Miracle go classic with retro promos

Chasers honor owner Buffet, Ports plan Johnny Cash night

Stockton's uniforms honor Johnny Cash, while Fort Myers are just 1990s throwbacks.

By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | May 1, 2012 6:11 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."

The Fort Myers Miracle are celebrating their 20th anniversary this season and marking the occasion by donning teal and yellow throwback jerseys at every Friday and Saturday home game.

But that's not all they'll be throwing back to.

The team is also staging "throwback promotions," ballpark spectacles that hearken back to their early-90s inception. The first of these takes place Friday, with the long-awaited re-appearance of the mysterious "Phantom of the Ballpark." This character, modeled after Andrew Lloyd Webber's operatic outcast, added an extra layer of suspense (and absurdity) to George H.W. Bush-era Miracle contests.

"At the time, Phantom of the Opera was huge, so we created this character that dressed in all black and wore a Lone Ranger mask and a catcher's mask over his face," said Miracle director of promotions Gary Sharp. "The [Phantom of the Opera] music would play, and he'd appear in a cloud of smoke.

"You never knew where he was going to be," Sharp continued. "Maybe he'd be on top of the center field fence, or in one of the dugouts, or on the field. It would be something that everyone at the ballpark would talk about, wondering where he was going to be. And there'd always be hordes of kids trying to get to the Phantom, trying to figure out who he was."

The "Phantom of the Ballpark" idea originated with Mike Veeck, a member of the team's ownership group who inherited his penchant for groundbreaking promotional ideas from his father, Bill (who owned the Indians, St. Louis Browns and White Sox during various points of a far-flung career).

"Not a lot of teams can say that, 'We did things 20 years ago that people still talk about,'" said Sharp. "We're proud that not only do we have the throwback jerseys, but we have the throwback promos."

Other throwbacks scheduled for this season include the presidential "Bobblection" (fans choose a bobblehead of their preferred candidate upon entering the stadium) as well as an attempt to commune with Thomas Edison during an on-field séance (look for coverage of that in a future edition of this column). But, come Friday, it will be the Phantom's time to shine.

"The whole night's a mystery," said Sharp. "The Phantom will appear but in places no one suspects."

May the Fourth Be With You

Star Wars theme night was an idea that first originated with the West Michigan Whitecaps, who created a ballpark spectacle by inviting members of the local 501st Legion fan club to come to the ballpark dressed as characters from the film series. This has resulted in a winning template for teams nationwide, and the idea has since crossed over into the Major Leagues (the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets have staged their own versions).

This year's slate of "Star Wars Night" promos kick off on -- when else? -- May the Fourth, and teams getting in the act on this Friday evening include the Toledo Mud Hens and Kane County Cougars. The former announced the details of their promo during a press conference that included "Star Wars-themed food and drink;" the latter has modified its logo so that the titular Cougar is now a Storm Trooper.

This week in undulating appendages (and more!)

Things have been slow on the bobbling body part front, as has been the case since the second week of the season. This week's slate includes a triumvirate of solid but unspectacular bobbleheads: Turner Ward (May 5, Mobile BayBears), Nolan Ryan (May 5, Round Rock Express) and Josh Beckett (May 8, Portland Sea Dogs).

Those whose interest in giveaways extends beyond the bobble will find much to enjoy this week, however. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who seem incapable of not getting mentioned in this column, are distributing statues of Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas on May 3. Two days later, the Charleston RiverDogs veer out into borderline avant-garde territory with a toothbrush holder featuring mascots Chelsea and Charlie T. flanking an anthropomorphic tree named Bark.

But the single greatest item being distributed at the turnstiles comes courtesy of the Omaha Storm Chasers, who are honoring billionaire investor Warren Buffet with a coin bank in the shape of his head. This item is at 1/16 scale in honor of Buffet's 1/16th ownership of the team and features the bespectacled fiduciary sage staring contentedly into the future with a Storm Chasers cap perched atop his noggin.

It was all a theme

The Fresno Grizzlies proved to be prescient in 2009 when they became the first team in Minor League Baseball to stage a Twitter-themed promotion. That would be the "Great Fresno Tweet-Up," an evening of Twitter-based ticket deals, contests and social interaction. This year's version is No. 4 in the series and takes place May 3. It's also going to be "Tecate Thursday" at Chukchansi Park, a happenstance which might lower the Tweeting capabilities of many in attendance.

Meanwhile, in Lynchburg, the Hillcats are running an on-field version Kentucky Derby on May 4. Those who wear their fancy hats to the game receive half-price admission, a deal that ensures that the stadium will be a winning place to show your face.

An American institution of a different sort will be celebrated in Stockton on May 5: Johnny Cash. The Ports, who paid homage to the Rolling Stones last season, will wear special Johnny Cash-themed jerseys (black, of course, with a guitar on the sleeve) and pay tribute all night long. This includes a pregame tribute band, between-inning games and trivia and a fireworks show soundtracked to his tunes. But there are limits to how far the team will go, as in response to my query, Ports director of marketing Jeremy Neisser reported that, "No, we will not shoot a man from Reno just to watch him die."

Into the ellipse...

An exceedingly brief rundown of other notable promos taking place this week...

  • May 4: The Altoona Curve show their artistic side by giving away a "Starling Marte Canvas Painting" to early arriving fans. ... In Cedar Rapids, the Kernels celebrate their affiliate the best way they know how: by giving away 500 Angels-logo gumball machines.

  • May 5: In Zebulon, N.C., the Carolina Mudcats pay homage to their franchise's former location with "Kinston Night". ... The Indianapolis Indians "Foster" the people, as former slugger George visits Victory Field. ... Recent glory is the order of the day in Quad Cities, as the River Bandits' "Midwest League Championship Weekend" also includes a special guest in the form of the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series trophy.

  • May 6: It's "Dollar Coin Frenzy," courtesy of the Potomac Nationals. I have no idea what that entails, but it can't not be fun. ... The Visalia Rawhide are on the road, but their ballpark is the latest stop on the TNA Impact Wrestling World Tour.

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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