The baseball season has a distinct set of chronological benchmarks -- Opening Day, the All-Star break and pennant races -- that helps contextualize the daily grind while making its considerable heft seem more manageable.
The same is true for the offseason.
After successfully navigating through annual offseason rites of passage such as "year in review" and "new logo unveilings," we've arrived at a time when teams throughout the land are announcing their upcoming promotional schedules. As players decamp to their respective Grapefruit and Cactus League destinations, Minor League front offices are again providing fans with fresh (and often quite bizarre) reasons to come out to the ballpark.
This edition of "Minoring in Business" looks at a trio of exciting 2011 promotions, all of which are indicative of the unpredictable originality that remains a hallmark of the industry.
Stockton does Dallas
Oakland A's hurler Dallas Braden entered the national baseball spotlight last season after pitching a perfect game on Mother's Day. Despite his dramatically increased profile, the left-hander's heart will always be in the "209."
That's the area code of Braden's hometown of Stockton, a central California metropolis that also serves as home of the Class A Advanced Ports. Braden pitched for the Ports during the 2005 and 2006 campaigns, and last season returned to Banner Island Ballpark in a gala ceremony staged in honor of his "perfect" accomplishment. After being presented with the key to the city, the free-spirited southpaw proudly lifted his shirt to display the "209" tattoo emblazoned across his abdomen.
And with that, one of 2011's most notable giveaway items was born: the Dallas Braden Bobblebelly.
"In the eyes of Stocktonians, Dallas is the king, he's No. 1," Ports director of marketing Jeremy Neisser said. "And when he showed his tattoo on the field last year, the national media picked it up and that photo surfaced all over. So we said to ourselves, 'This is it right here. We've got to move forward with this and make it into something awesome.'"
The "Bobblebelly" figurine recreates the famous photo, featuring a grinning Braden that "bobbles" at the midsection. The Ports designed this unique item in conjunction with Adobe Graphics and Design, a promotional company previously responsible for such game-changers as the Toledo Mud Hens' "Groundskeeper Chia Head" and the "Ike Davis Bobblelegs" offered by the Brooklyn Cyclones last season.
"We're anticipating a lot of media attention, especially because of where we are in relation to our Major League affiliate," said Neisser. "We're just an hour away from the Bay Area and in between [there and] Sacramento, where they've got the [Triple-A Oakland affiliate] River Cats. From our perspective, any time we can get the media to focus on us instead of MLB, then we know we're doing something right."
And one of the promotion's key supporters will be Braden, himself, who still lives in Stockton and regularly visits the Ports' front office.
"We've kept Dallas in the loop every step of the way," Neisser said. "It was funny. After we showed him the original sketch [of the Bobblebelly], he said, 'Looks good, but can't you give me a six pack?'"
From "Off the Wall" to over it
The Lowell Spinners have never been shy when it comes to promotions. This is a team that has hosted U.S. Sen. Scott Brown for batting practice, staged "Politically Incorrect Night" and attempted to set the world record for "Most People Popping Bubble Wrap at the Same Time."
But what the Spinners have scheduled on July 5 might just be their most audacious promotion yet: the Human Home Run.
After the conclusion of that evening's game, and before the Independence Day fireworks show, stuntman David Smith Jr. will be shot out of a cannon and land in a net placed beyond the outfield wall (they don't call him "The Human Cannonball" for nothing).
The Human Home Run stunt was concocted five years ago, when Spinners vice president of corporate communications Jon Goode pitched the idea to Smith's agent, Gordon Mackay.
"I give Gordon and David a lot of credit because they treated the idea as ours and never pitched it to anyone else," Goode said. "[Mackay] had to come out to the ballpark to make sure this could work. There's a 30-foot drop beyond our left-field fence, and past right field is a bridge and the street, but we were able to find a spot for him to land in right-center."
The Spinners play in the short-season New York Penn League, where Opening Day is still four months away. But last week's "Human Home Run" announcement has ramped up anticipation for the impending campaign.
"We have people asking for tickets already, and even if we do sell out we never want to stop being aggressive with our promotions," Goode said. "That's the challenge of working in Minor League Baseball -- every time you come up with a great promotion you immediately have to start thinking of a way to top it."
YOU make the call
The Bowling Green Hot Rods' "Facebook Fans Night" won't take place until May 18, but in a very real sense it's already well under way. As the team stated in the news release announcing the event, "The promotion allows the team's Facebook fans to customize the entire Hot Rods experience using social media."
Each week leading up to the event, the Hot Rods' Facebook fans (currently at the 7,400 mark) will be asked to vote on one aspect of the game experience. Nearly everything remains to-be-determined, from start time to player uniforms to food and beverage specials.
"We want to interact with the fans and learn from them, and this is something that really allows them to participate in the entire game-planning process," said Hot Rods vice president John Willi. "We already have a great Facebook following, so this seemed like the right way to go about it."
"We got 55 'likes' on the post announcing the promo and I don't think we've ever had that many before" added Hot Rods production manager Atlee McHeffey. "That shows that this is something that people can really get into and something they can tell their friends about."
Hot Rods fans have incentive to spread the word. For every 200 new Facebook fans the team attracts, 50 cents will be deducted from the $10 ticket price. The initiative already has dropped the price to $9 and the team will keep dropping it until the $2.50 mark is hit.
"It's great to drive up the numbers, but one of our main motivations here was simply to learn more about the market and what our fans care about," Willi said. "We're only in our third year here and I'm not sure if the communication has always been a two-way street. Facebook seemed like the best way for us to engage."
Still, there are limits to democracy.
"We have to be smart about this -- it's not like there are going to be 1,000 different game times to choose from," Willi added. "Like anything else, there have to be some safeguards in place."