STOCKTON, California -- As graphics manager for a Minor League team, Maria Boyle has been asked to come up with some unusual design concepts. But when she left a Stockton Ports offseason staff meeting tasked with creating the look for an asparagus-themed baseball jersey, that ranked high on her list of oddest assignments.
"Probably No. 1," Boyle said. "We got excited about it. We were like, 'This might actually be kind of cool, because it's so weird.' You have normal promotions, like Star Wars Night, but you never see anybody have an Asparagus Night.... It's pretty outrageous, but we do love asparagus here in Stockton."
They sure do.
The Ports' Asparagus Night, which came to fruition May 21 before more than 4,000 fans, featured those specially designed jerseys -- which were sold to fans during a silent auction -- but that was just the tip of the, um, stalk.
Along with an asparagus-eating contest and an expanded ballpark menu that included such items as asparagus fries, asparagus dogs and asparagus sausage, there was a first pitch from Gaby Muro, "Miss San Joaquin Asparagus Festival 2016," who is also, coincidentally, an usher at Banner Island Ballpark.
The night also included asparagus-related trivia on the videoboard (did you know asparagus takes three years from seed to harvest?); a sponsored eye-care test that challenged a contestant to read increasingly smaller messages about asparagus; and a hidden-ball game on the videoboard in which the ball was replaced by asparagus, the hats' logo was a stalk of asparagus and the background was -- what else? -- asparagus!
"We've wanted to do more and more -- fully theme it out," general manager Bryan Meadows said. "We did. We went all out."
That was a challenge as the Class A Advanced affiliate of the A's already pays homage to the vegetable on a daily basis. A concession stand along the first-base side sells the vegetable deep-fried, while the club's secondary mascots -- asparagus stalks named Gus and Gustine -- participate in a race against primary mascot Splash each game, while Five O'Clock Dock, a cartoony dockworker character, wields an enormous stalk of asparagus on an alternate hat.
"We've had a lot fun, and I thought, 'Alright, what can we do? How far can we take this to make it a full night?'" Meadows said. "[At the San Joaquin Asparagus Festival] they do everything from fry it, grill it, they throw chocolate on it, caramel, sweet stuff you would not think would go with asparagus, which is pretty fun. It's been big out here."
The local culture celebrates the region's iconic crop at every opportunity, including the county's annual festival, now its 31st year, and an annual "Stockton Asparagus Dine Out!" event in which local restaurants feature locally grown asparagus for two weeks. The enthusiasm is genuine.
"I love asparagus!" said Sergio Viveros of Antioch, California, who won the postgame eating contest by downing 19 stalks in two minutes. "I just got two at a time and just kept chewing it and chewing it. It was fun. I love asparagus!"
Neither Ports employee Lorin Gran nor Sergio's wife, Patty, could match Sergio's consumption in the contest, but Patty perhaps bested him in terms of enjoying the moment.
"I can't eat as fast as he can -- I was enjoying each one individually," she said.
Even Boyle, who admitted that designing the jersey was a weird assignment, expressed unbridled joy about the promotion.
"I really, really like asparagus. It's actually my favorite vegetable, so I was really excited about it," she said. "I started putting together a bunch of jerseys immediately, right after the meeting. Our next meeting, I showed all the mock-ups, and everyone was very excited."
The team ultimately chose a dark-green-sleeved top with humongous stalks of asparagus shooting up the torso, which gained national attention upon its unveiling. The front office settled on a date in late May in hopes of harnessing some of the excitement generated by the county's annual festival, which took place in April, and because if it waited much later, prime asparagus season would be over. With the jerseys designed and a date on the calendar, which coincided with a Fireworks Night, the Ports were full steam ahead.
"It was like, 'Alright, we can make a full night about this,'" Meadows said. "Then, obviously, the Stockton community is going to support us for it."
Not way of the K: Through action on May 22, Giants right-hander Sam Coonrod had the Cal League's best ERA at 1.35. However, the 2014 fifth-rounder has been successful pitching to contact rather than blowing hitters away. He had just 16 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .210 average over 33 1/3 innings.
Parting is such sweet sorrow: Cal League pitchers are not going to miss Houston prospect Nick Tanielu, who was promoted to the Texas League and debuted there Friday. With Lancaster, he led the loop with a .363 batting average, and he knocked in 28 runs and scored 23 over 34 games.
Where do we keep the brooms? While Inland Empire has been swept seven times this season, Monday night's fourth straight victory over Modesto was only the second time in 2016 that the club was on the other end of the broom. It pulled off a three-game sweep of Bakersfield from May 7-9.