Commentary

That's quite a stunt

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

Updated: May 11, 2011, 5:44 PM ET
By Josh Pahigian | Special to ESPN SportsTravel

Human Cannon (Minor Leagues) Courtesy MacKay Marketing & EntertainmentCatch David Smith Sr.'s "Human Home Run" act July 5 at the home of of the Lowell (Mass.) Spinners.
• Photo gallery: Minor league promotions (Part 1) Photo Gallery

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. Click here for Part 2.

As fans file through the turnstiles of America's minor league ballparks this summer, the bus-riding, big league-dreaming players won't be the only ones working their rears off to ensure the spectators' visits are special.

Each team's promotions staffers will be doing their part, too, to ensure that fans depart with nine innings' worth of smiles on their faces. Throughout the season, rooters in nearly every bush league outpost will benefit from the strokes of genius these ladies and gents bring to fruition in the form of enticing ballpark theme nights and stunts.

Sometimes a great promotion is born of extensive planning and is years in the making. Other times, front-office execs engage in a bit of outside-the-batter's-box thinking, then take a leap of faith that a fresh idea they've hit upon will evolve into a winner.

Five years ago, the Lowell Spinners met with the handlers for popular stuntman David "Cannonball" Smith Sr. to explore the possibility of shooting Smith clear out of LeLacheur Park. Although the timing wasn't right to pull off the death-defying feat back then, the Spinners and Smith kept talking, and now, as part of the New York-Penn League team's Independence Day celebration July 5, Smith will attempt to become the first person to be shot out of a minor league park via cannon.

The cannon will rest on the lip of the outfield grass, between the first- and second-base bags, while the net into which Smith flies will be positioned some 150 feet away, behind the right-center field fence.

Spinners vice president Jon Goode was one of several people in the Lowell front office who never gave up on the idea of making LeLacheur the first minor league baseball park at which fans have witnessed such a spectacle. To him, the excitement fans will feel leading up to the stunt more than justifies the effort that went into working out the logistics of the night.

"I think the night is going to be absolutely electric," Goode said. "I'm just imagining the anticipation hanging over the park. It's going to take place postgame, and I bet fans will be almost rooting for outs by the time the later innings come.

"I can't wait for that hush that settles over the crowd after the shot, while fans are waiting to see [Smith] climb up the ladder on the back of the wall to signal he's OK."

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes a special night at the ballpark begins with an innovative idea, then relies on fans to drive it across the plate.

An event the Akron Aeros will feature this May -- the so-called Crock-Pot Junkie Cook-Off -- might be less elaborately scripted, but it is no less deliciously enticing. The Eastern League club is challenging fans to dig into their respective recipe boxes and whip up their best concoctions. The fans at Canal Park will participate in a game-long taste test to pick the winner. If the fans deliver, the newly conceived promo might become a staple of the Aeros' promotional diet in future years.

"Everyone who does cook-offs pretty much sticks to chili or wings," Aeros promotions manager Calvin Funkhouser said. "We wanted to do something different. Someone threw out the idea of a Crock-Pot cook-off, and I loved it. We're a family destination, and I know there are a lot of busy families out there that use their Crock-Pots regularly for dinner, mine included. So I figured we'd give these Crock-Pot junkies a chance to be recognized."

These are just a couple of the many creative ways the promotional gurus of baseball's bush leagues will engage and enthrall fans this year. Here are some other special ballpark events that we predict will be big winners:

Baseball Purists Night, Frederick Keys, May 3

Harry Grove Stadium
21 Stadium Drive
Frederick, MD 21703
301-815-9939 | website

The Carolina League Keys are betting that sometimes less is more.

Today's minor league experience usually comes served with a heaping side of shenanigans -- from the goofy mascot to the silly contests to the hilarious sound-bites playing through the P.A.

But on this night, Keys fans will enjoy a baseball game ... plain and simple. Frederick will welcome the Winston-Salem Dash to Harry Grove Stadium on a night when the video board is turned off, the between-innings stunts are put off and ballpark prankster Keyote has the night off.

Anti-Social Media Night, St. Paul Saints, May 20

Midway Stadium
1771 Energy Park Drive
St. Paul, MN 55108
651-644-6659 | website

A lot of teams are hopping on the Twitter and Facebook bandwagons this summer to tap into the affinity we Americans have for social media. They're inviting fans to tweet and blog to their hearts' content at the ballpark on special nights.

The predictably unpredictable Saints, however, are offering a different take with their Anti-Social Media Night. No, the stunt isn't meant to bash social media. Rather, the Saints are paying tribute to media that they consider anti-social. For example, those "gotcha" moments when amateur journalists use their cell phones to record people at their most embarrassing.

"Our fans have come to expect a twist with our promotions," Saints spokesman Sean Aronson said. "We did a great one a couple of years ago, when we titled it a souvenir cup giveaway and fans thought they were getting drinking cups. When they walked into the ballpark they actually got a supporter cup. The look on people's faces was priceless. They can expect that from our Anti-Social Media Night."

Crock-Pot Junkie Cook-Off, Akron Aeros, May 25

Canal Park
300 S. Main St.
Akron, OH 44308
330-253-5153 | website

The aromas of boiling hot dogs and fresh-roasted nuts are staples of the American ballpark experience. But this new concept for a promotional night promises to make for an even tastier game day at Canal Park. At last check, the Aeros were still working on coming up with an appropriately delicious prize for the night's big winner.

Ballpark Wedding, Visalia Rawhide, May 28

Recreation Ballpark
300 N. Giddings St.
Visalia, CA 93291
559-732-4433 | website

Taking the term "ballpark bliss" to new heights, the California League's Rawhide will treat fans, and one lucky couple, to a pregame wedding for the second straight year.

Kristy Salmon and Kyle Davis -- this year's soon-to-be-wed -- won the honor of passing beneath the upraised bats of the Rawhide players, then tying the knot at home plate, by submitting the best essay among prospective ballpark brides and grooms. Local sponsors are covering the cost of Kristy's dress, Kyle's tux, the flowers, decorations and the honeymoon suite, as well as providing $2,500 toward Kristy's ring. Meanwhile, the Rawhide are donating tickets for the wedding party, providing space for a reception in their Hall of Fame Club, and offering baseballs emblazoned with a commemorative photo for the couple and their guests.

Last year's bride and groom had been set up on a blind date at Recreation Ballpark, while this year's bride, Kristy, is a game-day staffer for the Rawhide.

Beach Night, Aberdeen IronBirds, June 28

Ripken Stadium
873 Long Drive
Aberdeen, MD 21001
410-297-9292 | website

The New York-Penn League's IronBirds, who are owned by Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Billy, conclude the first week of summer by inviting fans to wear bathing suits to a beach-themed night at the ballpark.

In past years the IronBirds have brought a sand sculptor to Ripken Stadium to build a massive castle just inside the entrance. This year, every fan who arrives in a swimsuit will have the chance to partake in a massive water-gun fight, with the winner receiving four tickets to a future crab feast at the stadium. The team also will be giving away a vacation to Ocean City. And the fan who shows off the worst sunburn will receive a prize pack that includes a lot of aloe.

Beach Night is a promotion that has evolved over time, according to IronBirds assistant general manager Jenna Raglani.

"Each year we brainstorm a lot of new ideas to keep our fans coming back," Raglani said. "We sell out every year and have a high renewal rate. And with the same fans coming back year after year, it's important to provide new entertainment."

Beach Night was actually inspired by the team's fans, Raglani said.

"We received a lot of requests asking us to make a visor one of our giveaways. So, instead of just making the visors a giveaway, we decided it would be great to build a whole theme night around the visors,'' she said.

"That's when all the ideas like the sand castle and the vacation prizes started to really come together, and Beach Night was born. It was a huge hit, so we're bringing it back, and this time we're giving away koozies instead of visors."

Human Home Run, Lowell Spinners, July 5

LeLacheur Park
450 Aiken St.
Lowell, MA 01854
978-459-2255 | website

Spinners fans are guaranteed to see a home run on this night, even if no baseball leaves the yard ... that's assuming, of course, human cannonball David Smith Sr. clears the outfield fence. We're betting he will. Smith attempts more than 100 such cannon flights per year. And while things have gone wrong in the past, usually they go right.

Smith's hard day's work will begin long before the cannon fires him at more than 70 mph toward the right-center field fence. Before launch, he'll have to calculate the angle of the shot, the amount of propellant to put in the cannon and the precise speed at which he'll need to fly. The fact that he's a former math teacher will make this task somewhat more manageable, but he'll still have to account for such game-day variables as wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and his exact body weight at the time.

Motorcycle Night, New Britain Rock Cats, July 9

New Britain Stadium
230 John Karbonic Way
New Britain, CT 06051
860-224-8383 | website

On this night, fans visiting New Britain Stadium will think the joint has gone to the hogs. On Motorcycle Night, bike clubs from across the Nutmeg State will conclude their Saturday afternoon rides with a lap around the warning track. The bikers then will settle into their seats to watch the Rock Cats rumble with their Eastern League rivals the Binghamton Mets.

The promotion has been a popular draw in recent seasons when it has taken place on a weekday, according to Rock Cats senior corporate sales exec Steve Given. This year, he expects it to make the leap to the next level.

"We've had about 100 riders in the past, but we're shooting for 500 this season," Given said. "The players may not like it if they're waiting for the parade to end, so they can begin their warm-ups. But it's something our fans have really enjoyed. [The parade] is something you just don't expect to see at a ballpark."

And lest anyone think this event is just for the biker crowd, Given predicted mascots Rocky, Rookie and Blooper will get into the spirit, too, riding their own bikes around the warning track.

Grandma's Got Talent, Lancaster JetHawks, July 10

Clear Channel Stadium
45116 Valley Central Way
Lancaster, CA 93536
(661)726-5400 | website

Usually the kiddos at Clear Channel Stadium (aka The Hangar) star in the between-innings contests, but on this Sunday, the most talented grannies (and grampies) in Antelope Valley will take the field.

Elderly men and women will perform songs and skits while the crowd votes for the best act. The night's winner will lead the crowd in the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch. Even the nightly race around the bases between lead-footed local mascot KaBoom and a fan will involve a senior citizen. (KaBoom has reportedly lost more than a thousand races in a row, so our money's on the old guy or gal.)

"This is a community-driven event that we think our fans will really love," JetHawks spokesman Will Thornhill said. "There's nothing more fun than watching Grandma juggle or sing her favorite tune from the 1950s."

St. Patty's Day in July, Savannah Sand Gnats, July 21

Historic Grayson Stadium
1401 E. Victory Drive
Savannah, GA 31404 912-351-9150 | website

St. Patrick's Day is kind of a big deal in Savannah, where the city has been hosting a parade since March 17, 1813. Today, Savannah is known for hosting one of the largest green parades in the world, attracting up to 400,000 spectators a year.

It should come as no surprise, then, that while other minor league teams celebrate Christmas in July, the South Atlantic League's Sand Gnats celebrate St. Patty's Day. The night will include green beer, Irish music, doctored head shots of players that play up the theme, and a performance by the Savannah Police Department's fife and drum band. In addition, every fan at Grayson will receive green shamrock beads.

"Savannah is one of the most highly attended St. Patrick's Day destinations in the world," Sand Gnats spokeswoman Ryan Kirwan said. "But obviously our season begins after the holiday. So we figured we'd give tourists who visit during the summer a chance to share in the fun."

Life Before Toilet Paper, St. Paul Saints, July 25

Midway Stadium
1771 Energy Park Drive
St. Paul, MN 55108
651-644-6659 | website

Oh, the horror! The envelope-pushing Saints wouldn't really deprive fans of a modern hygienic necessity like toilet paper ... would they?

No, of course not. Even the Saints aren't that crazy.

Rather, the purpose of this game in St. Paul is to stage a toilet paper drive to benefit Second Harvest Heartland, the Upper Midwest's largest hunger relief organization. After Saints fans arrive at Midway Stadium with armloads of TP, the Saints will spend the game chronicling toilet paper's rich history and using rolls of the stuff in the between-innings contests.

Man Night, Fresno Grizzlies, July 28

Chukchansi Park
1800 Tulare St.
Fresno, CA 93721
559-320-4487 | website

Boys will be boys on this Thursday in Fresno when the Pacific Coast League Grizzlies encourage male patrons to do what they do best: eat, drink and gawk at beautiful women. The festivities will include a pregame gorging contest, Inning Girls (like the round girls in boxing) strolling the dugouts and a special man cave, where beer-swilling, knuckle-dragging lugs will have the opportunity to play beer pong.

Batboy Appreciation Night, Tri-City ValleyCats, Aug. 10

Joseph L. Bruno Stadium
80 Vandenburgh Ave.
Troy, New York 12180
518-629-2287 | website

Usually ballpark promotions spoil the fans a bit. On this night, though, Tri-City will honor team bat boy Charles "Charlie" Constantino.

Constantino began working for the New York-Penn League ValleyCats in 2005 at age 18. Nearly 300 games later, having worked the regular season, postseason and even some road trips, he is still at it. And he's a fan fave at Bruno Stadium.

To make the night memorable, the club has recorded messages to its bat boy from former Tri-City players, and the first 1,200 fans in the house will receive a Charlie Constantino bobblehead.

Why spend a whole night celebrating an oft-overlooked member of the home team?

"At the short-season level, we don't get a lot of our players back from year to year, which makes Charlie's streak even more special," team spokesperson Matt Callahan said. "His energy and enthusiasm for ValleyCats baseball is infectious, and we're lucky to have the hardest working bat boy in the New York-Penn League."

According to Constantino, as he's grown up, the players coming through the Astros' system have remained fresh-faced newcomers to minor league ball. As a result, his role with the team has evolved.

"I'm an only child," said the Glenmont, N.Y., native, "but thanks to my place in the ValleyCats family, it feels like I have 25 brothers every summer. A lot of them are away from home for the first time. A lot are from down South. But I live here, so I show them around, give them rides to the park and sometimes we go out for karaoke or movies."

Battle of the Sexes, New Jersey Jackals, Aug. 19

Yogi Berra Stadium
One Hall Drive
Little Falls, NJ 07424
973-746-7434 | website

As if a matchup between the Jackals and Can-Am League rival Rockland wasn't enough excitement for one night, the Jackals will stage a game-long competition pitting guys versus gals. Each between-innings contest will match individuals or teams of male fans against female fans.

The contests will include a wrestling match with giant sumo suits, a dance competition and relay races.

The Jackals also will tally the number of male and female patrons in attendance at Yogi Berra Stadium and reward the members of whichever gender is best represented.

And the fans won't be the only ones taking part in the fun. Berra Stadium staffers will divide by gender and square off in challenges, too.

"Our theme nights and promotions are really popular with our fans, and every season we strive to create fun new ideas for them to enjoy," Jackals spokesman Jordan Cascino said. "They never hesitate to get involved in our on-field contests, and I truly believe they'll go all out to determine once and for all which gender reigns supreme."

UK Football Viewing Night, Lexington Legends, Sept. 1

Whitaker Bank Ballpark
207 Legends Lane
Lexington, KY 40505
859-422-7867 | website

The Legends will play their South Atlantic League rivals from Savannah beginning at 5:05 p.m. After the ballgame, fans can stay and watch a college football game on the 14-by-17-foot video screen above Whitaker Bank Ballpark's right-field wall. The gridiron grudge match will feature Kentucky and Western Kentucky.

The unlikely twin bill comes on the heels of a successful double dip last year, when the Legends showcased a different breed of "football" on their big board: the World Cup soccer match between the U.S. and England.

World's Strongest Loons Fan, Great Lakes Loons, Sept. 4

Dow Diamond
825 E. Main St.
Midland, MI 48640
989-837-2255| website

To cement their new partnership with Smitty's Iron Works -- a locally owned gym and fitness facility in Midland -- the Midwest League's Loons will hold a "strongest man" competition. Fans will apply at Smitty's all season long for the chance to participate, while others will be chosen on game day.

Once the field is picked, eight strongmen will compete in events such as a bat-bag carry, a utility-vehicle pull, hurdles and a balancing test. The between-innings tests of strength will pare the field down to four, then to two, then to one strongman who will square off in the finals with local fitness guru Matt Smith -- locally known as Smitty -- in either a keg carry or sled pull contest.

Even fans not participating will benefit from this promotion in Midland, though, as trainers from Smitty's fitness center will work with fans on the concourse to evaluate their strength and fitness.

"We've never done this before," Great Lakes spokesman Chris Mundhenk said. "It's an opportunity for us to try something different and that's really something we strive for -- to keep the experience fresh for fans."

Josh Pahigian is the author of seven baseball books, including "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out" and "The Ultimate Baseball Road-Trip," which he co-authored with his friend Kevin O'Connell. Pahigian serves as an adjunct writing professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. Contact him at jpahigian@une.edu.

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