Loons bringing classroom to ballpark

Great Lakes challenges students; Redbirds celebrate Twitter

Lehigh Valley will be giving away 3,000 Vance Worley bobblehead dolls. (Frank Mitman)

By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | April 24, 2012 6:20 AM ET

Minor League teams are known for the creativity of their gameday promotions. Every Tuesday we'll preview the week ahead, highlighting the best and brightest (not to mention strangest) that the industry has to offer. If you'd like a particular promotion to be considered for this feature, please send it to benjamin.hill@mlb.com with the subject line "Promo Preview."

Renewal, rebirth and eternal hope are all well and good, but such Opening Day clichés often obscure a brutal truth: April can be a miserable month for baseball.

With the cold, damp weather and school still in session, attendance at Minor League ballparks often leaves much to be desired.

The Michigan-based Great Lakes Loons are certainly not immune from this unfortunate reality, but they're doing their best to combat it. Friday's "Home Room Challenge" is an evening-long competition between 10 area high schools, one designed to generate enthusiasm and excitement during a time of year when such things can be in short supply. As with most promotions, it started with a simple idea and expanded from there.

"Back in high school, everyone had that math or science teacher who was the cool one," said Loons promotions director Linda Lones. "And we asked ourselves, 'Wouldn't you want to see that teacher out there on the field doing something crazy?' Absolutely!"

That "something crazy" is a post-game home run derby featuring one teacher (or coach) from each of 10 local high schools. These education professionals will accrue points based on their power display -- each is allotted 10 swings with an opportunity to accrue anywhere from two to five points per swing ("We assume that there won't be too many home runs," noted Lones).

The derby serves as the evening's final event. It all starts with a pre-game Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?-style quiz bowl, and students from each school will also compete head-to-head in one of four between-inning contests (such as "Build-A-Burger" or an inflatable pony race). The school with the most points at the end of the evening will be awarded a $1,000 cash prize, with the money to be spent at their discretion.

In addition to the activities described above, there's one other way that schools can earn points for themselves.

"Each school has been given a chunk [of tickets to] sell, and they are being sold through the student council and main offices. Hopefully they'll soon come back to us and ask for more," said Lones.

Points will be awarded to schools based on per capita ticket sales. These on-the-ground sales efforts will also generate buzz for the event. It's the team's hope that this buzz translates to ample gameday enthusiasm.

"We're encouraging the schools to bring their flags and mascots and for the students to get their faces painted in school colors," said Lones. "High schoolers here are used to being cold at the football games, and we hope that the Home Room Challenge is something that they accept and embrace as well."

I will follow

Last season's greatest Twitter-themed promo came courtesy of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who took to the field in hashtag-themed jerseys. The Memphis Redbirds might not be going quite that far, but Thursday's Social Media Night features a unique offer: the first 500 fans who write down their Twitter handle will be followed by the Redbirds, and one of these fans will win an unprecedented prize pack that includes "a bird-watching book, a team-signed hashtag and a box of figurines containing 140 characters." Other Twitter-themed innovations include a pre-game player "Twinterview" and player user names displayed on the videoboard (which is, incidentally, the largest in all of Minor League Baseball).

Those looking for a more hands-on theme night should direct their gaze toward Altoona, as the Curve are staging "What If Kids Ran the Show?" on April 25. As the press release explains, the youngest among us will be "taking tickets, serving as ushers, hosting on-field competitions between innings, announcing batters over the public address system and joining the Curve radio broadcasts." Left unsaid is the evening's potential to descend into Lord of the Flies style anarchy.

Get in the ring

Minor League ballparks have been awash in wrestling legends over the past several seasons, with icons like Jerry "The King" Lawler, George "The Animal" Steele and Jim "Hacksaw" Duggan regularly stopping by for promotional appearances. The latest (and therefore greatest) such individual to enter the fold is Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, who will appear at Monday's Richmond Flying Squirrels game. The native Fijiian (and one-time Rowdy Roddy Piper adversary) precedes a June 12 appearance by none other than Bret "The Hit Man" Hart.

Dave "The Cobra" Parker certainly sounds like a professional wrestler, but as any Pirates fan knows, he was an integral part of Pittsburgh's swaggering '70s superstars. He'll be appearing at Friday's West Virginia Power game along with two other notable Steel City heroes: bespectacled sidearmer Kent Tekulve and enigmatic ace turned affable broadcaster Steve Blass.

Meanwhile on Sunday, the Iowa Cubs' series of throwback promos continues with the appearance of Iowa Oak-turned-Major League All-Star Joe Rudi. The first 1,500 fans in attendance receive an Iowa Oaks "Rudi" T-shirt, commemorating his 57-game stint with the club in 1969.

This Week in Undulating Appendages

As was the case last week, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs are nearly single-handedly keeping bobbleheads in the picture during this slow time of the year. On Tuesday, a mere eight days after their Rich Thompson bobblehead giveaway, the team is distributing 3,000 dolls bearing the likeness of glasses-wearing Phillies hurler Vance Worley. The right-hander spent time in Lehigh Valley in each of the last two seasons, en route to becoming the first Major Leaguer with the last name of "Worley."

(And for those who just can't get enough, the IronPigs are giving away figurines of manager Ryne Sandberg on Thursday. Maybe he'll be wearing his skeleton jersey.)

But let's not forget the IronPigs' International League brethren in Columbus, as the Clippers are continuing their locally-based "icons" bobblehead series with a doll featuring ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker.

Celebrate good times

If you've never been in attendance at a birthday celebration for a sentient corn cob, then, well, your luck may finally change this week. The Cedar Rapids Kernels are throwing a party for mascot Mr. Shucks this weekend, and the first 500 fans in attendance receive a free cupcake.

A more extensive (albeit less vegetable-centric) mascot party can be found in Fresno, as the Grizzles are staging "Parker's Fur-ternity" on Sunday. Parker has invited high school mascots from around the area to attend, and the result is likely to be an overwhelming onslaught of amateur anthropomorphism.

Into the ellipse...

An exceedingly brief rundown of other notable promotions taking place across the Minors...

April 26: The Hickory Crawdads host an "NFL Draft Party," which in this case means "a fun interactive game that will correlate with the ongoing NFL Draft." Your guess, as always, is as good as mine. ... Inspired by the popular beer campaign, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans modestly describe their Thirsty Thursday promo as "the most interesting thing in the world." This will include a beard contest. ... In Quad Cities, the River Bandits stage a pre-game "Pro Sports Career Day" featuring a panel discussion among industry pros.

April 27: It's "Salute to the Underdog Night in Akron," an evening culminating in a can-do fireworks display inspired by the movie Rocky. ... The Frederick Keys are celebrating gridiron heroes on "Football Night," with former Philadelphia Eagle Freddie Mitchell in attendance. ... One conceals the other: the Richmond Flying Squirrels give away team-logo toboggan hats as part of "Bald Night". ... Want to increase your ability to retain information? The Rome Braves are giving away zip drives.

April 28: The annual "Disability Games" takes place in Fort Myers, in which two dozen disabled athletes receive coaching and support from the entire Miracle ballclub. ... Gnome is where the heart is? If you ascribe to this sentiment, then head out to Des Moines for the Iowa Cubs' "Cubbie Garden Gnome" giveaway. ... Tired of outmoded pyrotechnics? The Jackson Generals are taking things to the next level with a Star Wars-themed fireworks display billed as "high-tech."

April 29: The Blue Rocks are celebrating "Science Day" the best way they know how: by giving away glow-in-the-dark baseballs.

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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