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Benjamin Hill has been a writer for MiLB.com since 2005, where he quickly became enamored with the lively and oft-bizarre world of minor-league promotions and game operations. He pens all manner of minor-league content for the site, but the purest distillation of his expertise and idiosyncrasies can be found at Ben’s Biz Blog. This massively informative clearinghouse of industry best practices is written in a breezy pun and pop-culture obsessed style that has connected with those in and outside of the sport (or so he says). Hill spends the baseball season participating in regional food-themed mascot races at minor-league ballparks throughout the land. Otherwise, he tweets at @bensbiz and resides in Brooklyn with his three best friends: easy chair, record player, and Irish whisky.
In less than two weeks, the entirety of the baseball world will convene on Dallas, TX for the annual Winter Meetings. In the popular imagination this event is a four-day orgy of front office wheeling and dealing, best symbolized by agents furiously working their cell phones, sleep-deprived GMs huddled away in penthouse suites, and the endless booze-fueled rumor-mongering of the hotel lobby hoi polloi.
But here’s the thing—for the majority of folks in attendance, the Winter Meetings exist within a parallel world in which the activities described above hold no importance whatsoever. To this vast but perpetually overlooked demographic of the professional baseball landscape, key acquisitions are more liable to take the form of creatively rendered bobbleheads, pop-culture theme jerseys, and the signing of Jerry “The King” Lawler to a one-day contract.
I am speaking, of course, about those that work within Minor League Baseball. Each of the 160 teams that comprise this industry is made up of (generally) young prospects, all of whom are united in their single-minded quest to make it to the “The Show.” But employees of minor-league teams have no control whatsoever over who these prospects are and how long they stick around on the roster; such heady decisions are unilaterally made by the so-called “Parent Club.” Minor-league teams are the children, then, and kids just want to have fun.
This is the business of Minor League Baseball—creating a fun atmosphere at the ballpark, regardless of wins and losses and other such uncontrollable on-field factors. The action on the diamond is often secondary to the action surrounding it, a sense-overriding cavalcade of mascot photo ops, scoreboard sound effects, regional food-based mascot races and death-quickening but (usually) delicious concession fare.
And there’s always room to get better. With all this in mind, here’s a look at the sort of things that are on the Hot Stove shopping lists of minor-league teams. Such needs will be at the top of the agenda during the Winter Meetings, as execs swap ideas at business seminars, traverse the labyrinthian corridors of the annual Baseball Trade Show, and, of course, engage in booze-fueled rumor mongering at the hotel lobby.
Bobble A Few Heads (Or Other Body Parts)
The bobblehead remains an effective way to put butts in the seats, but more and more teams are thinking outside of the box when it comes to these time-honored undulators. Exhibit A: 2011’s Minor League Promotion of the Year (as voted on by the fans) was the Stockton Ports’ “Dallas Braden Bobble-belly,” an item that honored the hometown hero’s abdomen-baring display of area code pride shortly after pitching his perfect game in 2010.
Uh, what? Exactly. As long as an item appeals to the home crowd, it matters not whether it’s easily translatable to a mass audience. A similarly involved backstory is also needed to comprehend the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers’ “Scooter vs. the Snowman” bobblehead, which commemorates an impromptu act of snowman decimation following an Opening Day 2010 snowout.
The Brooklyn Cyclones, meanwhile, can generally be counted on for a creative bobblehead (they like Ike!), and 2011’s standout was a literal-minded rendering of team alum Angel Pagan. As in, the outfielder was equipped with a pair of angel wings (here’s hoping that in 2012 the team honors the “pagan” side of the equation).
And—hey!—did you know that the cultishly-adored film A Christmas Story was filmed in Cleveland? The Lake County Captains, based in a Cleveland suburb, sure do. In 2010 the team gave away a bobbling “leg lamp” in honor of the film, and followed that up with this year’s figurine of mascot Skipper getting his nose affixed to the foul pole. (Unfortunately, eye-safety concerns have kept the team from staging a BB gun giveaway.)
Concoct A New Concession
Question: It’s the offseason, and your team is out of sight, out of mind. How do you break through that suffocating wall of indifference?
Answer: Announce a ridiculously oversized and/or bizarrely constructed concession item!
The West Michigan Whitecaps played this one to perfection in 2009, as their 4800-calorie “Fifth Third Burger” (named after their stadium naming rights partner, and weighing 5/3rds of a pound) became a national—nay, international—sensation. The Charleston RiverDogs have long been players on the attention-grabbing food scene—witness “The Homewrecker” and “The Pickle Dog”—and last year’s addition to the lineup was a bacon-wrapped corn dog with the apropos name of “Pig On A Stick.” But the team that has made the biggest food-related splash as of late is the Akron Aeros. Last season, food and beverage director Jason Kerton (a Charleston RiverDogs refugee) unveiled both the “Three Dog Night” (hot dog stuffed in a brat stuffed in a kielbasa) as well as the “Nice 2 Meat You Burger” (1.5 pounds of hamburger stuffed with half a pound of hot dog).
Whatever doesn’t kill you merely delays the inevitable.
Extend Some Hospitality
Nothing spices up a night at the ballpark like the arrival of a special guest—especially if said guest is willing to put his life on the line for your amusement. One of last year’s biggest stunts was the Lowell Spinners’ “Human Home Run,” in which 69-year-old David Smith was shot out of a cannon and over the outfield wall. But even this feat of aerial daredevilry pales in comparison to what the Savannah Sand Gnats pulled the previous season. Following a ballgame, stuntman Ted Batchelor was lit on fire by a lucky (?) fan and proceeded to run around the basepaths in the midst of a full-body burn. Batchelor then showed up at the 2010 Winter Meetings hoping to entice more teams to hire him (as part of his goal of being lit on fire in all 50 states), but thus far he hasn’t made a return minor-league engagement.
B- (and C)-list celebrities are another subgenre of the American citizenry that often visit minor-league ballparks. Dennis “Principal Belding” Haskins has become a fixture of “Education Night” promotions, often displaying his karaoke prowess post-game. Likewise, Erik “Ponch” Estrada is always in demand come Cinco De Mayo (or Viente Cinco de Mayo, as it were), while fellow ’70s stars such as Barry “Greg Brady” Williams is available anytime teams are overcome with the urge to revel in cathode ray-soaked nostalgia.
And who can forget the wrestlers? King Kong Bundy, George “The Animal” Steele, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Mick “Mankind” Foley, and Jim “Hacksaw” Duggan are ballpark regulars, and more seem to be added to their ranks every season. In 2011, the Vermont Lake Monsters snagged Brutus “The Beefcake” Barber, while the Lakewood BlueClaws hearkened back to the good ol’ days of rampant Cold War paranoia with a Nikolai Volkoff/Iron Sheikh double-booking.
Give the Shirts Right Off Of Their Backs
An increasingly popular trend is to stage a theme night promotion in which the players take the field wearing a jersey representing said theme. Then, after the ballgame, these jerseys are often auctioned off to the highest bidder in a charitable auction. Everyone wins! (Save for the players forced to sacrifice their sartorial dignity, but that’s a secondary concern.)
The most attention-getting theme jersey of this recently concluded campaign came courtesy of the Memphis Redbirds. On “Organ Donation Night,” the team took the field in innards-exposing uniform tops, complete with a heart representing the dotted “I” in “Redbirds.” The Lehigh Valley IronPigs traveled a similar path, as “Halloween Night” featured the unlikely sight of seeing Hall of Fame manager Ryne Sandberg and his squad in bone-baring uniforms. That’s par for the course for the IronPigs, who on “Social Media Night” wore jerseys featuring @ironpigs on the front and #Pigout across the back. Baseball historians take note: this was the first hashtag to appear on a professional baseball uniform.
The IronPigs’ fellow Phils affiliates are no slouches either. Over each of the past two seasons, the Reading Phillies have honored ostrich-riding frankfurter thrower the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor by taking the field in his signature red and white striped uniform. And over in Lakewood, NJ, the BlueClaws have made “BruceClaws Night” an annual tradition. It’s an evening-long celebration of the Boss, highlighted by guitar-logo uniform tops.
And if it’s rock ’n’ roll you want, there’s more where that came from. The West Michigan Whitecaps celebrate Led Zeppelin each season, wearing uniforms featuring the band’s titular form of aerial transportation.
As I hope the above cornucopia of minor-league madness has amply illustrated, this is an industry in which just about anything goes. And whether engaged in quiet contemplation or booze-fueled rumor mongering, you never know when inspiration is going to strike. Last season saw unprecedented innovations such as a 3D Videoboard on Opening Day, a Taco Truck Throwdown outside of a ballpark, Wilco-themed fireworks, and a home run derby with beer keg targets in the outfield. And, in a stroke of genius deeply appreciated by a fellow Baseball Prospectus guest writer, the State College Spikes hosted the first-ever “Purr in the Park” promotion. So long as they were on a leash or in a carrier, cats were invited to the ballpark (!!!)
And on (and on and on) it goes. As the antics of minor-league teams nationwide make clear, there is far more to the business of this sport than collective bargaining agreements and sabermetrics-influenced roster assemblage. To put it simply, Minor League Baseball is America—reflected in a funhouse mirror and out for a good time no matter what the extenuating circumstances.