Commentary

That's just bush league

The best promotions in the minors, where just about anything goes: Part 1, Participation

Updated: April 28, 2010, 4:05 PM ET
By Josh Pahigian | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Portland SeadogsPortland Sea Dogs for ESPN.com"Fan Appreciation Day" with the Portland Sea Dogs is like something out of a Hollywood movie.
• Photo gallery: The stunts of spring and summer

Editor's note: This feature on fan-participation stunts is the first in a two-part series on the best promotions in the bush leagues.

It has been our wont here at SportsTravel to highlight some of the zanier promotional nights on the minor league calendar. These efforts have brought you the stories of obscure but thoroughly delightful flights of fancy like "Pillow-Fight Night," "Greek Toga Night" and -- perhaps better forgotten -- "Awful Night."

This year we're taking a slightly different approach. With an eye toward making it even easier for you to experience for yourself whichever special promotions pique your interest, we're offering a roundup of promos catching on, or on the brink of catching on, across the bushes.

Take us out to the ballpark

For a gallery of images of some of the fan-participation promos that we've selected, click here.

Did we miss a great promotional stunt for a minor league team? Tell us about it.

Although we'll focus on just one team in each of the capsules below and on that team's efforts to stage an even more memorable ballpark experience than usual, chances are a similar extravaganza will be coming to a ballpark near you. Because if there's anything those hard-working minor league staffers have perfected through the years, it's the art of copying one another's strokes of genius.

Franchises pay careful attention to what their peers in other cities are doing to attract fans, according to Steve Densa, spokesman for Minor League Baseball at its central office in St. Petersburg, Fla.

And the information trading takes place all year round, not just at the annual promotional seminar the leagues host in October.

"We break into sessions at our winter meetings, and really, teams are sharing information all season," Densa said, "whether it's at their league All-Star game, or simply with a phone call during the week."

It's not difficult for teams to keep up with the Joneses these days.

"With the amount of information available online, it's relatively easy to track what's working in other cities," Densa said. "If you know a team is trying something new, you can check out the box score the next day, or even the same night, to see what the attendance was."

So what makes for a great promotion?

Densa said there are no hard-and-fast rules to guarantee a hit.

"We have 160 teams [in the affiliated minors] spread across the United States and Canada," he said. "What plays in one market isn't always going to play in another. It's important for teams to know their fans."

Still, it's possible to identify common qualities that successful promotions tend to possess. For example, dates that engage fans -- so they become active participants in, rather than just spectators of, the festivities -- usually draw big crowds.

"Theme nights seem to be particularly popular lately," Densa said. "Fireworks are still our No. 1 draw, but a lot of teams are doing Jimmy Buffett Nights or Halloween -- promotions that encourage fans to show up in a Hawaiian shirt or pirate hat and get involved."

Indeed, these are the types of promotions teams are currently selling. And fans are obviously buying. They're showing up and enjoying themselves, which is what minor league baseball is all about. Here then, are 10 special nights -- call them instant classics, if you like -- that we nominate for promotion (so to speak) into the bush league Promo Hall of Fame:

1. "Halfway to Halloween," South Bend Silver Hawks, April 21

Coveleski Stadium
501 W. South St.
South Bend, IN 46634
574-235-9988 | Web site

For fans who haven't outgrown their Halloween costumes during the long Indiana winter, this is a chance to score a $2 bleacher ticket simply by getting dressed up and looking like a goofball all night.

The highlight of "Halfway to Halloween" is a costume contest that occurs all night long down on the field. Unusually attired fans -- spooky and silly alike -- stroll out of the stands and onto the infield dirt every half inning. Generally four to six take the field after each frame, and the folks in the seats cheer approval for whichever outfit they like best. Each half inning's winner moves on to the later innings of competition.

Other staples of this spooky night at "the Cove" include horrifying ballpark music, a trick-or-treat grab for kids, doctored headshots of zombie players on the video board, and the most ghoulish ballpark ushers you'll ever see.

2. "Bark at the Park," Trenton Thunder, April 25

Waterfront Park
One Thunder Road
Trenton, NJ 08611
609-394-3300 | Web site

This is Fido's chance to ruff, ruff, ruff for the home team.

While "Bark at the Park" nights have spread across the minor leagues like a happy case of circus fleas in recent years, the Trenton Thunder has pursued dog-day perfection with the zeal of a golden retriever running down a saliva-soaked tennis ball. The Eastern League club will be celebrating its fourth annual dog day this year.

Waterfront Park will feature a concourse packed with pet vendor exhibits, doggie games, and lots and lots of treats. Additionally, one lucky dog will compete in a canine cash scramble; if the bowwow can choose the lucky tennis ball amidst the 100 balls strewn across the infield, it will win a $10,000 prize. You heard that right, Rover: This is your chance to finally contribute to the family's bottom line.

In truth, every day has gone to the dogs in Trenton recently. Bat "boys" Chase and Derby, two well-trained goldens, patrol the home plate area all season long. And they welcome a special guest to their yard every game day. The Thunder's "Dog of the Day" program, presented in collaboration with a local veterinary hospital, brings orphan pooches to the park to introduce them to prospective owners. In the second inning, the lucky dog draws a walk on the field in hopes some local family will drive it home.

3. "Wacky Weiner Wednesday," Peoria Chiefs, April 28 (and 10 Wednesdays to follow)

O'Brien Field
730 S.W. Jefferson Ave.
Peoria, IL 61605
309-680-4000 | Web site

As big-bellied bush league rooters already know, "Dollar Dog Night" is a rite of summer at the local field. But this Midwest League club is even kinder to fans. A lot kinder. For the third year in a row, the Chiefs are offering free franks during Wednesday night games all season long.

I know what you're thinking: There's gotta be a catch. Well, there isn't one. Honest. Fans can eat as many freebies as they want. And the stands keep serving them from the time O'Brien Field opens, through the seventh inning.

According to Chiefs vice president and general manager Ralph Converse, Wednesday night attendance has spiked by 1,500 fans per game since the promotion began, which makes a compelling case for the wisdom of other teams following suit.

"For the first few Wednesday nights, people were leaving the stadium with their pockets stuffed," Converse said, "but after several Wednesdays, consumption became 'normal' -- generally two and a half dogs per person."

On a typical summer Wednesday, that translates to about 8,500 free hot dogs served.

4. "'Star Wars' Night," Fort Wayne TinCaps, June 4

Parkview Field
1301 Ewing St.
Fort Wayne, IN 46802
260-482-6400 | Web site

The Midwest League's TinCaps channel the spirit of Yoda and tell fans, "Do or do not celebrate 'Star Wars' Night. There is no try."

Or, as a hardball Jedi Yogi Berra might say, "The future ain't what it used to be," so why not dig out that dusty lightsaber and revisit your stargazing glory days?

Certainly Yoda and Yogi would have approved last year when TinCaps fans embraced "Star Wars Night" with the sort of can-do spirit for which the team namesake -- the cooking-pot-wearing Johnny Appleseed -- is remembered.

Last year's event included an assortment of fans straight out of the famous flick's Mos Eisley Cantina wandering the ballpark concourse and a first pitch delivered by Darth Vader himself, after he took the field flanked by Stormtroopers.

This year promises more of the same. In addition, each fan will receive a scratch-card offering the chance to win one of the special-edition "Star Wars" jerseys that TinCaps players will wear for the game.

The evening's closing salvo, a postgame fireworks display, is being billed as "sure to evoke memories of Luke Skywalker's heroic destruction of the Death Star!" Does that mean there will be Ewoks to light the fuses on the pyrotechnics? We don't know. But we sure hope so.

5. "Girls' Night," Visalia Rawhide, June 12

Recreation Park
300 N. Giddings St.
Visalia, CA 93291
559-732-4433 | Web site

For female rooters who ordinarily consider themselves "done up" for the game as soon as they've slipped into a team-appropriate sweat shirt and donned a weather-beaten cap, "Girls' Night" is an opportunity to nurture their more feminine side while still spending a night at the ballpark.

Upon arriving at Recreation Park, baseball Annies will encounter booths offering spa and salon services, beauty supplies, wine to sample, and jewelry. The Rawhide's popular "I Love Baseball Pants" T-shirts will be on sale, along with calendars featuring hunky Rawhide players.

For newbie baseball babes, Visalia coaches and players will lead a "Baseball 101" seminar, reviewing the basics of the sport, then testing the ladies' hardball IQ with an end-of-session quiz.

Elizabeth Martin, assistant general manager of the California League team and the brains behind the promotion, explained the basis for the stunt.

"I love baseball, but I'm also a girlie-girl sometimes, so I figured we should mix the two," she said. "What started out as a few players' girlfriends and wives has grown into an event of over 500 women coming to the ballpark."

This year, "Girls' Night" is scheduled for a Saturday and is being billed as the first half of "Girls' Weekend." After Sunday's matinee against High Desert, ladies will poke through the infield dirt, hoping to unearth a $3,000 diamond the grounds crew will bury before the game. There will be smaller prizes to unearth, too, all designed to ensure that by the end of the weekend the (baseball) diamond really will be the girls' best friend.

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