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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, May 5, 2017

Jenkins column: Dignity is overrated, best ignored at minor league venues




I knew that someone, somewhere would say it as well or better than I, so before I began writing this week’s column I Googled “minor league baseball” and “dignity.”

Bingo.

A writer for Bleacher Report, nowadays a sprawling web site with tentacles reaching into every aspect of every spot, hit the mark. Her name, it seems, is Emma Koch. She is a religious studies student who happens to love baseball.  I know this is true because of one thing she wrote her article under the byline of, I swear, Ipraythelordmysoultokeep.

Wrote the young lady, “Minor league baseball is like regular baseball without the dignity.”

Carve that in stone and put it by the front gate of every minor league ballpark, immediately. With very few exceptions, minor league teams operate under the same, long-held rules governing play: three outs, three strikes, 90 feet between bases, nine innings (except for the occasional doubleheader). The difference is evident almost immediately, however, in that teams and their uniforms encompass every color of a jumbo Crayola box and their caps sport logos that defy description – beyond “strange,” that is.

In the name of marketing and the almighty buck, teams gradually became aware of the potential value of a hot, strange or controversial nickname. But as more teams adopted new and stranger nicknames than they’d ever sported before, the stakes were raised even as respectability and, yes, dignity sunk slowly through the floor, never to be seen again.

While Koch was weighing in on her random choice of the 10 funniest nicknames in baseball, her value judgement surely outweighs the trivia list that followed.  If she really wanted to appreciate some of these nicknames, for good or ill, she should invest some of her time researching the history of the old, archival nicknames, and how they gradually disappeared from the game.

The trail of shame begins in one of the worst backwater locations in minor league baseball – Columbus, Georgia. Once a member of the Class AA  Southern League (along with the Chattanooga Lookouts), the Astros farmhands played in a miserable, 60s-era dump of a field called Golden Park.

Named for a person, not a delusion, Golden Park was notable for two things: the drone-sized mosquitoes and impressively large catfish that inhabit the mud banks of the Chattahoochee River as it gurgled through to the Florida line, where it merged into the Apalachicola.

Mark Bryant, the new owner of the franchise in 1988, had a brainstorm that his team would receive a booster shot of publicity (and, hopefully, cash) by adopting a quirky nickname and, especially, logo. The franchise had been the Columbus Astros since 1970 and literally sported hand-me-down uniforms from the big league club – especially the hideously orange rainbow doubleknits long past their MLB expiration.

Bryant held a contest among the remaining season ticket holders and there were two finalists that quickly emerged: Mudcats and Scramble Dogs. The latter was a local delicacy that involved chopped, deep-fried hot dogs smothered with chili, cheese, onions and anything else your imagination could tolerate, and the whole thing was poured over open-faced hot dog buns. One can only imagine how the history of minor league baseball would be affected if Bryant and his staff had gone with Scramble Dogs.

But the new nickname and now-iconic logo hit the baseball world like a bomb, and in less than two years, a group offered to build Bryant’s team a brand new stadium outside of Raleigh and they left Columbus behind to become the Carolina Mudcats.

Watching the moribund franchise rebound was an interested spectator, Chattanooga Lookouts general manager Bill Lee. His franchise had just ended a long streak of futility by winning the Southern League pennant in 1988. But the club had only a boring, block “C” on the cap and solid set of pinstripe uniforms for an image.

Largely ignored in the marketing of the club was the source of the nickname itself, stately Lookout Mountain, which was like a comforting friend that was along for the ride.

But Lee, and his successor with the Lookouts, Bill Davidson, saw that the times they were a-changing. They contacted the same PR firm that had designed the Mudcat and commissioned a distinctive logo all their own. While the Lookouts nickname had been around since 1885, it took over 100 years before the club had a logo as distinctive as its nickname.

The “seeing eye” logo was unveiled for the 1989 season, and it was an immediate hit from coast to coast. In those final years before widespread internet use, it took a hurrah from Baseball America, the preeminent publication about minor league baseball, for word to spread quickly. The logo made club owners Richard Holtzman and, later, Frank Burke, a substantial amount of money that frequently spelled the difference between a profitable and a non-profitable season.

With nearly 20 years logged as being the distinctive logo of the Lookouts, the seeing eyes are still consistently ranked among the top 10 favorites in terms of popularity and originality. Meanwhile, every year, the “have-not” teams get a little more desperate to find that magic money-making logo.

Most fail, miserably, leaving only an embarrassing nickname and logo.

The ‘Best Dead’

Less clear to history is when minor league baseball crossed that bridge between clever and flat-out insane.

Perhaps it was 1992, when the Albany Polecats, team colors black and white, put a skunk on their cap. But they were gone in three years, terrible flooding making their park useless for weeks at a time.

Perhaps it was 2002, when the Pacific Coast League team in Calgary, reasonably nicknamed the Cannons, move to Albuquerque and took on the nickname Isotopes – made famous two years before in a Simpson baseball episode. Fifteen years on, the ’Topes are still alive and well.

It might have been the Everett AquaSox, had they been a more prominent team. Founded all the way back in 1995, the short-season team has, for lack of a better term, a blog for a mascot. But a low-level team in Washington state that is a farm club for the Mariners does not have a lot breakout powers.

My gut tells me that, ironically enough, the beginning of the end of dignity was when the first minor league club designated a game date as Zombie Night. It seems that it caught on like a virus during the 2014 season, and it’s every bit as twisted as it sounds.

Players wear jerseys stained with “blood” and “matter,” fans come in dressed appropriately and often take the cosplay to the extreme, acting out in zombie behavior between beers. And, yes, that extends to ignoring announcements or big plays. Often there will be a Best Dead contest.

But major league teams caught onto the trend almost immediately, with everything but the stained jerseys being part of the act. It fell into that category of a fantasy night, which means a big part of the fun is that it’s not real. Also falling under this category are Star Wars Night (coming up this weekend at AT&T Field with the Lookouts), Super Heroes Night. Harmless fun; the natural evolution of Turn Back the Clock Night, when people dressed from the Roaring 20s, or 70s. Zombies cosplay, you’ve got to admit, is pretty darn weird, but harmless.

Dutchess of Pork

Actually, I have a pretty strong gut feeling I know where Ground Zero lay for minor league baseball losing its last shred dignity.

It was sometime late in 2003, when after years of fighting the good fight against poor attendance, the Southern League allowed the Orlando Rays to move the franchise to a brand new stadium in Montgomery, Alabama. The city had a rich history in the Southern League with its previous franchise, the Montgomery Rebels, as they won five league championships in six years between 1972-77. But in 2004, the Rebels nickname was a non-starter, so as is often the case in this millennium, the new owners decided to let the fans vote to name their new team.

More than 4,000 entries poured in, but the team’s new owner opted for what they considered to be the cleverest option – and the Montgomery Biscuits popped out of the oven.

A buttermilk biscuit (named Monty, duh) has a prominent place on both the hat and jersey logo. With their team colors described as Butter and Blue, the Biscuits took a proactive approach to getting the community involved. Whenever possible, puns were shamelessly put forward as part of their marketing. The team’s arrival was describes as, “history in the baking.”

During a game, a compressed air gun fires biscuits into the crowd. But they just don’t give them away; in 10 years, owners estimate 300,000 have been sold at the park. And when a visiting player is at the plate, fans are encouraged to chant, “Hey, butter butter butter ...”

And any chance the Biscuits would be a trendy logo that quickly loses its popularity was blown up in 2006, when they earned their first Southern League championship – then promptly won their second in 2007. “Bake to bake” championships, indeed.

In 2014, the Biscuits took the next step in their recipe for success. They unveiled a live mascot, a pot-bellied pig named Miss Gravy, Duchess of Pork.

Good ol’ Lookouts

 So here we are in 2016, silently cursing the turn of events that have taken away historic baseball nicknames like the Mobile Bears, the Jacksonville Suns, the Memphis Chickasaws, even those so firmly attached to their parent clubs, like the Louisville Redbirds. In their place, we get to read stories about the Lansing Lugnuts, the El Paso Chihuahuas and the Hartford Yard Goats, for crying out loud.

Well, at least we’ve still got our Lookouts. So I turned to the sports page and read up on their game yesterday. While I enjoy my breakfast of a pair of sausage, bacon and cheese biscuits.