"I'll never forget the first time I saw it. It's so terrible. It's perfect."
That's El Paso Chihuahuas general manager Brad Taylor recalling the first time he laid eyes on the Bark at the Park theme jerseys the team wore during the Aug. 3's ballgame against the Reno Aces. This perfectly terrible apparel, which featured the piercing, plaintive stare of a larger-than-life Chihuahua, won the 2014 MiLBY Award for Promotion of the Year.
The Chihuahuas' Bark at the Park theme jerseys emerged victorious over nine other Promotion of the Year contenders, with second and third place going to the Portland Sea Dogs' awareness-raising Slugger Walks for Tourettes and the Rochester Red Wings' Batman and Robin Night respectively. This marks the second year in a row in which a canine-themed promotion won the MiLBY Award. In 2013, the Trenton Thunder claimed the top honors after throwing an emotional retirement party for Chase, their bat-fetching golden retriever.
For the Chihuahuas, the Promotion of the Year MiLBY represents a triumphant finish to an inaugural 2014 season in which the Triple-A San Diego Padres affiliate attempted to "live the brand" to the fullest extent possible. (The Chihuahuas relocated to El Paso in 2014 after playing the previous three seasons in Tucson, Arizona.)
"I think that this is great for the fans in El Paso," said Taylor. "Our fans bought into the Chihuahuas brand, and that support spilled over into Bark at the Park Night. It's certainly not a new promotion, but we took it to a whole different level."
The Chihuahuas had staged a Bark at the Park night earlier in the season at their home of Southwest University Park, but that was a test run for what occurred on Aug. 3.
"That first one, we were just getting our feet wet. We had only been open for something like 12 games at that point. We were still trying to figure out where the bathrooms were," said Taylor. "But the next time, we wanted to do more than just let dogs into the park. We really wanted to do it up."
Prior to the game, the team adopted a Chihuahua from the Humane Society of El Paso, providing their mascot, Chico, with a real-life counterpart. Fans were able to vote on this dog's name in exchange for a $1 donation to the Humane Society. Lola eventually won out over Ruby, Reina, Estrella and Rosa. The first 2,000 fans into the ballpark received Chico bobbleheads, and throughout the ballgame, dog-themed player headshots (featuring the likes of Marmaduke, Scooby Doo and Snoop Dogg) were displayed on the videoboard.
But it was the jerseys, designed by North Carolina-based OT Sports, which took the entire endeavor to the next level.
"The jerseys were just so funny, so in your face, that it was like, 'Holy cow, how do we not do this?'" said Taylor. "When they were hanging in the players' lockers, they were tweeting pics out, posting them on Instagram. Now we have the players doing PR for us! It just became a phenomenon. Everyone got into it."
Indeed. Almost as soon as they were unleashed, the Chihuahuas' Bark at the Park theme jerseys went viral. Media outlets nationwide weighed in on the team's absurdist eye-catching creation, with Sports Illustrated opining, in the hyperbolic rhetoric characteristic of internet commentary, that they were "the most amazing uniforms of all time." More notably, ESPN's Keith Olbermann wore the jersey during an episode of his eponymous television program and then made a donation to the Humane Society of El Paso.
"How great is that?" said Taylor. "There was all kinds of talk nationally about the Chihuahuas. We were the talk of the sports world."
On a local level, Bark at the Park Night attracted a sellout crowd of 8,779 fans to Southwest University Park, making it one of the highlights of a memorable first season in which the team shattered El Paso's all-time Minor League Baseball attendance record with 26 games still remaining on the schedule (the city last hosted Minor League Baseball in the form of the El Paso Diablos, who competed in the Double-A Texas League from 1972-2004).
Fans bid on the theme jerseys throughout the ballgame, with the proceeds once again benefiting the Humane Society of El Paso. All told, the team raised more than $20,000 for the organization through their Bark at the Park efforts.
As a result of this success, Bark at the Park is almost certain to be a staple on the Chihuahuas promotional calendar for years to come. But with the bar now set so high, how will the team be able to improve upon it?
"I don't want to give away all of our secrets, but one of the great things about Southwest University Park is that we have a million dollars' worth of art in the building and a lot of this art is centered around Chihuahuas," said Taylor. "We think there's a marriage to be had between our local artwork and our next jersey."
Could the next Chihuahuas theme jersey be of an abstract expressionist, minimalist or Dadaist bent? The possibilities are practically endless, but for now Taylor is content to bask in the glory that comes with winning the Promotion of the Year MiLBY Award.
"This promotion engaged the fans, raised money for a great cause, sold out a ballgame and received tons of national attention," he said. "I don't know what you could do to make a promotion more successful than that. This is a great reward for our entire staff."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.