How did the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes end up with 2017's best Minor League promotion? By embracing the darkness.
The Volcanoes' four-day EclipseFest, which culminated in a Monday morning ballgame with a built-in solar eclipse delay, trounced the competition in an online vote en route to winning the Promo of the Year MiLBY award. The Volcanoes, wearing eclipse-themed jerseys, took on the Hillsboro Hops in a 9:30 a.m. contest. Play was stopped after the top of the first inning, at which point players and fans donned special viewing glasses and stared at the sky. Darkness overtook the field at approximately 10:15 as the moon eclipsed the sun.
"Fans began lining up to enter the stadium at 3:30 a.m., 1 1/2 hours prior to its scheduled opening and six hours prior to the first pitch," Volcanoes president Jerry Walker said of his team's Aug. 21 extravaganza. "ESPN, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and Inside Edition all reported live on the event. Six NASA scientists played an interactive role, providing presentations on the field every 30 minutes leading up to the game. (In total,) 5,297 fans from 34 states, the District of Columbia, three Canadian provinces, 11 countries and six continents were in attendance. Volcanoes Stadium has never before seen an event of this magnitude and it is hard to fathom it ever will again."
EclipseFest came about as a result of a little luck and a lot of planning. The total solar eclipse was best viewed from within the "path of totality," an approximately 67-mile-wide strip of near-total darkness. Volcanoes Stadium was in the path of totality, making it an ideal viewing location. Walker was well aware of this fact, having been tipped off by his brother, an astronomy professor, in 2014. He put in a request with the Northwest League to be home on this date, and the request was granted.
"It just seemed too obvious, that we had to do something," said Walker. "The plan was launched."
Meanwhile, NASA scientist Noah Petro was doing his own research into events that could potentially combine the eclipse and baseball.
"We [at NASA] like to find ways to talk about the moon and publicize it in different ways," said Petro during a phone call before the promotion took place. "I'm a huge baseball fan, so I thought, 'Let me look at the path of totality and see where I want to go.' … I went to each team [in the path of totality's] website and emailed them out of the blue. Having a NASA email address helped get their attention."
"[NASA's] involvement added credibility to [EclipseFest]. They provided a great deal of enthusiasm too," said Walker. "They were on site, six of them, providing interactive displays, presentations, speeches, interviews with the media and more."
The Volcanoes first announced EclipseFest, a four-day event that also included a beer festival, in August 2016. This got the ball rolling, as the other six Minor League teams in the path of totality all came on board with their own eclipse promotions. But the Volcanoes were first in all aspects, as the solar eclipse began in the team's Pacific Northwest environs and then made an approximately 94-minute, 1,500-mph southeasterly journey across the United States.
"I was really impressed with the crowd reaction to the eclipse and that so many people would come out to an early morning game. Sharing in that event with my family and a few thousand strangers was a really impressive experience," said Petro. "I've talked to people who watched the eclipse in relative isolation and missed out on that large group reaction which we had in Salem-Keizer. Seeing how engaged and excited the teams were was very satisfying too, in that an event of that magnitude was important to the players."
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NASA's involvement in EclipseFest, as well as similar Aug. 21 promotions in other "path of totality" ballpark locations, could herald the beginning of a fruitful new partnership.
"Based on what I saw in Salem-Keizer, Columbia, Charleston and Idaho Falls, the response to having NASA scientists engage with Minor League Baseball fans was tremendous," said Petro. "Seeing that so many teams hold STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] Nights, suggests to me that there may be a very natural relationship NASA can play in working with teams to get exciting material into ballparks, no eclipse necessary!"
Another solar eclipse will be passing through the United States on April 8, 2024, bringing the opportunity for more ballpark promotions. But for Salem-Keizer, this was, quite literally, a once-in-a-lifetime event. On Sept. 21, one month after the solar eclipse, the team buried an eclipse-themed time capsule on the stadium's main concourse. It will be opened on June 25, 2069, and then reburied until June 25, 2169 -- the date of the next solar eclipse to pass over Volcanoes Stadium.
In the meantime, the Volcanoes are content to bask in their well-earned Promo of the Year MiLBY Award. Walker said his team's win was a "total validation of how good it was."
"Doing something that had never been done before and exceeding all expectations, including post-event recognition, is incredible and will be a defining moment of this franchise for many, many years to come."