The West Michigan Whitecaps are already proud owners of the 2007 Midwest League Championship trophy. On Monday, they received yet another honor.
The Whitecaps have been chosen as this year's recipient of the Larry MacPhail Promotional Trophy, which is awarded annually by Minor League Baseball to the team with the most outstanding promotional effort. The Class A Midwest League franchise was chosen over 10 other teams (each representing a different league) who had also received a nomination.
While grateful that the Whitecaps have received this coveted honor, promotions coordinator Brian Oropallo is quick to point out that the award is the result of a team-wide effort.
"I'm happy and surprised to have won," he said, at the start of a wide-ranging conversation about the Whitecaps' promotional strategy. "But since this was announced I've found that people are giving me too much credit for my role in all of this. We in the promotions department might come up with a specific idea, but it takes the entire organization to make it work."
"For instance, if we do an '80s night promotion, every single person who works for the team is digging through their closet looking for the appropriate clothes to wear to the ballpark. Unless that sort of cooperation happens, the promotion just isn't going to work."
The Whitecaps' promotional slogan this past season was "Never A Dull Moment," and Oropallo believes the club delivered on this promise.
"That's the approach we took all season long," he said. "We realize that the average fan is only attending a couple of games a year, so we have to make sure that each experience stands out for them and makes them want to return. But whether a fan comes once a year or 70 times, it's important to us that they aren't seeing the same thing each night they attend."
To that end, the Whitecaps initiated a multi-pronged promo attack.
"One of our biggest strategies was to aggressively brand each day of the week, so that fans could easily make decisions regarding which games they wanted to attend and why," said Oropallo.
Therefore, fans were treated to recurring features such as Fireworks Wednesdays, Thrifty Thursdays, Family Sundays, and, perhaps most intriguingly, Big Top Tuesdays.
"We'd try to bring a circus atmosphere to the ballpark by bringing in performers such as Rubberboy, and Quick Change," said Oropallo, who has booked the likes of the Human Slinky and Mad Chad the Chainsaw Juggler for the 2008 season. "A lot of these performers would traditionally play halftime at basketball games, but I think they are catching on to the fact that there's a lot of business to be had in the Minor Leagues as well, so they are tailoring their acts to fit the pace of a baseball game."
On top of their weekly theme nights, the Whitecaps instituted a wide array of traditional and non-traditional promotional extravaganzas.
"You plan your biggest promotional nights during the offseason, but smaller, weirder promos are popping up all of the time," said Oropallo. "For instance, our manager last season, Tom Brookens, had a mustache. So we staged Mustache Night at the ballpark. Everybody on the staff wore a mustache, and all the player head shots on the videoboard had them as well. People didn't necessarily come to the game because we were doing that, but our hope is that they enjoyed it once they were there."
The biggest and most original promotional night of the season, however, was undoubtedly Star Wars Night. With the Minor Leagues being an industry that actively shares new and successful promotional ideas, it appears very likely that this is one that will spread to other ballparks in 2008 and beyond.
"We got in touch with the local Star Wars Fan Club, and they sent out 40 or 50 people to the stadium decked out in authentic Star Wars costumes," explained Oropallo. "Darth Vader threw out the first pitch, stormtroopers played the National Anthem, and the team on the field wore special jerseys. That one was very successful, and we'll definitely do it again this season."
Stars Wars Night was just one highlight in a season that was full of memorable moments both on and off the field. By winning the MacPhail Award, the Whitecaps have effectively notified the rest of Minor League Baseball that they will not let their small-market status get in the way of greater aspirations.
"Class A teams can't always compete with some of the things a larger club can do, but we strive to be one of the big boys no matter what," said Oropallo. "One of the great things about working for the Whitecaps is that we are given the freedom to be wacky, and no restrictions are placed on our creativity. If something doesn't work, it doesn't work. That just means that we'll try something new the next time out."
Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.