Funky Feet Night? Diamond Dig? Minor league baseball teams thrive on promotions

Joe Perez

The minor league baseball experience goes well beyond hits and runs. In fact, it could be argued that the game is the least significant element.

Sure, the bargain-basement prices for tickets are a plus. But sometimes convincing fans that their money goes further requires a little bit of incentive.

That’s where promotions come into play.

They serve a multitude of functions. Maybe they’re a bonus or a gamble, practical or a novelty. Some are just so bizarre and unrelated to baseball that there’s no good way to explain their existence.

The Defenders,  the Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants in Norwich, Conn., tend to fall within the norm of minor league teams when it comes to promotions. General Manager Charlie Dowd is old school; he’s not a believer of gimmicks for the sale of media attention. Instead of lampooning former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the Defenders keep their attention on things fans like — and want.

“I like the Diamond Dig; I think it’s hilarious,” Dowd said. “You see these well-dressed ladies come out to the infield and just start digging like fiends to win a $2,000 or $3,000 piece of jewelry.”

Much of what fans see going on at minor league ballparks around the country today can be attributed to Bill Veeck.

The former owner of the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns frequently used publicity stunts, such as Disco Demolition Night, to draw interest in his teams.

It was a quality Veeck’s son, Mike, carried on with the various minor league teams in which he holds a stake.

It’s that outside-the-box — cardboard, that is, since Veeck paid tribute to the storage container two years ago in Charleston, S.C. — thinking that has inspired other teams. Nothing leaves fans more interested than the zany, off-the-wall promotions.

Returning from last season for the Defenders will be the Big Y Apple giveaway promotion, where every inning a fan will win an Apple product, such as an iPod. And should the Defenders lose a Saturday home game, all fans will receive a free ticket to a future game.

A favorite that was a big hit with fans was when the team donned alternate jerseys. Dowd said there are five scheduled uniform changes this season with some being auctioned away: Mother’s Day, Juneteenth, Military, a Puerto Rico-inspired jersey to honor Roberto Clemente and an Autism Awareness jersey.

There still will be the Sam Adams pint glasses, which will be joined by a Budweiser NASCAR glass on Saturdays. And there also are the unusual promotions, such as July 14, when the team celebrates Bastille Day with a french-fry special.

Sometimes, teams strike a chord with the collectible-drive fan base.

A big favorite is the bobblehead doll, which has found new life over the past decade after having been seen as no more than a relic of the past.

Anyone can create a theme around a current event, but what about bad breath? That’s what the Bowie Baysox did last season, when fans were encouraged to experiment with different items to see who had the worst breath. Not to be outdone, the class-AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles in Bowie, Md., is hosting “Funky Feet Night.”

“We’re going to focus on everything about feet, including yellow toe nails and their smell, and all kinds of different foot problems like warts and bunions and gross things like that,” Baysox Promotions Manager Lauren Phillips said.

The method of creating a good promotion isn’t a cut-and-dry process, Phillips said. Sometimes an initial idea is fine-tuned enough to stand on its own; sometimes ideas need refinement.

Ultimately, it comes down to getting fans into the stands.

“The primary focus is, what besides a baseball game will you get people to come buy a ticket?” Dowd asked. “How do we enhance the experience?”

Sometimes, as the folks in Bowie learned, even when the promotion stinks, it can be a winner.

Reach Norwich Bulletin writer Joe Perez at 425-4257 or