History crucial as teams look to future

Visalia Rawhide had to find their roots before finding success

Some Visalia players wore hand-me-down jerseys with safety pins instead of buttons. (Visalia Rawhide)

By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | December 16, 2011 5:07 AM

The last two decades of Minor League Baseball have been characterized by a rush to the new -- new team names, new logos and new stadiums in new locations.

Such changes have been widely discussed and analyzed (particularly in forums such as this very column), and one would be hard-pressed to find someone in the industry who would argue against the direction in which things have gone. This emphasis on the new, coupled with a mutually beneficial Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) with Major League Baseball that guarantees industry stability, resulted in an era of sustained growth. What had too often been a collection of moribund franchises playing in dilapidated stadiums in front of a handful of hard-core fans became something else entirely -- thriving entertainment destinations offering baseball as the centerpiece of an evening of all-encompassing family fun.

But -- and there's always a but, isn't there? -- such developments need not be at the expense of that which came before. No matter how Minor League Baseball continues to grow and evolve, one of its primary appeals will be the deep-rooted historical connection that exists between the franchise and the community in which it operates.

Baseball is constantly evolving, growing, adapting and changing. And yet, it is timeless.

Reconnection and resurrection

Donny Baarns, broadcast manager of the Visalia Rawhide, is a strong proponent of using a team's history as a powerful marketing tool. During the recently concluded Baseball Winter Meetings in Dallas, he gave a presentation to this effect entitled "Learning From Orwell: How History Can Enhance Your Club's Brand."

Of course, the inspiration for the title was not to connect Minor League Baseball with the often dystopian visions of author George Orwell. But it was Orwell who memorably declared, "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." And that was just the point that Baarns wanted to convey.

"When you become proactive about emphasizing your history, then you control that narrative because you're the one framing it," explained Baarns, himself a history major. "That gives you power in what you emphasize, and that's a power that you want to retain. It's all about branding, ultimately -- controlling your image and enhancing it."

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Such a tactic was especially important to the Visalia ballclub as it entered the 2009 season. The team's longtime home of Recreation Park had undergone extensive renovations, and in conjunction with that, the team had changed its name from the Oaks to the Rawhide (a reference to both Recreation Park's former incarnation as a rodeo ground and Visalia's agricultural and dairy industries).

"The ballclub had been here since 1946, but most people in the community had no idea. We were in the midst of a couple-decades long slump," Baarns said. "One element of resurrecting our brand was to reconnect with it."

The first step in the process was to send out a press release asking fans to come forward with artifacts and memorabilia from Visalia's professional baseball history.

"[The fans] came through in a huge way," said Baarns, who used much of his findings in a book on Visalia's baseball history entitled Goshen and Giddings. "There were so many interesting artifacts that I didn't know were out there. I liked the little Christmas card the team sent out in 1950 with a jumping Cub, and a lot of the old programs people had featured great artwork."

With a little digging, these artifacts can combine to tell some unexpectedly interesting stories. After tracking down some local team alumni and recording the conversations, Baarns learned that the team used to wear hand-me-down uniforms from the parent Chicago ballclub and that sometimes these uniforms would be missing buttons. This tidbit of information helped to explain a photograph featuring a player with safety pins on his uniform shirt, a picture that also included then-manager John Intelkofer. Following further research, Baarns discovered that after leaving the world of baseball, Intelkofer landed a job as Elvis Presley's wardrobe manager.

"The guy, who used to manage a team that couldn't afford uniform buttons, now outfits one of the biggest stars of the world," he marveled.

Quirky facts such as these are imminently enjoyable, but Baarns takes pains to stress that they can be put to practical use. This includes historically minded presentations at local service clubs and the ability to spruce up marketing materials and sponsor proposals with vintage images. And on two occasions, the team has been able to reconnect with old sponsors by reminding them of their previous engagement with the club.

"Taylor's Hot Dog's used to be one of our biggest sponsors, because [founder] Pauline Taylor used to be an enormous baseball supporter. Part of [our pitch] was this had been a tradition in their family," Baarns said. "And Buckman Mitchell Insurance, their name was on our 1952 pocket schedule. This year, they were back on the outfield wall."

And on it goes. The Rawhide have revamped problematic and unsightly areas of the stadium with a team timeline, a wall of fame, murals and championship flags. The team has also given away historically themed bobbleheads and created a line of hats and shirts that reference past affiliations and team names.

"Items like those don't have a limited shelf life," Baarns said. "We're visually reinforcing our history and different eras of the ballclub."

Universally applicable

Though few teams have been as far-reaching as Visalia, baseball history is celebrated at Minor League ballparks across the country. The Birmingham Barons' annual "Rickwood Classic," in which the team returns to their old ballpark for an afternoon of retro baseball, is one of the most celebrated baseball promotions in the country. In 2009, the Mobile BayBears opened the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum, for which they relocated the slugger's home to the grounds of aptly named Hank Aaron Ballpark. And Perdue Stadium, home of the Delmarva Shorebirds, houses the sprawling Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame on site.

But even if a team is still relatively new to its market, that doesn't mean it isn't surrounded by baseball history.

"You can still celebrate that baseball heritage, whether it's great high school or semi-pro teams, or Major League players who came from the area," Baarns said. "Whatever it is, tie yourself in with it. You're not just a fledgling franchise; you're the newest and most exciting chapter."

What it comes down to is a best-of-both-worlds scenario, one that all of Minor League Baseball and its fans should be able to embrace.

"Minor League Baseball is one of the few industries that is both very traditional and forward-thinking at the same time," Baarns said. "That's an advantage we have, and since we have them both, we really should use them both."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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