San Bernadino, Calif. • After months of preparing for the Inland Empire 66ers' season-opening homestand, general manager Joe Hudson received some disturbing news: Hostess was making a comeback.
The 66ers moved ahead with "Farewell to Twinkies Night," anyway.
The staff's hoarding and preserving of supposedly the last 1,000 sponge cakes ever to be made available was too much of an investment to let the facts get in the way of the promotional event. The 66ers were rewarded when Hudson glanced outside the gates of San Manuel Stadium on that Friday night in April and discovered more than 1,000 fans lined up in hopes receiving the free Twinkies.
Creative promotions are standard in minor-league baseball, but the 66ers take the practice to an extreme. That's how the franchise in the Class-A California League in the middle of the players' climb through the Los Angeles Angels' organization tries to distinguish itself in a crowded market.
"You name it, they've had it," said 66ers pitcher Mark Sappington, who enjoys keeping track of the promotional efforts. "It's fun. You definitely see some off-the-wall stuff. â¦ They spice it up."
That explains why the 30 actors from the nearby Redlands Shakespeare Festival came to the ballpark in costumes and roamed the stands and the concourse to celebrate Zombie Apocalypse Night (the Orem Owlz recently staged a similar promotion). Blood splatters and caution tape dotted the stadium. The 66ers' staff members dressed up and so did a sizable number of fans, assisted by on-site makeup artists.
Staged on a Thursday, Inland Empire's event drew 2,462 fans slightly fewer than average, and about 1,000 fewer people than on Twinkies night. Yet it was named the Minor League Promotion of the Month for June, and it sure beat Awful Night.
That's when the front-office employees produced a calendar of themselves in silly poses, then played bad music and staged goofy skits during the game. It bombed, based on the lack of response from fans.
"We'll probably try it again," Hudson said, with a shrug.
That's minor-league baseball. The 66ers named in honor of the historic Route 66, which ends in San Bernardino play within 60 miles of both Angel Stadium and Dodger Stadium, and a rival Cal League team is 20 miles away in Rancho Cucamonga. "There's just a lot of competition," said Hudson, 28, who formerly worked for the Utah Grizzlies hockey team and attended the University of Utah. "You've got to find unique ways to get people to come."
Franchise owners David Elmore and Donna Tuttle, who also operate the Grizzlies and five other baseball teams, endorse the creativity of the 66ers' young, dynamic staff. "Obviously," Hudson said, a little mischievously, "there's always going to be a line that you don't want to cross over."
The 66ers just like to have fun. When opposing batters come to the plate, they're greeted with mocking music clips as opposed to the high-energy walk-up songs that accompany the 66ers striding toward the batter's box.
Hudson's background is more on the food and beverage side of franchise operations. So the promotions are a collaborative effort, spurred mainly by marketing director Matthew Kowallis, even if Hudson is ultimately responsible.
Being a food guy, Hudson is looking forward to next month's Bacon Bonanza. Later in August, during a night of multiple promotions, the 66ers will offer the Kole Calhoun Garden Gnome Giveaway. That's among several events tied into the parent Angels. Calhoun, who's having an outstanding summer with the Salt Lake Bees after recovering from a broken hand in the 2013 season opener, was a popular player for Inland Empire. He batted .324 in 2011 and advanced to the Angels last season.
"OK, it could be cool," Calhoun said, "but I mean, a garden gnome?"
He should feel honored. It would be a lot worse for a former 66er to be featured on Awful Night. Inland Empire 66ers
League • California
Level • Class-A Advanced
Home • San Manuel Stadium (5,000)
Average attendance • 2,687
Record • 52-44 (15-11 second half)
Top hitters • OF Zach Borenstein (.324), 2B Alex Yarbrough (.317), 1B Michael Snyder (.292, 20 home runs, 66 RBIs)
Top pitchers • Kramer Sneed (7-1, 3.12), Mark Sappington (9-4, 3.66)
Notable • In addition to the 66ers, the Elmore Sports Group owns the Utah Grizzlies hockey team and baseball teams in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Helena, Mont.; San Antonio, Texas; Eugene, Ore.; and Idaho Falls, Idaho
About the series
The Salt Lake Tribune's Kurt Kragthorpe spent early July on the road taking stock of the teams, players, fans and ballparks of the Los Angeles Angels and their minor league affiliates. His purpose: to ferret out great stories at each stop and, in the bigger scheme, connect the dots between what fans love about baseball especially the minor league version and the players toiling to make it to the bigs.
Thursday • San Bernadino.
Friday • Tempe.