OAKLAND – A few hours before the A's played the Royals last Saturday, relief pitcher Jerry Blevins roamed the home clubhouse at O.co Coliseum wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of his face above a set of stairs and the caption: "Stairway to Blevins."
A similar shirt hung in the locker of reliever Sean Doolittle, featuring the phrase that doubles as the left-hander's Twitter handle: "What would Doo do?"
The social media site, on which both pitchers interact often with fans, was in fact the primary avenue by which the shirts came to be in the Oakland clubhouse, Blevins said. The designer had reached out, Blevins replied with an interest in getting a few shirts and a connection was made.
"It's just a way for us to interact directly (with fans)," Blevins said of his use of Twitter. "You used to get letters in the mail. Now you get a tweet."
As social media sites like Twitter and Instagram have gained traction with the public and Major League Baseball – the official MLB Twitter page has nearly 3 million followers – the teams in whose backyard Twitter was founded have worked to harness its potential for marketing and fan engagement. More and more, it seems, that means breaking down the lines between virtual and real-life interaction.
Last weekend, the A's held a live "tweet-up," during which Blevins and Doolittle joined before a game and answered questions posed to them via Twitter.
The Giants plan to debut a "social media cafe" beyond center field at AT&T Park next month, where fans at the game can swing by and see what others – ostensibly around the world – are saying about the team on Twitter and Instagram.
Both teams have organized promotions guided by fans' Twitter activity. And some players embrace their ability to communicate directly with fans over their own accounts, opening up a window into their personalities and lives off the field.
All, of course, in installments of 140 characters or less.
A two-way conversation
During last year's National League Championship Series, the Twitter hashtag #RallyZito trended worldwide as the Giants were staving off elimination in St. Louis behind starter Barry Zito. That was followed by #RallyEnchilada, with fans of the team flooding the Twitter-sphere with pictures of pitcher Ryan Vogelsong's lucky pregame meal.
Bryan Srabian, the Giants' director of social media, said #RallyZito started with one fan tweeting the hashtag, spread when others made it their avatar (profile picture) and took off when the Giants' official account – which as of last week had more than 429,000 followers, fourth-most in MLB – adopted the avatar as its own.
The Giants, of course, rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Cardinals, winning the final two games in front of a spirited home crowd, and swept the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
"It was one of the most fun experiences I've had, because here our fans almost picked the team up," Srabian said. "You could feel this kind of come together on Twitter and everybody saying, 'Let's go for this.' "
When Srabian started his job before the 2010 season, he said, the Giants' Twitter account had about 3,500 followers. Its first iteration was primarily for news, he said – sharing the day's lineup, scores and game updates. Those still appear, but the uses have broadened.
Last Tuesday, the Giants' account issued 68 tweets – including retweets – ranging from a reminder about reliever Jeremy Affeldt's book signing to a picture of Sergio Romo dressed like Elvis to a live question-and-answer session with first baseman Brandon Belt. One question to Belt was whether he could beat teammate Hunter Pence in ping-pong. Belt answered he wasn't sure, but he'd "like to set that match up."
"One thing I've learned is how social media is that two-way conversation," Srabian said. "Obviously we're going to answer as many questions as we can. But for me the important part is listening to fans.
"You hear wonderful stories. People like to share their connection with the team – and they might even have constructive feedback about their experience at the park."
That can have tangible results.
Srabian said the Giants plan to hold a social media night on July 26 and give away a "Marco Scutaro rain globe" – a concept based on Scutaro's arms-wide pose before the last out of the NLCS, posited on Twitter by a fan and picked up by a popular blog.
Srabian said the Giants' special-events team heard of the idea and "said, 'Hey, why don't we do this?' "
Srabian already is working with one of baseball's more active fan bases – the Giants have sold out 192 consecutive home games, the longest active streak in MLB.
And across the bay, the A's also use social media to engage and "activate" fans, said marketing and advertising manager Amy MacEwen, with the tangible goal of getting fans into the seats.
Interactive promotions are one method. Next month the A's are planning a giveaway of Grant Balfour gnome dolls at a home game.
Beforehand, MacEwen said, they'll hide "giant gnome posters" around the area and tweet clues to their locations.
Fans who tweet pictures of themselves by the poster with a specific hashtag will qualify for prizes.
Part of the potential of social media, though, is in contacting those people who aren't among the roughly 113,000 followers of the A's account.
MacEwen said a video of the upcoming "Coco Lean" bobblehead doll, sent on Twitter in February, was picked up by news sites and likely helped drive strong ticket sales for the June 29 game.
"We value reach a lot," MacEwen said. "When our followers start retweeting, they're becoming brand ambassadors. If we can start reaching more people than are currently following us, that's huge."
Players use it, too
The idea of "a two-way street" also applies to players active on Twitter.
If the professional athlete's life once held the mystique of the unknown, players now can have a direct – at least virtually – dialogue with fans, if they're inclined.
"I feel like it's my outlet to show fans what I'm like off the field," said Doolittle, who regularly tweets humorous and offbeat observations to his 11,600 or so followers.
Doolittle said he "hardly ever tweets about baseball," partly because he spends enough time playing, watching and talking about it, and partly to avoid "people trolling at you."
"You don't want to be put in that situation where you might slip up and say the wrong thing," he said. "It's better to avoid that altogether and just kind of have fun with it. And it's cool because you end up finding fans who share similar interests."
Doolittle said he doesn't have a problem with opening up to fans – "I mean, I don't have anything to hide. I feel like I'm a pretty good guy and I've got my stuff together" – and he's aware that most people identify him as a member of the A's. His avatar shows him wearing A's garb.
The team holds a meeting at spring training about social media use, Doolittle said, where the theme is "basically if there's even a shadow of a doubt, could somebody misinterpret this, then you probably need to reword it or just not tweet it."
His tweets, though, are not regulated, he said.
Sometimes there's no helping the reaction.
During a live Q&A at the Giants' FanFest earlier this spring, Belt responded to a question about the Los Angeles Dodgers' payroll by saying, in part: "You can't buy team chemistry." The blowback from Dodgers' fans was swift – and largely electronic.
"Every now and then somebody'll still get on (Twitter) and just wear me out," Belt said with a smile. "It's usually when (the Dodgers are) not playing very good. And obviously when I'm not playing good they can kind of throw that in my face a little bit."
Belt joined Twitter over the offseason and became a popular follow (he has 35,000-plus followers) by retweeting fans' questions to him with his responses. He said he actually joined at the urging of his agents, but soon found he liked interacting with fans over a medium that is open but still allows the player some control. He tweets less during the season, when baseball is priority one.
"They can ask you anything they want, you can kind of pick out what questions you want to, and they get to know a lot more about who you are," Belt said. "You've got to be aware that there's going to be some people out there that are going to try to tear you down. You try to avoid that and just don't respond. I think when they see you respond, that's when they get kind of crazy."
Not all players are interested. Giants outfielder Andres Torres, for example, doesn't have an account but is well-liked by fans for his attitude and outspoken affection for the city in which he plays.
"It's not (to keep) distance," Torres said. "I just like to be relaxed, you know?"
Both Srabian of the Giants and MacEwen of the A's said the teams don't pressure players to use Twitter, though they recognize the appeal for fans.
"You can have a conversation with your idol," Mac-Ewen said. "It's totally leveling the playing field."
During games, when players are occupied, the teams' accounts stay busy, illustrating how social media use is no longer checked at the turnstiles.
The A's often ask fans inside the Coliseum to post pictures of their view or food. Travis LoDolce, the team's senior manager of digital marketing, said the A's have tweeted in-game photos of concessions stands with no lines and watched as fans flocked to that stand.
Then there's the "social media cafe" the Giants plan to open in June in what used to be a Build-A-Bear workshop in center field, where fans will find an interactive video board with live tweets and Instagram photos while screens on either side show the game.
The idea, Srabian said, is to corral the "chatter" going on across social media platforms and bring it to the source – inside the stadium.
The Chicago White Sox just debuted a similar idea at their park. Srabian said both teams see it as "the next step in the social media experience."
"People at the park can see what fans are saying in San Francisco and what's trending in other places," he said. "We think it's something our fans are really going to get into."
It'll also be connected to a Peet's stand, he said.
"Worst-case scenario," Srabian said, "it'll be a place to get a cup of coffee and charge your phone."