P-Nats leave half-man, half-beast legacy

How bizarre bobbleheads became a Pfitzner Stadium tradition

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | September 2, 2019 10:30 AM

The Potomac Nationals, based in Woodbridge, Virginia, are relocating some 30 miles down the road to Fredericksburg next season. During their 36 seasons at Pfitzner Stadium, the Class A Advanced club had six different affiliates, won four Carolina League titles and -- most importantly for the purposes of this article -- gave away a dizzying array of truly bizarre bobbleheads and figurines. 

Most, but not all, of the P-Nats' bobble oddities featured Washington Nationals stars who had played in Potomac. Some riffed on pop culture, such as Carter Kieboom Ghostbusters (2019) and Frank Costanza Festivus (2016). Some, like Danny Espinosa Fu Manchu (2016) and Jayson Werth Bobble-Beard (2014), included "real hair." The provenance of this real hair was always a bit of a mystery.

And then there were giveaway items that were essentially unable to be categorized. 2017's "Salute to Tommy John Surgery," for example, depicted an elbow with a removable ulnar collateral ligament. In a bit of peak Minor League Baseball incongruity, this ode to career-saving surgery coincided with the team's "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" theme night. The Grinch himself assisted in distributing the Tommy John statue to fans as they walked through the gates of Pfitzner Stadium.    


A salute not to Tommy John, but to his surgery.

But if there was a common strand running through this seasons-long cascade of giveaway item eccentricity, it was half-man, half-beast bobbleheads and statues. Over the past six seasons, the P-Nats turned Roger Bernadina into a shark, Wilson Ramos into a buffalo, Werth into a wolf, Anthony Rendon into an ant, Bryce Harper into a turkey, Trea Turner into the Road Runner and Adam Eaton into Mighty Mouse. 

Potomac general manager of sales Bryan Holland said his team's irreverent and unorthodox promotional approach was borne out of necessity, the result of operating out of an outdated ballpark in an out-of-the-way location. (Pfitzner Stadium is situated within a complex of Prince William County government buildings, miles away from the heavily trafficked thoroughfare that is I-95.) 

"We look at it as the David vs. Goliath theory," said Holland, using the lessons of the Old Testament to inform modern-day Minor League Baseball marketing strategies. "Goliath has a big marketing budget and a beautiful stadium, and with all due respect to the teams that are the haves, we're the have-nots. We're the grinders. We have to really think outside the box. When it pays off and there's a sellout crowd on a Saturday night, when it gets brought to fruition through the conduit of a good bobblehead, that's really special." 


Pfitzner Stadium hosted Carolina League baseball from 1984 through 2019.

Holland, a former broadcaster, joined the P-Nats in 2012 and was promoted to his current position in 2016. Over the past eight seasons, he played a large role in the team's turn toward the ridiculous. 

"There's some stuff that predates me. Even in the '90s there used to be the world's largest ice cream sundae here," he said. "It was this PVC piping that they'd lay out on the field on a Sunday, and kids would attack it.

"But what I think about are things like [2016's] 'Halfway to Festivus Night', a Seinfeld promotion. It was like 110 [degrees]. Felt like 120. And we still had a great crowd. The Frank Costanza Festivus pole bobblehead is up there on my [office] cabinet. We had an intern walk the line saying 'No bagel, no bagel, no bagel.' We had a Festivus pole, an airing of grievances. That's one example of one premium theme night, that even though it was super-hot, we were still able to garner a great crowd given the unique outside-the-box aspect of it."

A bobblehead giveaway anchored an absurdist theme night on "Halfway to Festivus Night." Another instance was 2014's "Beard-A-Palooza Weekend," featuring the beard Olympics, which included the aforementioned Werth bobble-beard.

"Beard Olympics started off as a joke. 'Let's do a beard tasting instead of a beer tasting,'" said Holland. "We blindfolded fans and had them sample honey mustard, peanut butter off of beards. I don't know what else. I mean, it was crazy. A lot of our promotions started off as a joke. Even if it's on the cutting room floor, like, 'Ooh I think we can make this work!'"

The P-Nats' "half-man, half animal" line of giveaways began in 2013 with the Roger Bernadina "Shark-A-rine." This came about because the former Potomac outfielder, then with Washington, was nicknamed "The Shark." 

"I have to credit Josh Olerud for that, my predecessor," said Holland. "Really cool idea. Bernadina is no Mickey Mantle, but Nats fans loved him. He really got a lot of hype. And that kind of spawned -- I guess pun intended -- the idea of doing an animal or some type of entity meets a player. Like the Trea Turner Road Runner. Trea was down in rehab [in Potomac] a couple years ago. ... He was all about it. We always send a box of bobbles to those guys.

"Pfitzgiving and the [Bryce Harper] Gobblehead. I mean, that was a joke here in the office. Literally. ... And then two years down the road, it's Bryce Harper Gobblehead night with a full turkey dinner down in the picnic area. I have nothing in common with you if you don't think that's cool. I can't meet you in the middle. That's as Minor League Baseball as it gets."

The Potomac Nationals soon will be no more, as the team is rebranding entirely in conjunction with the move to a new ballpark in Fredericksburg. The franchise will no longer be a "have-not" on the Minor League ballpark landscape, but nonetheless Holland says the same promotional philosophy will continue on at the new location.

"I demand that it does. It must. It's too special not to," he said. "From a strategy standpoint, business plan, business paradigm, you could say, 'Well, brand-new ballpark, great novelty, great location, state-of-the-art wraparound [concourse], mini-Major League Stadium. We don't need fireworks. We don't need bobbleheads. People just come because the ballpark's there.' But I know our ownership and the faith they have in our staff. We intend on continuing the tradition of doing unique promotions."

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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