The Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ sixth season is over, and I went to the ballpark today to watch it go.
It was a stiflingly humid afternoon, and the IronPigs mustered only two hits against a revolving brigade of Pawtucket Red Sox pitchers.
They lost 4-0 and finished the year at 72-72 — a step down from their playoff appearance under Ryne Sandberg a year or two back, but a step up from their laughable early years under Dave Huppert.
Current manager Dave Brundage brings none of Sandberg’s celebrity to the job, but seems to fulfill the basic demands placed on him — to keep his team competitive (it was only eliminated from playoff contention a few days ago) while keeping his most attractive spare parts sharp enough for recall to Philly at a moment’s notice.
The low-key Brundage may be the definitive figurehead for this team at this point in time.
The IronPigs are no longer the new show in town, no longer driven by novelty or celebrity. They’re an everyday part of the community now, as entrenched as Martin Tower, as familiar as Wawa.
I couldn’t pretend to guess the number of households in the Lehigh Valley that have some sort of IronPigs tchotchke, T-shirt or photo from the team’s countless giveaways and events. If you have a kid and/or any interest in sports, the IronPigs have reached you somehow. They are a presence.
(Two floors up, my younger son is trying to get to sleep for tomorrow’s school day as I write this. FErrous, one of the team’s two pig mascots, is gazing across the room at him from his place on a plastic light-switch switchplate. FErrous, FeFe, Hambone and their ilk will be generational touchstones for 21st-century kids growing up in eastern Pennsylvania.)
The product on the field has also gone from novel to familiar. While some might argue with me, my sense is that the starpower of seeing baseball “one step beneath the big leagues” has faded since the team’s early days.
Seeing major-league stars on rehab assignments, while still cool, is no longer a can’t-miss event in the Lehigh Valley. They show up, sign a few autographs, hit a few doubles and go back up again. We’re used to it now.
As for the guys who play here every day, relatively few have been genuine prospects. The majority seem to be guys who snuck in a couple big-league games a few years ago and are still grinding it out because, hey, you never know when the bell might ring.
I imagine the IronPigs’ current community status is both a blessing and a curse for team officials.
It’s a blessing to have gained that kind of foothold, proven the value and appeal of the product, and ranked among the top minor-league teams in attendance year after year.
(When the team was first announced, anonymous trolls commenting on news stories repeatedly claimed the Lehigh Valley would never support minor league baseball; “IronPigs” was a dumb name; and the team was doomed to fail. It gives me personal pleasure to think of those people now. Presumably every report of a sellout crowd, and every sighting of someone wearing an IronPigs cap, brings some acid to their gizzards.)
It’s a curse because no entertainment-based business wants to reach a stable, bland, just-part-of-the-scenery status. That’s when people stop going.
The IronPigs appear to be fighting that with all the energy they can muster. The team promotes unrelentingly. Earlier this season, it made national news by giving away a funeral to the winner of an essay contest.
At the game, they’ve added new seating areas to their (still-young) ballpark for sponsorship opportunities, and looked for other new touches to keep appearances fresh from year to year.
A giant Martin guitar appeared in right field this year, because … well, not for any baseball-related reason, but because C.F. Martin and Co. is a Lehigh Valley company, and why not have something else eye-catching at the park?
I find that incessant promotion to be off-putting. From foul balls to stolen bases, there is no on-the-field event that can’t be farmed out to a sponsor.
I long for minor-league ball the way it used to be, when breaks in the action could actually be used to talk about the game at a reasonable conversational volume, and nobody minded a team playing an entire season with only one home uniform design.
But I recognize that heavy promotion is the way minor-league baseball is played in the 21st century — and it’s the way the team stays fresh.
Every time someone tells their co-worker or classmate, “I went to the IronPigs last night and you’ll never guess what they’re doing this year!,” that’s gold.
It is the IronPigs’ challenge to be familiar but not boring; omnipresent but not lulling; rooted but not predictable. I look forward to seeing how they manage that over the next five or 10 years.
And I wish them well. Even on the loudest, most relentlessly gimmicky day they’ve ever had, they’re still an asset to the community, and the Lehigh Valley is a better place for their existence.
As the scoreboard shown above says, next Opening Day will be April 7, 2014.
I probably won’t be there for that, but I will be there at least a couple times next season to cheer the close plays, marvel at the home runs — and, yes, at least to some small extent, to see what the IronPigs have pulled out of their sleeves this time around.