This baseball offseason, the most dominant recurring Minor League storyline has been the continuing shift toward irreverent, regionally specific team identities.
In this regard, history is repeating itself.
2017 will mark the debut of five new or rebranded teams -- the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, Down East Wood Ducks, Florida Fire Frogs, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and New Orleans Baby Cakes. In addition, after spending a year on the road, the Hartford Yard Goats are slated to finally make their home debut. When the above team names were announced, incredulous and often angry remarks made up a significant portion of the initial fan social media response.
But quirky, locally oriented monikers have long been a part of Minor League Baseball, and this includes the communities that will be seeing a new or rebranded team in 2017. Let's take a look:
Binghamton Rumble Ponies
The Rumble Ponies' moniker, a reference to Binghamton's status as the "Carousel Capitol of the World," follows 25 seasons as the Binghamton Mets. But historically speaking, the Mets were an anomaly. From 1923 through 1968 Binghamton fielded a team named the Triplets. This was not, unfortunately, a reference to robust fertility rates. "Triplets" referred to the region's Triple Cities of Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott. In Root for the Home Team: Minor League Baseball's Most Off-the-Wall Team Names and the Stories Behind Them, author (and El Paso Chihuahuas broadcaster) Tim Hagerty spotlighted the Binghamton Bingoes, who preceded the Triplets. The Bingoes, who operated intermittently in various incarnations between the years 1885 and 1919, were a nod to the city's longstanding nickname (which, in fact, preceded the invention of the game bingo).
Down East Wood Ducks
The Down East moniker is a bit of a misnomer. The Wood Ducks will play at Grainger Stadium in Kinston, North Carolina, marking the return of affiliated baseball after a five-year absence. Kinston has a long Minor League history, but a conservative one regarding team names. Adopting the name of the parent club was the norm from 1982 to 2011; prior to that the city fielded a long-running entity named the Eagles. However, one does not need to travel far from Kinston to find some truly unique team names. The Greenville Tobacconists (1928-29), Goldsboro Goldbugs (1929, 1937-41, 1946-52) and Snow Hill Billies (1937-40) all operated within a 30-mile radius.
Florida Fire Frogs
The Fire Frogs' name lays claim to the entire state of Florida, despite playing in a league consisting exclusively of Florida-based teams. Specifically, the franchise formerly known as the Brevard County Manatees will operate out of Kissimmee's Osceola County Stadium, located in close proximity to Orlando. Osceola County Stadium last hosted a Florida State League team in the form of the Kissimmee Cobras, who changed their name from the Astros following the 1994 season. After the logo was unveiled, an article in the Orlando Sentinel slammed the Astros name as "better suited to a six-passenger van" before declaring that the Cobras would "rival the Carolina Mudcats hat for just plain cool." Such sentiments were a sign of things to come in Minor League Baseball.
Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp
Jacksonville's Jumbo Shrimp moniker follows 26 consecutive seasons as the Suns, and 48 overall dating back to 1962. Like Kinston, Jacksonville is a longstanding Minor League market with a history of taking a conservative approach to team names. (Other non-parent club monikers include Tars, Red Caps, Scouts and Roses.) But unlike Kinston, one needs to travel a little further afield to find unique Minor League names in the region. From 1936 through 1958, Gainesville (located approximately 70 miles from Jacksonville) fielded a Florida State League team named the G-Men. Information on the origin of the name is hard to come by, but it is likely no coincidence that the moniker was bestowed shortly after "G-Men" became a well-known slang term for FBI agents.
Hartford Yard Goats
The Yard Goats' name was announced in 2015, but the team has yet to play a game in Hartford after spending last season on the road. When Dunkin' Donuts Park finally opens (on April 13, fingers crossed), it will mark the return of Eastern League baseball in Hartford after a 64-year absence. But one needs to go back even further to find some truly unusual team names in Connecticut's capital city. In 1900 and 1901, Hartford fielded a team called the Wooden Nutmegs. As the Connecticut State Library notes, Connecticut is sometimes referred to as "The Nutmeg State." Wooden nutmegs were allegedly sold by scheming peddlers to those ignorant in the ways of nutmeg usage. But even better are the 1885 Hartford Babies, a team that included a 22-year-old Connie Mack on its roster. Yes, even the "Grand Old Man of Baseball" was once a Baby.
New Orleans Baby Cakes
Prior to this season, the Baby Cakes were known as the Zephyrs (a name that the team retained after relocating from Denver). Prior to that, New Orleans' most long-running and well-known Minor League entity was the Pelicans; this name was utilized intermittently within various leagues between 1877 and 1977 (and went on to inspire the NBA franchise bearing that moniker). Interspersed throughout the long reign of the Pelicans, one finds some truly head-scratching appellations. In 1886, for example, professional baseball debuted in New Orleans via the Gulf League Robert E. Lee's. In 1912 the city fielded a team called the Little Pels, which competed in the Cotton States League against the likes of the Columbus Joy Riders.