People of Berks County, Pennsylvania, I beseech you, with a quaver in my throat and sweat on my brow:
Hold the line. Stay strong. Don’t give in.
Nothing less than the future of America’s pastime — at least, in its minor-league permutation — depends on you.
As you’ve probably heard, the Reading Phillies minor-league team announced a branding change — or, as a 21st-century marketer might call it, a content enhancement — last month.
The team, which had successfully carried the name of the parent Philadelphia Phillies since the Lyndon Johnson administration, is now the Reading Fightin Phils.
Fair enough as a roots move — the “Fightin'” nickname for the Phillies goes back many decades — though I do sorta wonder where the apostrophe went.
But, as you’ll soon find out, grammar is the least of this team’s problems.
The branders who came up with the new name were allowed to run rampant with the team’s uniforms. As a result, the 2013 Fightin Phils will have:
– Four separate jersey designs, at least one of which will be used at random intervals at home or on the road.
– The inevitable minor-league cute animal mascot. In this case, it’s an ostrich with its fists raised. Why? Because ostriches are native to Berks County, known for fistfighting and closely associated with baseball.
– No fewer than seven different caps, including separate home and road batting-practice caps. What?
– A second mascot — a snarly hot dog named Bunbino — who will appear not only on (some of) the road caps, but as a sleeve patch on (some of) the road uniforms. Repeat: Professional baseball players will take the field in a bright blue cap with a pissed-off hot dog on it.
– Oh, yeah, about that bright blue: The F-Phils now have different color schemes at home and on the road.
The (most common) home jersey will be Phillies-red stripes on white.
The (most common) road jersey will be gray with bright yellow and teal accents.
Meanwhile, the two alternate jerseys are dark blue and black … so really, they have four separate color schemes, none of which echo the other three.
(Really, I strongly recommend you go check out the announcement on their website. This is all lavishly illustrated, and must be seen to be believed.)
The news release proclaims triumphantly, “The Reading Fightin Phils will have the most on-field gear of any minor league team in history” … as though this were worth celebrating.
I wasn’t going to write anything about this. The news came out almost a month ago. Everyone else who cares has already chimed in.
And honestly? I’ve bought tickets to two Reading Phillies games in 10-plus years in eastern Pennsylvania, and I didn’t even go to one of them. The net effect of my rage on the team’s bottom line will be nil.
But as I think more about the potential long-term impacts of this, the more I feel the urge to rise from my seat and hector the world, gibbering hoarse, messianic warnings like Howard Beale in Network.
I’m mad as hell. I don’t want to take it any more.
And I fear that — if this smiley-happy nonsense gains traction — I’m going to have to take more and more of it, everywhere I go.
The success of this absurd gambit will be measured, as success generally is, in merchandise and ticket sales.
And if the F-Phils sell out all their games and move merch by the buggyload, every single minor-league team worth its salt is going to follow suit, laying on different outfits for every day of the week — all of them available at the park for less-than-extortionate prices, of course.
There will be no escape from cutesiness-for-cash at any level of pro ball. It’s already getting hard to avoid, as minor-league teams tap-dance faster and faster, buying into the notion that attracting kids and families has to mean an endless stream of promotions and shiny things and between-innings distractions.
If the F-Phils’ scheme succeeds, every ballpark will offer caps on top of caps, replica jerseys on top of replica jerseys, alternates on top of alternates. It will be possible to sit through an entire homestand without being consistently able to recognize the home team. (You know, the one you’re supposed to be rooting for.)
And the soul of the game will go from My father and grandfather took me to the game to My father and grandfather took me to the game, where they bought me a home batting practice cap after I lost my alternate Saturday road cap on the moon bounce.
You can offer a pleasant, entertaining, affordable family night out without smothering it in gimmickry and marketing. The people who run the F-Phils know this, because not too long ago, they did it every night.
Seeing an otherwise rational leadership group fall sway to dopey, trendy brand enhancement initiatives is like seeing the affable, well-liked teacher from your high school leave his wife and kids for a 19-year-old waitress who can’t spell her name right.
Speaking of kids, I question whether the eight-year-olds who are drawn by the nonstop distractions will develop into actual baseball fans. My guess (and that’s all it is) is that the attraction of the colorful caps and the mascot races will fade over time. And when it does, will the action on the field keep drawing them back?
The final shot in my cannon is entirely personal and not at all reasoned.
I love baseball because there is a stillness at its core. And minor-league marketers are doing their absolute damnedest to break it down and drive it away — as if a quiet moment to reflect between innings was something to be shunned, or the sight of the home team night after night in its familiar striped whites was an intolerable boredom to be avoided at all costs.
As I said, 950 words or so ago, our best way out of this is for the people who inhabit the F-Phils’ home region to spit this whole marketing idea out like a sunflower seed, and do it as noticeably as possible.
With all the power at my discretion (can you feel it?), I beseech the good burghers of Sinking Spring and Womelsdorf and Lenhartsville and Upper Tulpehocken Township:
Do not buy Fightin Phils merchandise. Write emails and letters to the team, telling them kindly but firmly you disagree with their change. Tell them you would buy Reading Phillies merchandise, were it still available. Tell them you go to the games for the baseball, and everything else is secondary at best. Do not engage the ostrich. Do not befriend Bunbino. Turn your backs. Do it for the rest of us. Do it for the children!
God go with you, Berks County.