The 2020 Innovators Summit is a virtual event, but the Golden Bobbleheads are real.
The Minor League Baseball Innovators Summit, known as the Promo Seminar prior to its rebranding in 2019, is an annual industry-wide idea-sharing event. Like nearly everything related to the difficult year that is 2020, it will take place in a different form this time around. Rather than congregating in a host Minor League city, attendees will participate at home via their computers. This year's summit takes place Tuesday and Wednesday, featuring "main stage" presentations, smaller-group "Open Sessions" related to various facets of the industry and even a "Virtual Trade Show."
A distinct highlight of the event, of this and any year, is the handing out of Golden Bobblehead Awards. These democratically selected flaxen statues are traditionally awarded in six categories, but 2020's slate features three: Best Non-Gameday Event, Best Community Promotion or Event and Best Digital Campaign or Activation. Presiding over them all, in both size and stature, will be the Golden Bobblehead for Best Overall Promotion, chosen from among all the nominees.
As in other, decidedly more normal, seasons, Minor League Baseball named a Promotion of the Month every month from April through August/September. Promotion of the Month winners automatically become Golden Bobblehead Award finalists.
Mark Labban, Minor League Baseball's assistant director of special events and affiliate programming, helps oversee the Promotion of the Month and Golden Bobblehead Award selection process.
“Unlike in past years, where finalists presented to the live audience, who then voted right then and there, we had to make adjustments for this year," said Labban. "Our finalists all created video presentations that were put online for all attendees to review. We were able to work with our partner FanCompass to create an online voting platform for each Minor League team to vote for their favorites on. Every Minor League team was entitled to one vote per category."
Despite the complete lack of actual Minor League games, there was still plenty to choose from.
“Our teams did a great job channeling their energies into new, innovative ways to engage with their communities and create revenue for their organizations," Labban added. "The fact that we did not have any games this season meant we had to eliminate three of our six categories this year -- Theme Night, In-Game Promotion and Specialty Jersey -- yet we still received nearly as many total submissions for the 2020 Golden Bobblehead Awards as we did for the 2019 version.”
The Golden Bobblehead Award winners will be announced Wednesday afternoon, with MiLB.com's Ben Hill (the person writing this article) serving as emcee. To get a sense of what promotions are in the running, the remainder of this article will be dedicated to an overview of each Promotion of the Month winner. Good luck to these teams -- and every team -- that was nominated, as all of them found creative ways to adapt and thrive in this most difficult of Minor League Baseball "seasons." (Click here for a full list of Golden Bobblehead nominations.)
April: Eugene Emeralds -- Eugene United/COVID-19 Relief Efforts (Nominated in the Best Community Promotion or Event Category)
This initiative began with just one person, when Megan Dompe (wife of Class A Short Season Emeralds assistant general manager Matt Dompe) began sewing COVID-19 masks for those in need. Eugene's director of community relations Anne Culhane then got involved in distributing them, and before long, the entire front office was taking part in what came to be called The Mask Project of Lane County. By the end of April, the Emeralds and over 100 volunteers had sent out 4,000 mask kits while delivering over 2,100 completed masks to local hospitals. The work continued from there, going on to encompass food drives, blood drives and thank-you letter-writing campaigns.
The Final Word: "Our community has always stepped up when we get involved, whether it's something at the ballpark or something we support, so I had no doubt in my mind that our fans would step up. Just being at some of these events and hearing people thank us for being that intermediate is something that makes you realize how important it is in times like this for everyone to stand together and help." -- Culhane
May: Pensacola Blue Wahoos -- Blue Wahoos Stadium Airbnb (Nominated in the Best Non-Gameday Event Category)
In March, when the Minor League season was postponed but not yet canceled, the Double-A Blue Wahoos announced their entire stadium was available for rent on Airbnb. News of this unprecedented initiative soon went viral, and within 48 hours, all available nights had sold out. In the months since, fans from 16 states have taken the Blue Wahoos up on this offer. Their reviews include sentiments such as the following:
“My wife and I drove 17 hours each way just so we could stay the night in a ballpark. The weekend was amazing and worth the 34 hours of driving! As baseball fans, who wouldn’t want the once in a lifetime chance to stay overnight in a real MiLB ballpark!?"
"We took batting practice on the field until lights out and got up in the morning for more! We had pizza behind the pitchers mound while the boys used the stadium for hide and seek and a game of flag football. I would give the overall experience more stars if I could."
The Final Word: "The Golden Bobblehead Awards are all about showcasing the creativity and innovative spirit of Minor League teams, and the Blue Wahoos Stadium Airbnb was truly a first of its kind—no sports stadium had ever previously been put up for rent on Airbnb! In a year without Minor League ball, the Airbnb helped bring global attention to Minor League Baseball, being covered in over 350 outlets in the United States and receiving coverage in foreign countries across four continents while providing fans from across America a ballpark experience they will never forget." -- Blue Wahoos president Jonathan Griffith.
June: Greenville Drive -- Underground Kitchen Community First Project (Nominated in the Best Promotion or Community Event Category)
In the absence of baseball, the Class A Greenville front-office staff doubled down on its efforts to assist in the community. Per Drive general manager Eric Jarinko, it became imperative to "wrap our arms around those who are struggling and help in any way we can." In this particular instance, Greenville forged a unique relationship with a pair of philanthropic organizations: FoodShare South Carolina and Underground Kitchen. The former distributes fresh produce to those in need, while the latter gives underrepresented chefs the opportunity to showcase their culinary skills while also providing meals to the community. The Underground Kitchen Community First Project, based at the Drive's home of Fluor Field, took place over three days in June. Nearly 1,000 meals were provided.
"The Underground Kitchen had been looking to expand the scope of its program and FoodShare South Carolina has been expanding their efforts across the state, so teaming up with the Drive was a perfect way to help a large number of people. Our entire staff was on board and their efforts led the way," said Jarinko. "[Drive executive chef] Wilbert Sauceda took the lead in the kitchen, and the rest of our staff utilized other parts of the ballpark, like our season ticket holder lounge, to package the meals and prepare for a drive-thru distribution point in the Fluor Field parking lot. The fact that we were able to host the pickup event on such a somber anniversary day in our state’s history [the fifth anniversary of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting] was very uplifting to a lot of people."
The Final Word: "When all of the food had been distributed and the day was done, we all left saying this is an event we need to do every year and hopefully multiple times a year.” -- Jarinko.
July: Richmond Flying Squirrels -- Richmond Together Under the Lights (Nominated in the Best Non-Gameday Event category)
The biggest day on every Minor League team's calendar is the Fourth of July, as the ballpark is packed with fans desirous of a thrilling pyrotechnic display. This year, Double-A Richmond ensured the fireworks show would go on. The San Francisco affiliate partnered its local CBS affiliate to produce a live primetime special, "Richmond Together Under the Lights," which culminated in a massive fireworks show staged just outside of their home of The Diamond. This televised event, co-hosted by CBS 6 anchor Greg McQuade and Flying Squirrels vice president Todd "Parney" Parnell, also featured a variety of musical performances as well as messages of support and togetherness from local and national celebrities alike.
“We were just like every other Minor League Baseball team, trying to find ways to entertain fans without baseball and hopefully put smiles on people's faces and provide a little Fourth of July joy,” said Parnell.
The Final Word: Sometimes a tweet says it all.
August/September: Salem Red Sox -- Seniors: The Last Inning (nominated in the Best Non-Gameday Event category)
COVID-19 caused the cancellations of baseball seasons across the country, professional, collegiate and amateur alike. Salem, while not able to its own games, was able to give area high-school senior players a fitting send-off.
"'The Last Inning' included the best parts of Minor League Baseball: community, camaraderie, competition – this was baseball at its purest," said Class A Advanced Red Sox general manager Allen Lawrence. "Sixty-three students from 21 area high schools came together to form four teams and play two games. Teams were comprised of players who’ve played together since Little League, middle infields who had one practice together, high-school rivals, players who will play in college and players stepping foot on a baseball field for their last competitive game. These games gave the players, family and friends one final opportunity to watch them represent their high schools. Every player and their family was recognized in an on-field ceremony, leading to eruptions of excitement and resulting in an overall sense and feeling of 'good' throughout the ballpark. And the community showed up as well. The stands were packed (to the maximum attendance allowed by our state guidelines) with baseball fans looking to support the young men on the field."
The Final Word: "Why should the Salem Red Sox 'The Last Inning' Senior Game win a Golden Bobblehead Award? Well, it’s simple, really: As the legendary rap group the Wu-Tang Clan would say, 'It’s for the children.' Make no mistake: This event gave high-school players one last opportunity to play, but we quickly learned how much everyone else needed an event like this." -- Lawrence
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.