Originally created 02/21/99

Devil Rays pushing wacky promos



ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Attorneys will be charged double -- and billed by the third of an inning -- on Lawyer Appreciation Night.

There will be Conversion Day, when fans are rewarded for getting rid of New York Yankees caps.

And yes, Disco Demolition Night returns, 20 years after its infamous debut.

Mike Veeck, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, has scheduled special events or giveaways on 70 of 81 home dates for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in his new role as senior vice president of sales and marketing. The campaign is dubbed "Off the Wall."

"`Off the Wall' is a term we hope will endear the fans to get them to realize that it is about fun, that we are willing to take a chance," said Veeck, whose late father was one of baseball's most colorful owners for more than three decades.

"Somebody asked: `What about the tradition of the game?' The fact is the tradition of the game is all about the fans. The game doesn't belong to the players, and it doesn't belong to the owners."

Tampa Bay, starting its second season, will spend more than $2 million in the biggest promotional campaign in major league baseball. As far as the Devil Rays are concerned, the sillier the idea the better.

"The thrust of Lawyer Night is we're going to have a special gate. You have Sexgate, Travelgate, Watergate. We're going to have Lawyergate," Veeck said, adding that every attorney will be charged double.

The team is counting on lawyers to admit their profession in the name of fun and charity. All proceeds go to Legal Aid.

"The umpires obviously should come out in flowing robes. ... We'll have kangaroo court down the first base side, and down the third base side we'll have the hanging judge," Veeck said.

Bill Veeck, who owned the Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Browns and Cleveland Indians at different times, was known as the P.T. Barnum of baseball and angered some in the game with zany promotions. In 1951, he had 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel bat for the Browns wearing the number one-eighth. Gaedel walked on four pitches.

Mike Veeck carried on the tradition with several minor league teams, including the highly successful St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. His promotions included having a pig deliver baseballs to umpires and having a nun give massages.

In 1997, his Charleston RiverDogs planned giving away a free vasectomy in honor of Father's Day, then canceled the promotion after complaints.

While the majority of the Devil Rays' promotions are traditional, there are some, such as Christmas in May, that are planned for no particular reason -- except fun.

A Labor Day special will include free admission for pregnant women; Twins Night will honor sets of twins; and Turn Back The Clock Day will feature the visiting New York Mets in their vintage uniforms while the Devil Rays pay homage to the Tampa Tarpons, a former minor-league team.

Plans are sketchy for Disco Demolition 20 Years Later Night, although there will definitely be a band to get fans to shake-shake-shake their booties.

Mike Veeck was the mastermind behind the anti-disco party at Comiskey Park in 1979, which ended with a White Sox forfeit after fans refused to leave the field.

For Tampa Bay's home opener, about 2,500 people are expected to take part in the ceremonial first pitch. They'll pass the ball through downtown St. Petersburg until it winds up with Hall of Famer Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League when Bill Veeck signed him to play for the Cleveland Indians.

A Beanie Babies giveaway is scheduled the following night, and Henry Aaron will be honored before the third game, three days before the 25th anniversary of homer No. 715.

"Our opening weekend is the best I've ever seen," Veeck said.

Owner Vince Naimoli is excited about drawing three large crowds so early in the season.

The Devil Rays sold out the opener a year ago, then went 12 home games without a crowd of more than 36,599. After attracting 45,369 for the first game, attendance was announced as 30,109 and 28,261 the following two days.

The team is counting on the lure of Beanie Babies to keep the turnstiles clicking.

"Traditionally in baseball, the second night's always a downer. So we thought: `Why not have the second night be as big as the first night,"' Naimoli said.

"When you attract that many people early in the season, they say: `You know, this is kind of fun. I'm going to go back and do it again.' It comes off as fun, but there's a lot of thought to it."

Veeck has no fear of failure. After the original Disco Demolition Night, he can't imagine any promotion turning out worse -- unless it involves a bunch of empty seats.

"That ultimately will tell us how successful we are," he said. "If nobody shows up to enjoy the fun, all those empty seats just voted."