On the Road: Cross words in Jacksonville

Jumbo Shrimp wear Scrabble jerseys, host board game champ

The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp's "Words With Fans Night" was such a hit, the team may do more promos inspired by board games.

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | July 19, 2018 10:00 AM

The phrase "Jumbo Shrimp" contains 11 letters, but during Sunday's game in Jacksonville it only contained 10. The team staged a "Words With Fans" promo in celebration of the 70th anniversary of Scrabble, so the M did double duty.  

For this Sunday afternoon contest, which took place following a two and a half hour rain delay, the Double-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins took the field wearing jerseys designed in the vein of the iconic board game's layout; their hats, meanwhile, featured a J in the shape of a Scrabble tile. In addition, the Jumbo Shrimp gave away "J" coaster tiles, staged a book drive (because books have words), and welcomed North American Scrabble champion Will Anderson to the ballpark. The Jumbo Shrimp are currently auctioning off a team-autographed Scrabble tile base, jersey and cap, with the proceeds benefiting Vs. Cancer. (Note: this writer is involved with the Vs. Cancer fundraising efforts).

Video: Jacksonville plays 'Words with Fans'

"Words With Fans Night" was the brainchild of Jumbo Shrimp promotions manager David Ratz, who grew up playing Scrabble. 

"It honestly started with a visualization in my head of the intersecting 'Jumbo Shrimp,' because they have the one letter in common," Ratz said. "Thinking, 'Hmm, that'd be interesting as a T-shirt,' and then just researching Scrabble. I saw they had an anniversary. We had a jersey mock made up and all that stuff and thought it was kind of cool."

Ratz's research into the game of Scrabble led him to the following thought: "I wonder if there's a Scrabble champion in the United States. It'd be cool to have him throw out a first pitch." 

That champion turned out to be Anderson, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based textbook editor. Not only did he throw out a first pitch, he attempted to set a new record in the little-known competitive category of "most Scrabble games played at once." On Sunday, Anderson took on 30 competitors, breaking (at least unofficially) the previous mark of 26. The whole experience was a first for Anderson, who never dreamed he'd be the guest of honor at a Minor League Baseball game. 

Tweet from @bensbiz: Scrabble champion Will Anderson is in the house for today���s ���Words With Fans��� @JaxShrimp game. He���s attempting to set the record for ���Most Simultaneous Games of Scrabble Played at Once.��� pic.twitter.com/W6RKV1gFS5

"To use the baseball parlance, this was completely out of left field to me," said Anderson, decked out in a "Words With Fans" theme jersey and cap. "Obviously, I immediately jumped at the chance. It sounded like an awesome opportunity. I was just thrilled to be a part of it."

Anderson began playing Scrabble competitively in 2009, at the urging of a friend.   

"I really took to it like a fish to water, and it was instantly this positive feedback loop where I would go to a tournament and do well but want to learn more about the game and start doing better," he said. "And that process has been ongoing for many years, and I was lucky enough to win the National Championship in 2017."


Jacksonville fans get ready to take on North American Scrabble champion Will Anderson.

Along the way, Anderson has familiarized himself with thousands of words that would sound completely foreign to the average English speaker.

"Within the [Scrabble] community it's common to say, 'Is this a real word or a Scrabble word?'" he said. "Like, there's just words that you're never going to hear in everyday language that are incredibly important to the game of Scrabble, particularly shorter words that you see all the time. The word that most people are shocked is a word is the two-letter word 'za,' Z-A, which in some parts of English-speaking countries [is] used to say, 'Let's go out and get a slice of za.' Pizza. People don't use that, but in Scrabble it's, like, the best. If you get a z, you're thinking, 'Oh, where can I play "za" for a lot of points?'"

Anderson is a huge fan of za, but he also has a special affinity for words that are much harder to spell -- let alone pronounce.

"One that I'll definitely remember from this past year's championship was, I played a very, very improbable word towards the end of the tournament where I was inches away from clinching and becoming a national champion," he said. "I played the word 'umbelule,' and that's a word for a small plant stem. And that word, to see a word with two L's, two U's, a B an M, that's like a one-in-a-million type thing but, as many Scrabble players do, I had trained myself to see pretty much any word that's in the dictionary. Hopefully, I should see it if it's on my rack of letters. And I was very excited to see that one because it was almost a clinching play for me and a very stylish play, too. So that stands out to me as one of the plays I'm proudest of."

Sunday's "most Scrabble games played at once" record attempt was originally scheduled to take place during the game, but instead occurred during the substantial rain delay that preceded the scheduled 3:05 p.m. Southern League tilt against the Biloxi Shuckers. Anderson's competitors sat on concourse picnic tables as Anderson darted from one to the next, ultimately taking four turns against each opponent and getting to use his beloved "za."

Tweet from @bensbiz: Scrabble champ Will Anderson taking on dozens of foes simultaneously at today���s @JaxShrimp Words With Fans game. pic.twitter.com/gPOG63T6nF 
After staging "Words With Fans," Ratz is beginning to think about other board games the Jumbo Shrimp might pay tribute to in the future, mentioning Guess Who?, Sorry! and Operation. Anderson, meanwhile, was able to summarize how he felt in a single word. 

"Pumped," he said. "I'd hope to get at least 30 points for that one if I played it right."

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

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