Aug. 18 Play Ball

August 18, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

Eddie Gaedel, take a bow.

During a game against the Detroit Tigers 51 years ago tomorrow, the diminutive St. Louis Brown strode to home plate to face pitcher Bob Kane, who by all accounts could not stop laughing.

Gaedel, you see, was a 3-foot, 7-inch publicity stunt perpetrated by Browns' owner and legendary huckster Bill Veeck.

After walking on four understandably high pitches, Gaedel was replaced by a pinch runner at first and banned from baseball a few days later.

But his legacy endures in minor league ballparks dotting the countryside, where promotional stunts stand hand-in-hand with peanuts and Cracker Jacks as the national pastime.


Creating an interaction

"We just want to come up with as many ideas as possible to pick and choose from," says Hagerstown Suns marketing director Bill Papierniak.

"Some of the ideas we've come up with are probably too out there to even discuss. ... It's something to create an interaction with families and make them want to be a part of it."

Every year, minor league teams have channeled Veeck's spirit to attract fans by any means necessary. This season has been no different:

In July the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs, partly owned by Mike Veeck (yup, Bill's son), conceived Nobody Night, setting a record for fewest fans at a game - zero - by selling no tickets and locking the gates of Riley Ballpark until the fifth inning, when a game becomes official.

Eighteen hundred fans, 200 fewer than a typical Monday night, ventured out to the ballpark for a tailgate party before storming the gates in the fifth inning.

Last week the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, held Jim Traficant Night. In honor of the embattled and ousted Ohio congressman, the team admitted hairpiece wearers and sons of truck drivers for free, held a mock election, and gave out trading cards with images of the now-incarcerated House of Repesentatives member.

Closer to home, the Suns, Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, have Agricultural Day scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 25. In addition to farm-related contests and a pre-game concert by country singer Rebecca Lynn Howard, fans who drive their tractor to the game will receive a free season ticket for 2003.

Think outside the ballpark

"That's something minor league baseball has to have," Suns Fan Club president Gary DeWeerd says. "The season ticket holders and fan club members are going to be there regardless, but some of these other fans, it helps entice them to come back."

Question is, what kind of warped, whacked-out mind must one have to come up with these ideas? DeWeerd admits he sometimes wonders.

"When you brainstorm, you'll think of anything," says Mark Fine, director of public relations for the Frederick Keys, the Baltimore Orioles Class A affiliate. "We put everything on the table and we whittle it down from there."

Last year, the Jacksonville (Fla.) Suns sponsored a bat night, inviting Tonya Harding to make an appearance at the game.

Remember, Harding is infamous for her suspected role in having fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the knee prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics. At the Lillehammer, Norway games, Kerrigan won silver; Harding placed eighth.

The promotion, Fine says, was a success. But just because it worked in Jacksonville doesn't mean the stunt or something similar would translate to Frederick.

"You don't want to be distasteful, that's the key thing," Fine says. "I don't think we could take the heat in this market."

In February, Suns General Manager Kurt Landes and Papierniak learned the hard way that some ideas are best left on the drawing board. Floating the idea of having an Osama bin Laden bobblehead doll giveaway this season with an online poll, they encountered heavy resistance to the idea.

So they dropped it. And Landes has no regrets with the way the team handled the situation.

"We certainly try to mix it up and we certainly have made some wrong decisions. I think the bobbleheads was a poor decision," he says. "Our fans spoke to us and that's great. In retrospect, I don't think we did anything wrong in bringing (the question) out to fans."

Theme nights may get the ink, but Papierniak is charged with keeping fans energized throughout the game.

Total fan participation

During Saturday games, the Suns radio team relocates to the beer garden where fans rotate through all day to provide color commentary on the broadcast.

To fulfill their mantra of Total Fan Participation, where the entire crowd instead of a handful of fans, go home winners, there is the designated strike-out-batter-of-the-game. If a predetermined visiting ballplayer strikes out, the crowd receives a coupon for a free cheesburger.

During the eighth inning of home contests, the dirtiest car in the parking lot is selected and its license plate is read over the public address system; the fan gets a coupon for a free car wash.

At the ballpark, silence is the kiss of death.

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