BY MATT LaWELL
FORT MYERS, Florida | Generations ago, Bill Veeck Jr. wanted to put butts in seats. He was a showman and an owner, and he wanted his teams to play well and entertain, but also to turn a profit, so he planted ivy that spread across the brick outfield walls at Wrigley Field and he signed the first black player in the American League and he hired a clown to coach his team on the field and he put a bat on the shoulder of a dwarf. Later on, he opened up managerial decisions to the crowd and he added player names to the backs of jerseys and he pulled trades in the lobby at the Winter Meetings and he persuaded Harry Caray to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” live every afternoon.
Also, he cut holes in his wooden leg and used them as ashtrays. That has next to nothing to do with putting butts in seats. Just sort of tells a little bit more about the man.
Veeck also helped raise eight children, including a son named Mike, who grew up to write books and teach college courses and, just like his dad, own baseball teams and put butts in seats. One of the teams that Mike Veeck owns today is the Fort Myers Miracle and, even though he lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and splits his time between a number of cities, his influence is obvious everywhere in Hammond Stadium.
“The bar,” says Gary Sharp, the director of media relations and promotions, “is set pretty high.”
Bill Veeck also cut holes in his wooden leg and used them as ashtrays. That has next to nothing to do with putting butts in seats. Just sort of tells a little bit more about the man.
For almost all of their 20 years, the Miracle has been focused on promotions, even more than most minor league teams. They want to put the best players and the best team on the field, but all of that is out of their control. The Minnesota Twins determine who plays where in the system, and players like right fielder Oswaldo Arcia or second baseman Levi Michael can be moved up or down without much more than a couple minute’s notice.
But they can control the show off the field.
“All of us are thinking about and looking for the creative,” general manager Andrew Seymour says. “Even if it’s sometimes something that’s a little bit removed, something we haven’t done for five or six years, or maybe it was something in a different market and we bring it here and put a twist on it. We mention it to Mike, he usually puts a little spice on it, a little flavor, and it’s a nice recipe for fun.”
The creativity starts when Seymour and Sharp open their promotions meetings to just about everybody in the front office. More brains often lead to more ideas, and the Miracle generate about 75 or 80 every season. Some of them, like Bacon Night, are geared for the spectacular moment, and others, like Family Fun Sundays cater more to the affordable afternoon, and a good number of them — close to 30, in fact, if not more — are cut before they ever see a news release.
Promotion follows, and the ideal cycle lasts at least three weeks from the initial news release for local and national media, to getting out of the stadium and selling the event all around the city, to the night itself. And when that night arrives, not everything has to be perfect but the presentation and attitude need to flawless. Joe DiMaggio often said that people out in the bleachers might be watching him play for the first or last time, and he owed them his best. Sharp says the same theory applies in Fort Myers.
“I think we would be disappointed if we kind of just went through the motions,” he says. “I’m not going to kid you that, all 70 games, we’re fired up and we’re ready to go, because it wears on you. But we want to put on the best show possible, whether it’s a Tuesday night and there are 1,000 people in the crowd, or it’s Friday night and there are 8,000 people — we have to put on the same show every night.”
A crowd of 1,047 watched the Miracle outlast the Jupiter Hammerheads on Tuesday night, 3-2 in 13 innings, and the bulk of them left long before the last pitch, which is to be expected during the middle of the week. But even near the end, the promotions continued between innings and announcements carried over the grass. “I quickly found out in minor league baseball that 85 percent of the people that are here, they don’t know if we won or lost,” Sharp says. “When they leave the ballpark, they want to have had a good time.”
Veeck owns the Miracle and three other teams as part of the Goldklang Group, which includes veteran investor Marv Goldklang and the inimitable Bill Murray, and all of them carry the same philosophy. Miracle manager Jake Mauer grew up not far from Midway Stadium, where the St. Paul Saints, another Goldklang Group team, plays its home games. “At Saints games,” Mauer says, “most of the people were there for the experience. They always created a fun atmosphere, and they always took pride in that.”
On Saturday night, the Miracle will play the Bradenton Marauders, and they might lose, but they will aim to control the show off the field and create a fun atmosphere. They have a seat cushion promotion set to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic and its lone voyage across the Atlantic. “But we’re taking it a step further,” Sharp says, “and, from that, another step further.” The team opted to market the cushions as flotation devices, open the lower bowl of seats to women and children, and relegate men to upper bowl. Divers are expected to perform on the concourses. A lucky few will lip synch Celine Dion.
“Our promotion meetings are a lot of fun,” Sharp says, his game-day uniform of a short-sleeve printed shirt, shorts and Nike sneakers casual enough on a Tuesday to reflect a fun environment, “because we don’t take ourself seriously.”
Neither did Veeck. Seriously, who else drills holes in a wooden leg?
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