Editor's note: This feature on ballpark giveaways is the second in a two-part series on the best promotions in the bush leagues. Click here for Part 1, on participatory stunts.
As astute ballpark travelers already know, the teams of baseball's bush leagues are a heck of a lot more generous than their big league counterparts when it comes to handing out freebies.
Among the familiar giveaway items that minor league wanderers are already well accustomed to receiving as they pass through the turnstiles include baseball cards, hats, T-shirts, team photos, logo balls, and youth bats and fielding gloves.
And don't forget about all of those bobbleheads. They remain the most popular ballpark gift, whether depicting a star of the local team, a hero from yesteryear who's moved on to bigger and better things in the Show, or even the local mascot.
During the course of any season teams also offer an array of door prizes that fans wouldn't necessarily expect to be handed on their way into a ballgame. And those inspired items are the focus of this piece.
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.
The Toledo Mud Hens are a good example of a team that put some outside-the-box thinking into this year's giveaway schedule. They began the season by distributing a piece of canvas art that proved so popular they're already making plans to bring it back for an encore presentation in August. The watercolor of the International League club's Fifth Third Field began as a home-plate-oriented photo of the yard. Then a graphic designer worked some Photoshop voodoo to transform it into a vibrant piece of art worthy of a place in any Hens fan's living room.
"We were looking for something we'd never done before," said JaMay Edwards, Toledo's promotions manager. "Honestly, I think we were a bit surprised by how well it came out. It looks good enough to sell at retail."
According to Edwards, as popular as the tried-and-true ballpark giveaways are, new items excite fans even more. And the Mud Hens rely on their fans for valuable feedback to enrich each year's freebie calendar.
"We rely on our vendors to suggest items they think fans might like, and we always keep an eye on what other teams are doing," Edwards said. "But the most important voice belongs to our fans. They aren't shy. They e-mail and call to let us know what they like. You'd be surprised.
"It isn't always the most expensive thing that gets the biggest reaction. It can be the simplest of things: something that makes noise, that they can wear, or that's just a little weird."
One particular Pacific Coast League team that knows weird when it sees it is the Las Vegas 51s, which takes is name from Nevada's spooky Area 51, where UFO conspiracy theorists claim strange and unsettling things have occurred. This year, the 51s will feature a Bobble Tuesday series featuring bobbleheads that depict headliners in current Vegas shows.
"In Vegas we have that vehicle to tie some of our promotions in with prominent figures in the community," 51s spokesman Jim Gemma said. "We try to build on what Las Vegas already has to offer. We do have a Ryne Sandberg bobblehead this year -- scheduled for when he comes to town (May 11) as manager of the Iowa Cubs -- but we're also doing the celebrities. It's a nontraditional approach that we think our fans will enjoy."
These unusual celebrity bobbles will spotlight performers like Gordie Brown (June 1), Carrot Top (June 22), Terry Fator (July 20), Rita Rudner (Aug. 10) and Holly Madison (Aug. 24; she had her first bobblehead night April 13). (All dates are tentative.)
Madison, who stars in Planet Hollywood's "Peep Show" and on the E! channel's "Holly's World," visited Cashman Field last year to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. She made an appearance last month for her first bobblehead night and has RSVP'd to return next month when her bobbles are handed out again.
Then there's the most unusual 2010 ballpark giveaway of all: the Ryan Howard lawn gnome, being presented by the Reading Phillies. The miniature representation of the hulking slugger, who passed through Reading in 2004 and played 102 games for the Double-A Phillies, depicts Howard in a pointy gnome's cap with a white beard that reaches down to his waist.
How did the marketing whiz kids in Reading come up with this one, you ask? The idea emerged as the product of an intensive brainstorming effort, according to team spokesman Kevin Sklenarik.
"Every year we go away on an office retreat," he said. "We gather and go over things for the upcoming season. We always take time to write down crazy ideas, ideas that are just off the wall. One of the ideas this year was a Ryan Howard gnome. We all liked it and ran with it."
The Howard gnome won't surface at the FirstEnergy Stadium turnstiles until Aug. 3, but fans in Reading already are abuzz about it. Ultimately, that's the best thing you can say about a ballpark giveaway, that it generates excitement about the local team.
More than that, however, an inspired item also possesses staying power long past its born-on date. Sklenarik believes the Howard gnome will succeed in this regard, as well.
"This will be one of those unique items," he said. "I think fans can't wait to get it and throw it in gardens or outside their home to show their support and love for the R-Phils and Ryan Howard."
Here are some other items minor league teams are offering fans this year:
May 7 (given to the first 1,000 fans)
Harry Grove Stadium
21 Stadium Drive
Frederick, MD 21703
301-662-0013 | Website
There's a story behind the origins of this quirky ballpark giveaway in the Carolina League. The company sponsoring the rubber ducks is Precision Heating & Cooling, and when a company that prides itself on "precision" notes how imprecise most customers are in referencing duct tape -- one of the primary tools of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning trade -- well, this is what you get. For the third year in a row, the Keys -- and the local outfit specializing in ducts -- team up to offer duct tape fanciers a ton of pun.
May 9 (first 1,000 moms)
1601 Avenida Cesar Chavez S.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87106
505-924-2255 | Website
On Mother's Day, this giveaway is for all the Little League moms, seamhead mistresses and baseball annies. Not only will moms receive carnations as they pass through the turnstiles, but the Topes also will offer an all-you-can-eat brunch (for a charge) for families wishing to treat mothers to a ballpark meal.
Reusable grocery bag
May 16 (first 2,000 adults)
400 W. Broadway
North Little Rock, AR 72114
501-664-1555 | Website
As part of Minor League Baseball's GreenTeam initiative this year, many teams will be offering promotional nights and giveaways designed to encourage fans to be environmentally responsible. On this day, the Travelers do their part to minimize consumption of disposable grocery bags by handing out reusable shopping totes on Go Green Day at Dickey-Stephens Park. Won't you look smart producing it when asked that all-too-familiar supermarket question, "Paper or plastic?"
Lewis and Clark bobblehead
May 22 (first 2,000 fans)
1844 S.W. Morrison St.
Portland, OR 97205
503-553-5400 | Website
As youngsters across the country celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America, the Beavers offer a bobblehead sure to strike the fancy of scouts and history professors alike. The unique bobble features Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who canoed past what would become Portland on the Columbia River during their expedition in 1805.
The handout comes on a night at PGE Park when local scouts will take to the field for a pregame parade and be involved in various scouting activities throughout the game.
The bobble depicts the explorers in scouting gear, with Beavers hats on their heads.
"It's a natural tie-in to Northwest history," Beavers spokesman Chris Metz said. "This area features Lewis & Clark College, Lewis & Clark State Park and several other schools and organizations named after the pioneers."
May 31 (first 1,000 fans, ages 17 and younger)
Bowling Green Hot Rods
Bowling Green Ballpark
300 Eighth Ave.
Bowling Green, KY 42101
270-901-2121 | Website
This Midwest League team's moniker pays tribute to its community's ties to the auto racing industry. But on this day, the Hot Rods pays tribute to another sport that prizes speed and daring, offering full-size skateboard decks that show off the Hot Rods' trademark flames.
No doubt skater dudes and dudettes will make good use of them at the skate park situated some 100 yards beyond Bowling Green Ballpark's center-field fence. But first they'll have to attach wheel assemblies.
"Kids can either ride them or frame them as collector's pieces," Hot Rods spokesman Tom Gauthier said. "They'll make great pieces of memorabilia to collect autographs on, too."
June 2 (first 2,500 attendees)
Corpus Christi Hooks
734 E. Port Ave.
Corpus Christi, TX 78401
361-561-4665 | Website
Summer might be a few weeks from officially beginning when the Hooks take on the Springfield Cardinals, but beach season already will be in full swing in this steamy south Texas town.
With that in mind, the local Texas League entry offers an ideal giveaway that unifies those two great summer pastimes -- sunbathing and diamond gazing.
Corpus Christi rooters not satisfied to show their team pride merely by sporting Hooks bags on North Beach can mark their calendars for Aug. 21, when the Hooks will be doling out aluminum water bottles.