Originally created 08/17/99

Promotions sacred to local team



t's the middle of the fourth inning and Scott Skadan anxiously waits for his cue.

OK, he admits, he's no Johnny Carson. But when The Tonight Show theme is piped through the Lake Olmstead Stadium sound system, he knows it's time to put on his game face.

It's showtime.

"Time to go back down to the field for another exciting contest," says stadium PA announcer Torye Hurst who, moments earlier, in a span of 20 seconds, gave away 5 pounds of barbecued pork, plugged several upcoming ballpark promotions and announced the name of the new pitcher.

Skadan grabs his trusty wireless microphone and makes his grand entrance, hitting his mark in front of the first base dugout.

"Well fans, it's time for our Dizzy Bat Races," says Skadan, the Augusta GreenJackets' assistant general manager/promotions director and self-proclaimed `Grand Master of Fun.'

"Our contestants will spin around the bats 10 times, and the first to cross the finish line wins."

Behind home plate, two lucky fans selected as this night's winners in the "Best Seat in the House" contest, lean back in their cushioned, high-back chairs while chomping on free fried chicken.

Down on the field, one of the equilibrium-deficient bat race contestants falls flat on his face, much to the delight of the crowd.

Around the stadium concourse, folks wearing red paper bracelets line up 10 deep at the concession stands waiting to buy cheap beer.

It is Thirsty Thursday.

Welcome to a day in the life of minor-league baseball. For the GreenJackets and more than 200 franchises across the United Staes and Canada, a night at the ballpark isn't simply about the game.

It's about giving fans more bang for their bucks.

"Every front office person in baseball will tell you that you certainly can't rely on having a winning team to fill the seats," says Skadan, who has worked in professional baseball for 17 years.

Though baseball purists may be turned off by the circus-like atmosphere at minor-league ballparks, team owners and executives know promotions are the lifeblood of their operation.

"I'm one of those baseball purists, but I know we couldn't make it without the promotions we offer to fans," GreenJackets general manager Chris Scheuer says.

Minor-league baseball promotions have been around forever, but things really started to get creative in the early 1990s.

Fans began flocking to minor-league ballparks in record numbers because it was not only an affordable alternative to the big leagues, but also good, clean, family fun.

Scheuer says the Jackets pride themselves on offering family-oriented entertainment. Promotions such as fireworks shows and Beanie Baby giveaways long have been a big hit in Augusta.

"If we put our logo on a bag of charcoal, people would come out and get it," Skadan says. "The fans just love giveaways."

Though most managers and players admit they could do without the distractions, they also understand it's a vital part of the game.

"It's never really bothered me," Jackets manager Billy Gardner says. "They do it because they have to."

Though the Jackets may be conservative, the minors have become synonymous with outlandish promotions. No team has pushed the envelope more than the South Atlantic League's Charleston RiverDogs.

The mastermind behind the zaniness in Charleston is owner and "Director of Fun" Mike Veeck. He learned from the master. His father, former Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, once sent a midget to bat in the majors and incited a near riot at Comiskey Park with the now-infamous Disco Demolition night in 1979.

Veeck's promotional brainstorms have included Vasectomy Night, Bill Murray Mask Night (the actor/comedian is a part owner of the team and a close friend of Veeck's) and Great Inventor's Night to honor devices like the Chia Pet and the Veg-O-Matic.

"I learned from my father that if you can't live your life and have fun, what's the point?" Veeck said last year.

These days, more and more teams are taking a Veeckian approach. From South Park and Austin Powers nights at Ogden (Utah) Raptors games, to Halloween in July at a Burlington (Iowa) Cubs game, fans are certainly getting their money's worth.

And when something works, clubs don't seem to mind sharing their ideas. Seminars and workshops dedicated to promotions is one of the highlights of minor-league baseball's annual winter meetings.

Sponsorship of promotions also generate significant revenues for minor-league clubs. The Jackets offer potential corporate sponsors a variety of promotional packages, ranging in price from $3,500 to $10,000-plus.

"The way I approach my job is that it may be somebody's first night to come to a ballgame, so let's entertain them," Skadan says. "You can't count on the action on the field always being exciting, so let's give the fans their money's worth."

Rob Mueller covers minor league baseball for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3425 or robm99@hotmail.com.