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Field entertainment more than a game
09/02/2011 11:29 AM ET
If you've ever attended a Minor League Baseball game, then chances are that you've asked yourself the following question:

"How do I get to compete in one of the between-innings games?"

After all, one should not shuffle off this mortal coil before experiencing the stupor-inducing thrill of a dizzy bat race or the adrenaline rush that comes from emerging victorious in a dugout dance-off. These are life-changing experiences that simply cannot be replicated in any other context.

The contestant selection process varies by team, of course, but after serving as a promo intern at Tuesday's Williamsport Crosscutters game I now have a much better sense of the process. And my succinct words of advice to fans looking to experience fleeting on-field glory would be these: Arrive early and look (or better yet, be) young.

That might not sound fair, but then again life isn't fair. And what is a between-inning contest if not a 120-second distillation of the epic journey that is human existence?

Natural selection

Shortly after arriving at Historic Bowman Field on Tuesday evening, I was handed an over-sized Crosscutters jersey and paired up with clipboard-wielding marketing and public relations intern Erik Tuomisto. Our task was to wrangle up fans for the night's promo activities, which is best achieved by approaching likely candidates as they entered the stadium.

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Essentially, we were looking for two distinct groups of fans: children and college students. The former were needed for nightly rituals such as the Junior PA announcer and Inning Kids (in which placards denoting the inning are paraded around by enthusiastic youngsters -- essentially, a family-friendly version of boxing's ring girls). The college kids, meanwhile, were needed for such staples as the Dizzy Bat and Inflatable Pony races as well as more Williamsport-specific activities such as the Carpet Caper. In this particular event, contestants are harnessed together with a bungee cord and then compete in the time-honored task of placing carpet samples in a garbage can. Makes sense, right?

Just before the gates opened, Tumoisto, a student at nearby Susquehanna University, shared some of his strategies. They included, "If you see a group of dudes together, that's great. Then you can get a bunch signed up, just like that," and, "It's tough if you're looking for a kid and there are two of them together, because if you ask one then the other's going to get upset."

At six o'clock the fans started to stream in, and Tuomisto and I went about our assigned task. Or, perhaps more accurately, he did his job and I watched him do it. While a few of the children he approached rejected his offers via the time-honored method of hiding behind parents, most were enthusiastic (especially the selected Innings Kids, brothers Dylan and Bailey, who spent the whole game standing proudly next to their inning-indicating placards).

But as for college students, there were very few. It was "Penn College Pack the Park Night," and free tickets had been distributed on campus, but what self-respecting college student shows up for anything on-time, let alone early? With the game's first pitch nearly an hour away, very few were to be found.

"It's easy to panic, but people keep streaming in," said Tuomisto, as a means of assuaging his escalating anxiety. He was then rejected in his next several attempts, once by a young man who said, "No way, man. I got my butt kicked last time I did anything like that."

I soon had to abandon my post, as I was scheduled to be interviewed on the field as part of the team's nightly Cutters Pre-Game Live show (hosted by marketing vice president Gabe Sinicropi). But when I reconvened with Tuomisto 15 minutes later, he had completed his task, apparently summoning forth a heretofore unknown reservoir of inner fortitude. The night's roster of contestants had been assembled.

And all contestants (or, in the case of minors, their parents) must sign waivers before participating in any on-field activity. If you ever thought that suing a Minor League Baseball team for injuries sustained during an inflatable pony race could be your ticket to financial independence, please disavow yourself of the notion. The waiver is very strongly worded, and among other things states that the contestant "hereby assumes full responsibility for risk of bodily injury, death or property damage."

It seems to me that the above three calamites are not listed in the proper order of severity, but then again I never went to law school.

Where's the money?

The contestants are one thing, but what about the games themselves? How and why are they chosen?

Sinicropi, who has worked for the 'Cutters since the team's 1999 inception, is the man responsible for assembling each evening's entertainment itinerary (commonly called the game's "script"). And by and large, what takes place on the field has to meet one criterion above all else: it can be sponsored.

This is Minor League Baseball, after all. A common line of thought is, "if it isn't sponsored, it's not worth doing." Many of the games are catered toward a particular sponsor, designed to remind fans of the connection between what is happening on the field and who paid for it. This is certainly the case for the aforementioned Carpet Caper, which is sponsored by a local carpet and flooring company. Other examples abound, such as the "Price is Right"-influenced Hi-Lo game, in which Sinicropi wanders into the stands and has a fan decide whether the price of a particular Wegman's store-brand product is indeed higher or lower than what is stated on the scoreboard.

But often the connection is less explicit. A local air-conditioning company sponsors 59 Seconds to Win It, which features a rotating roster of games influenced by the television game show "60 Seconds to Win It" (on Tuesday evening, the college-aged contestant had to flip a cup from the edge of a table on to a water bottle).

"That sponsor has worked with us for a long time, and their preference is to keep changing things up and staying fresh," explained Sinicropi.

A similar philosophy applies to the Olympics game, sponsored by legendary local amusement park Knoebel's. The games vary by the day (Tuesday was the classic Dizzy Bat Race), and those who win receive two all-day ride passes.

Rare, but not unprecedented (especially in a down economy), is an unsponsored event. This season the Crosscutters' middle-of-the-fifth T-Shirt Gun giveaway is lacking a sponsor, which is certainly disappointing to a Minor League promotional veteran such as Sinicropi. Still, he looks on the bright side.

"Now that [the T-Shirt Gun] is established here, that's something I fully expect will be sponsored next year," he said. "Plus, having no sponsor gives us a greater flexibility whenever we bring in touring acts."

And on that particular evening, the touring act was none other than iconic mascot the Phillie Phanatic. At various points throughout the ballgame he performed classic bits such as dancing with the umpire and spilling popcorn on fans.

But regardless of the specific situation, Minor League teams are going to remain committed to providing as much entertainment bang for the fan's discretionary income buck as they possibly can.

And if you ever want to be part of that entertainment yourself, it might behoove you to get to the ballpark early and keep an eye out for the smiling, clipboard-wielding promotions intern.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.