INDIANAPOLIS -- A key component of the Winter Meetings is the annual Baseball Trade Show, a one-stop shop for virtually every conceivable baseball need (except quality starting pitching, of course).
The 2009 Baseball Trade Show kicked off Monday evening at the Indiana Convention Center and will run through Wednesday afternoon. This year's event features over 250 vendors, divided into 100 categories. If you're looking for a creative giveaway item, a stadium architect, a new mascot costume or a mouth-watering addition to the concession menu, then this is the place to be.
I spent Tuesday afternoon exploring the Trade Show's labyrinthine corridors, in order to get a better sense of what is available for sale and why. In my travels I came across the following vendors, who represent a diverse cross-section of the what the event has to offer to the baseball world.
Booth 247: Sharp Sports USA Corporation
Sharp Sports USA is an offshoot of Sharp-Sangyo, a well-established Japanese company that specializes in promotional products. In previous years, the company has focused its U.S. efforts on Seventh-Inning Stretch Balloons, a giveaway item meant to be blown up and then released in unison (a Japanese baseball tradition). But swine flu paranoia has put the kibosh on the balloons for now, and Sharp Sports' primary item is currently Stadium Videoboard photo frames. Overseas sales representative Katz Murai explained the frames offer great sponsor benefit, as scoreboards are surrounded by company logos. Other items for sale include team logo tissue box covers, noisemakers and wristbands that double as rally towels.
Booth 250: American Fireworks Company
Fireworks are the most tried and true baseball promotion there is and a staple of Friday and Saturday night home games for many teams. But the industry can't take its success for granted and is currently facing a challenge when it comes to the location of many new baseball facilities.
"So many stadiums are being built downtown, where they are surrounded by other buildings and parking garages," said Roberto Sorgi, American Fireworks owner and sales manager. "So we have to get more creative, doing shows where we shoot 15 to 25 feet in the air as opposed to 220. The demand for close-proximity fireworks just keeps going up."
Just like the fireworks themselves.
Booth 308: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
The Baseball Hall of Fame certainly needs no introduction, but the venerable institution is nonetheless always looking for ways to expand its profile.
"We see Minor League teams as a promotional vehicle to expand Hall of Fame membership and visitation," vice president of retail merchandising and licensing Sean Gahagan said. "We'd like to partner with teams to create 'Hall of Fame Days' at the ballpark, because those attending games are a natural customer base."
Specifically, "Hall of Fame Nights" would include giveaways of Hall of Fame yearbooks and, later in the season, induction ceremony programs and commemorative pins.
Why the hall not?
Booth 346: Olympus Flag and Banner
I was not enticed to visit this booth based on a desire to see flags or banners. Rather, it was because of a sign which stated "We specialize in racing mascots." Olympus has a significant claim to fame in this category.
"We designed Milwaukee's racing sausages," said Diane Potter, mascot division sales manager. "That's what really made it all come around for us."
On the Minor League level, the company is responsible for edible costumed racers such as Lakewood's Pork Roll, Egg and Cheese and Lehigh Valley's Ham, Hot Dog and Rib. They also design primary mascot costumes as well as outfits for iconic corporate characters.
Booth 351: Studio Simon
Studio Simon is among the most sought-after companies in the field of Minor League logo design. At his booth, creative director Daniel Simon stood in front of a montage of his recent work (featuring the likes of the Charlotte Stone Crabs, Toledo Mud Hens and Cedar Rapids Kernels.)
"I would call my overall sensibility one of bold simplicity," said Simon, who also designed this year's Winter Meetings logo. "This is because every design element of the brand identity needs to fit on the smallest embroidery application, generally the left chest on a polo shirt. ... Complicated designs can end up creating problems for teams."
Simon realizes that teams aren't going to see his booth and spontaneously decide to change their logo.
"Most people coming here, they already have an agenda," he said. "But where else can you meet 160 potential clients, all in one place?"
Booth 361: American Specialty Insurance
In order to explain the sort of services his company could provide for a Minor League team, American Specialty assistant vice president of client services Brandon M. Schall offered the following hypothetical scenario.
"Let's say the Indianapolis Indians stage a promotion where if a guy throws a no-hitter, then a lucky fan wins a new car," he postulated. "We would work with the team to insure that $30,000 car. It could also be a contest involving back-to-back homers, a player hitting for the cycle or a perfect game. The less likely the scenario, the cheaper the premium would be."
This is called contingency insurance and teams can also purchase it in order to insure big money, one-time promotions that could be canceled due to rain or other factors (such as Opening Day or a concert featuring a national touring performer).
Booth 435: Society for American Baseball Research
SABR is a 6,700-member organization dedicated to the research and preservation of baseball history. So why were they at the trade show?
"We're looking to raise our profile, because SABR is all about community," publicity manager Susan Petrone said. "The most valuable aspect of our organization is our collective knowledge and experience, as it allows us to engage with the game in a deeper way."
SABR's booth featured a wide array of the organization's recently published materials, but for this MiLB.com writer one stood out above the rest -- Bob McConnell's "Going For the Fences: The Minor League Home Run Book." Did you know that the first Minor League teammates to hit 50 home runs in a season were Stormy and Wilbur Davis (no relation), who suited up for Okmulgee of the Western Association in 1924?
Booth 536: The Skillville Group
The Skillville Group consists of four touring performers -- nerd clown prince Myron Noodleman, the Zooperstars, BirdZerk and dancing batboy Breakin' B-Boy McCoy.
"[The Trade Show] has been going well," said Dominic Latkovski (aka BirdZerk). "We have three of the strongest, most proven performers in Minor League Baseball, and we're making sure that people become familiar with Breakin' B-Boy McCoy. He's an incredible performer, just mesmerizing."
As if on cue, the strains of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" filled the air. McCoy launched into an accomplished dance routine that was simultaneously loose and robotic, if such a thing is possible. He is certainly one to watch (the real McCoy, if you will).
Booth 640: Jelly Belly Candy Company
Little-known fact: Jelly beans can improve an athlete's performance. Or at least this is true if the jelly bean in question is Jelly Belly's "Extreme Sports Beans."
"There are teams that keep these in the clubhouse, and players use them before and after a workout," said David Snyder, Jelly Belly's Midwest regional business manager. "There are no drug test issues; the key ingredient is tapioca syrup."
Jelly Belly is trying to cover all their bases, so to speak, as the company is also pushing their products as both concession stand and gift shop items.
"We're not a normal candy company," Snyder said. "We were the first jelly bean in space."
Booth 642: SRO Productions
I apologize if this particular writeup seems redundant, but I can't cover the trade show without a Dave the Horn Guy mention. Dave, who pumps out popular hits and old classics via 24 chromatically-tuned bulb horns attached to an orange jump suit, is booked by SRO Productions. The company's roster also includes professional cheerleader Krazy George and the preternaturally well-behaved Jake the Diamond Dog (a "Bark in the Park Night" fixture).
Despite the forbidding economy, SRO president Jon Terry expressed confidence that the Minor Leagues remain an excellent place to do business.
"The main thing is that everyone realizes this is more than a game," he said. "There are no big-name heroes on the field and families are coming for entertainment. Baseball uses the offseason better than any sport I've seen, and it's really starting to look like business as usual around here."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com.