A Season of Transition
For those familiar with Minor League Baseball’s offseason news cycle, the month of November holds special meaning in that it is prime time for teams to announce their re-branding efforts for the next season and beyond. Recent news on that front has included the unveiling of the Hillsboro Hops name and logo, the Lexington Legends’ heavily-mustachioed new look and Erie’s enhanced commitment to marauding wolves.
But this week is gonna be a doozy, with three re-branding efforts of escalating intrigue being unveiled over the course of the next five days. The Hudson Valley Renegades will debut their new logos on Wednesday afternoon, and later that evening the (relatively) nearby Scranton/Wilkes Barre Yankees will announce their new name. (This effort is in conjunction with the team playing in what will essentially be a “new” ballpark next season, as PNC Field is in the midst of a thorough renovation that forced the team to spend the entirety of 2012 on the road.)
The six finalists in the SWB Yanks’ re-branding are a largely unserious lot: Blast, Black Diamond Bears, Fireflies, Porcupines, RailRiders and Trolley Frogs. After being known as the Yankees (and, before that, the relatively conservative-sounding Red Barons), there is sure to be some backlash in the Scranton area from fans unhappy with their home team’s more flamboyant new direction. Such controversy is par for the course, really, and SWB president Rob Crain should be well-equipped to handle it given that he was an assistant general manager in Omaha when that team changed its name from the Royals to the Storm Chasers. (That change was not at all popular in the early-going, though fans have by and large come around to it).
But whatever the reaction is in Scranton, it will be a mere prelude to the third and most fascinating re-branding effort being unveiled this week. On Saturday, after 46 years of being known as the “Phillies,” Reading’s Eastern League club is announcing a new name and to say that the local reaction to this change has been negative would be an understatement. Just check out the comments on this web site press release, or the reaction to virtually any post on their Facebook page, or this online petition against the change, or, finally, this 2800-member strong “Save the Reading Phillies” Facebook page. To add gasoline to the flames, iconic PA announcer Dave “Frenchy” Bauman has publicly declared that he will resign from his position if the R-Phils change their name and, in response, the team has announced that PA announcer tryouts will be part of Saturday’s re-branding festivities. (For those interested, Bauman has commented frequently on the aforementioned “Save the Reading Phillies” Facebook page).
In general I am supportive of team re-branding efforts, even when they aren’t initially embraced by the community. Negative reactions to irreverent team names and identities are often motivated by the fear of the unknown and a general ignorance of how Minor League teams operate, and a common pattern has been observable in recent years in markets such as Lehigh Valley (IronPigs), Richmond (Flying Squirrels) and, of course, Omaha: Anger gives way to acceptance once the season begins and fans are able to witness first-hand how the new identity is incorporated into the overall entertainment experience. (Because, like it or not, Minor League teams are in the entertainment business first and foremost. Affiliation agreements can be short-lived, and the product on the field is 100% dictated by the parent club. Therefore, it makes sense for Minor League teams to focus on what they can control: their identity and the multi-faceted entertainment options that complement the game itself).
But Reading is unique case in that the franchise already seemed to be enjoying a best-of-both-worlds scenario. The city has been nicknamed Baseballtown, after all, and the fan base has a justifiable sense of pride in both their classic ballpark and a long-running Phillies connection (alumni include icons such as Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski to more recent luminaries such as Ryan Howard). The “Phillies” name has a powerful resonance in Reading, perhaps more powerful than that of any other Minor League team that still retains the moniker of its parent club.
But, meanwhile, Reading’s deeply-embedded front office (led by GM Scott Hunsicker) has worked hard to create a thoroughly unique Minor League atmosphere at the ballpark, and the fan base has embraced this side of the game experience as well. Vegetable racing, the mascot band and dancing super-fan “Disco Briscoe” are all part of the FirstEnergy Stadium atmosphere, which, of course, also includes the ostrich-riding Crazy Hot Dog Vendor. (I have been fortunate enough to visit dozens of Minor League stadiums over the past several years, and never have I seen a ballpark character with the level of popularity enjoyed by the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor — read all about it HERE).
Given that the R-Phils already do an excellent job walking this distinctly Minor League tightrope, the imminent re-branding represents a huge risk and brings to mind the old “If it ain’t broke…” cliche. For even if fans eventually embrace the new name, the public relations fallout from this decision will reverberate for a long time to come. Quite frankly, the strongest partisans on either side aren’t looking particularly good right now: the R-Phils front office is rather cavalierly flying in the face of deeply-ingrained fan sentiment within an admirably supportive market, while the most vocal contingent of fans against the change are engaging in online histrionics that are rather out of proportion to what is actually taking place. (Passion for the hometown team is a wonderful thing, but it’s not like the team is relocating. They will remain a Phillies affiliate, regardless). And say what you will about Hunsicker and company, but they’re not a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies to the Reading baseball scene. Shouldn’t their success in running the club thus far be taken into consideration? Shouldn’t the tone of this discussion be a bit more diplomatic?
There’s a lot more to explore when it comes to this story, and I’ll do my best to follow up with different viewpoints throughout the offseason. In the meantime, I’d like to know your opinion: Brilliant? Suicidal? Both? Let me know.