game, one former Dodgers player will be on hand to sign autographs.
"You go out to center field and there's a former Dodger there every day," said Steinberg. "Ron Cey was out there today, and it's just a way to inspire inter-generational conversation about the stars of today and the stars of yesterday, and you find out that they're all gentlemen."
Steinberg says that this will be the policy from now on, and he encourages fans to come out as early as possible to take advantage of this opportunity.
"It's always better to come early, not worry about parking, not worry about traffic," said Steinberg. "We may tweak it a bit and make it as fan-friendly as we can, but the fundamental is that this could be the moment that a child falls in love with baseball, and you can't have enough of that."
Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.