Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Stunts of Summer: Baseball's Best Minor League Promotions
By Josh Pahigian Special to ESPN SportsTravel
• Baseball's Top-10 Minor League Publicity Stunts
Nearly 40 million Americans pass through the turnstiles of minor-league ballparks each season to enjoy friendly stadium experiences, cheap tickets and concession prices, and the chance to spot the hints of greatness in players still a few years removed from the big leagues.
They may be corny. They may be kitschy. But one thing publicity stunts in minor league baseball have in common is fun.
The minor leagues are where fans can relax, without caring so much about who wins and who loses something that's sometimes hard to justify after plopping down $400 for tickets and food at a Major League Baseball game.
In the bush leagues, though, the hard-core fans, as well as the kids and casual fans, simply enjoy the ballpark experience. And the teams cater to their good humor by offering more than just ballgames to watch, but between-inning contests and promotions and a few chuckles along the way.
Best of all, on special theme dates the better-run teams set their communities abuzz.
Think the folks in Chattanooga, Tenn., were chattering back in 1936, when big-league-pitcher-turned-vaudevillian-turned-minor-league-promoter Joe Engel announced his intention to raffle off a $10,000 house during a Lookouts game? You bet they were. Joe Engel Field seated 12,000 people at the time; 26,000 turned out for the game.
There have been plenty of good minor-league promotions in recent years, too.
In 2002, fans of the Charleston, S.C., RiverDogs arrived at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park to find the stadium gates padlocked. And padlocked they remained until the bottom of the fifth inning.
It was "Nobody Night," and Mike Veeck a chip off the block of his Hall of Fame father, legendary major-league franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, when it comes to making baseball fun was determined to the keep the fans from entering so that the game's official attendance would be 0. Of course the parking lot was jammed with fans waiting to get in.
A year later, Maryland's Hagerstown Suns staged another promotion for the ages, welcoming fans to "Pre-Planned Funeral Night" and sending one lucky fan home secure with the knowledge that when his time came to pass, his embalming, casket, calling hours and death certificate would all be covered.
In 2005, when news of the Minnesota Vikings' so-called "love boat" scandal broke, the nearby St. Paul Saints another of the six teams with ties to Veeck's entertainment and management firm the Goldklang Group hosted "Love Boat Night," handing out little plastic boats to parody the sexual misadventures of the Purple People Eaters.
In the minor leagues, you see, just about anything goes.
"There are two elements to any great promotion," Veeck explained. "First, it's got to be fun, either in a funny or interactive way. But the determining factor is the fans, not the front office.
"Because if we're left to our own devices, we'll always run things in the most cost-effective way possible. But it's not up to us, it's up to the fans; they determine by showing up whether a promotion works or not."
Veeck said that he includes any promotion involving mimes among his all-time favorites. And he is pleased to see recent minor-league theme days catching on in some big-league markets. Such is the case, he said, with "dog day afternoon," for which fans are encouraged to bring their pooches to the ballpark, as well as "sleepover night," to which fans bring tents and camp overnight on the outfield lawn.
"Nothing has changed since my dad's day," Veeck said. "If you play to the purists, the park's going to be 35 percent filled. But those folks are going to come anyway. It's those other 65 percent that you tailor your promotions to. And you see what works."
When asked if anything special was planned for later this season involving any of the teams he owns or promotes, Veeck played coy, noting a "Kevorkian Night" will occur before the summer is out but refusing to disclose its date or location.
So leaving that mysterious spectacle aside, here are 10 forthcoming minor-league promotions (listed from sooner to later) we do know about that are sure to be special:
• Baseball's Top-10 Minor League Publicity Stunts Josh Pahigian is the author of several baseball travel guides, including the recently released "Ultimate Minor League Baseball Road Trip."