Minor League Baseball fans have become accustomed to being handed all manner of promotional items as they walk though the turnstiles.
Schedule magnets are commonplace. T-shirts and hats are run-of-the-mill. Bobbleheads, compulsively collectable as they are, have become blasé. Until Tuesday, however, no one had ever been presented with a custom-made spork.
Welcome to Awful Night, which for the past five seasons has been one of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective) of the Altoona Curve's promotional schedule. "Awful Night" functions as a means in which the team's staff can deconstruct and subvert what typically takes place each night at Minor League ballparks across the country. It is not for the faint of heart.
As the author of MiLB.com's weekly "Promotion Preview" column, I felt that it was my duty to attend this annual travesty. So off to Altoona's Blair County Ballpark I went, in search of the awful truth. What follows is a blow-by-blow account.
Pregame -- After an exhausting and unnecessarily long car ride from New York City, I arrive at Altoona's Blair County Ballpark about an hour before the game's 7:05 p.m. start time. As I walk toward the stadium, there are no outward indications that anything awful will be happening this evening.
Everything appears normal, until I notice that the woman at the ticket window is wearing a billowing black shirt, decorated with garish, glowing sequins. I contemplate giving her a compliment on her "Awful Night" outfit, but refrain. After all, what if that's just what she chose to wear to work that day? I didn't want to start my evening in Altoona by making a social faux pas, one that would be akin to asking a woman who isn't pregnant when the baby is due.
It turns out that, as usual, I am being too sensitive. The woman at the ticket counter, like all of the Curve's front office employees, is dressed in a special "Awful Night" outfit. This becomes clear to me as soon I enter the stadium, at which point I am handed a spork by a man wearing a bald cap and an oversized basketball jersey.
Yes, a spork -- as in a combination spoon and fork. And this isn't some garden-variety fast-food spork, either. It's a plastic spoon duct-taped atop a plastic fork, with "Curve" written across the handle with a thick black marker. Clearly, these sporks are a labor of love.
With my new spork tucked safely in my breast pocket, I make my way to my seat. "Awful Karaoke" is in full effect, as Curve employees "entertain" the crowd with ear-splitting, tone-deaf renditions of songs such as Paul Simon's "You Can Call me Al" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Nice.
Starting Lineups -- The visiting Phillies are announced first. On a normal night, the video scoreboard would display a current head shot of each player as his name is called. On this special evening, however, baby photos are displayed on the videoboard, giving fans the impression that this Reading ballclub is nothing more than a motley collection of infants.
And those infants are going to take on...animals? Apparently so, as each player in the Curve's starting line-up has been transformed into an exotic creature. For example, leadoff man Jason Bowers is "Jason Boa." He is followed by "Vic Buffalo" and "Neil Walrus." And on and on it goes. These wild animals are going to devour those Reading babies (provided that they don't devour each other first).
After the lineups are announced, "Captain Awful" (also known as former Curve and current State College Spikes groundskeeper Matt Neri) runs onto the field to deliver an awful first pitch. Wearing a black mask and cape, and with his chest hair shaved into a letter "A," Captain Awful fires a pitch into the screen behind home plate and quickly runs back into the stands.
It's now time for the game to begin, which, according to the scoreboard, is going to be a contest between the "Fillies" and the "Kerve."
First Inning -- The P.A. announcer deliberately mispronounces "Reading" throughout the Phillies' at-bat, and players are introduced in head-scratching fashion. Joey Hammond, who recently collected his 1000th Minor League hit, has experienced a lot in his professional career. But he's probably never walked to the plate as the announcer says "Joey! Hello, Joey!" But at least Hammond was greeted by his first name. When catcher Jason Hill comes to bat, the announcer merely says "Here he is, uh, number 33."
Oh, and did I mention that batting averages are not a part of Awful Night? Instead, "failure averages" are posted on the scoreboard. Hill's is a solid .690.
In the bottom of the first inning, a young "valley girl" takes over P.A. duties. Her player introductions are along the lines of "It's totally Jason Bowers" and "Vic Butler? For sure!" Meanwhile, the video board keeps the crowd riveted with little nuggets of info such as "Walker spelled backwards is Reklaw."
In the break leading up to the second inning, "The Curve Stock Down Report" (usually the "Stock Up Report," natch) skewers the plummeting careers of NFL quarterback Michael Vick and disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy. This is followed by a rousing "Dirty T-Shirt Launch," in which stained shirts are thrown into the crowd by Steamer and Diesel Dawg, the Curve's mascots.
Second Inning -- When Reading's Peeter Ramos comes to the plate, the video board says "Peeter spells his name with three 'e's. How silly." A few minutes later, a fan sitting behind me spouts off the line of the night. "I hate this Awful Night promotion," he remarks. "Because the thing is, the Pirates have been doing it all season." Zing! (The Curve, by the way, are Pittsburgh's Double-A affiliate).
Usually after the second inning, a fan is asked to predict what the speed of the third pitch of the next inning will be. Tonight, however, a young girl is asked what the speed of the third pitch of the previous half-inning had been. "82," she replies with confidence. Correct.
Third Inning -- The Curve Injury Report during the mid-inning break exclusively focuses on the front office. For instance, we learn that Assistant General Manager Jeff Garner is currently dealing with a "perfectly fine groin injury." I don't know what that means and never want to. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
After the third inning ends, a "Cold Spam Eating Contest" is held in place of the usual wing-eating contest. Three adolescent boys gamely try their best to scarf down as much of the gelatinous meat byproduct as they can. The winner, identified as "Craig," eats about a half a can in the span of a minute. Congratulations, Craig.
Fourth Inning -- The PA announcer recites the names of those who are celebrating their birthday at the ballpark. This is standard procedure for any sporting event, except that the final name announced is "former president Andrew Johnson." Further research revealed that July 31 was not Johnson's birthday. It was the day he died. Johnson's ghost will now haunt the dreams of all who had a hand in perpetuating this bit of misinformation.
Fifth Inning -- The Curve's front office staff have always been adamant that "Awful Night" stays "outside the white lines," meaning that the promotion should have no bearing whatsoever on what takes place on the field. Apparently Curve first baseman Jason Delaney didn't get the memo. During the span of four batters, Delaney -- who usually plays the outfield -- lets a pop-up drop in for a hit, makes a missed-catch error and slams into catcher Brian Peterson while attempting to snag a foul pop. Altoona escapes the inning unscathed.
Upon the conclusion of the inning, solitary fans are highlighted on the "Alone Cam" (a twist on the standard "Kiss Cam," which features smooching couples). None of these individuals seem to mind being singled out for ridicule, serving as a powerful repudiation of the notion that one needs to be in a relationship in order to be happy.
Seventh Inning -- Yes, the sixth inning went by without incident. In fact, a bit of "awful fatigue" seems to have set in among the crowd. Fortunately, a shot in the arm comes in the form of the inimitable Captain Awful, who leads the crowd in an off-kilter, falsetto, ad-libbed version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." It is truly awful, and a sense of discomfort is palpable in the stadium upon the conclusion of this musical travesty. The Curve staff tries to get the fans back on their side by showing the "Fan Cam," in which fans of all kinds are displayed on the video board. You know, like ceiling fans, oscillating fans, portable fans and the like. It's a joke that never gets old.
Eighth Inning -- The Phillies tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the inning, and the crowd needs something to cheer them up. Cue the "Tighty-Whitey" launch, in which fresh new pairs of underwear are sent flying into the crowd via slingshot. This is perhaps a step up from the Dirty T-Shirt launch.
After the Curve are retired, "A Guess the Number of Fingers Behind My Back" contest replaces the usual "Guess the Attendance Quiz." In perhaps the night's funniest moment, the chosen contestant fails to provide the correct answer. This is despite the fact that the answer was blatantly displayed on the video board, and many of the fans were screaming the correct answer (which, for posterity's sake, was five).
Ninth Inning -- Vic Buttler's RBI single with two outs in the ninth inning lifts the Curve to a 3-2 victory, a decidedly non-awful conclusion to the evening's contest. However, the Curve have some post-game entertainment planned -- A "Laaser Show," to be exact. The vast majority of the 4,007 fans in attendance remain in their seats, eager to witness a Minor League first. Most of them will soon regret this decision.
The lights go dim, and the dramatic strains of "The Final Countdown" fill the stadium. With the tension mounting, front-office employee Jon Laaser appears on the field. Glow sticks are attached to his body. Laaser then entrances the crowd with his slinky, seductive dance moves, until the music is mercifully cut off, and the lights go back on. Awful Night V has finally concluded.
Stick a spork in it. It's done.