Tuesday, June 01, 2010

SPORTS>>Promotions often cause commotion

Leader sports editor

I spent most of my Memorial Day weekend in the pressbox at Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Class AA Texas League’s Arkansas Travelers.

That wasn’t a bad thing. The box is air-conditioned and I could see the Riverfest fireworks without having to move a muscle. I also had a chance to hobnob with friends and colleagues, and the conversation, as often happens, strayed off the basepath.

We were noticing the Travelers had invited a guest mascot, a kangaroo-type character, to perform with full-time mascot Shelly.

That led to a conversation about mascot appearances, and ballpark promotions in general, that went bad.

The Travelers have had their share of disasters, minor and major, through the years. Official scorekeeper Tim Cooper recalled a night at old Ray Winder Field when the club gave away packets of barbecue sauce, which all the kids gleefully stomped until the ballpark looked like the scene of a gangland slaying.

Former general manager Bill Valentine, who practically had the old park steam-cleaned every night, no doubt regretted his burst of promotional inspiration.

But that giveaway gone wrong is nothing compared to the Ray Winder Field appearance of Kool-Aid Man, which, unfortunately for him, coincided with bat night for the kids.

The story, handed down over the past couple decades, goes like this:

Kool-Aid Man, that roly-poly, smiling pitcher of fun, waddled from the first-base side, where the good kids were, to the third-base bleachers side, where — apparently —the bad kids were hanging out.

Because after Kool-Aid Man had given away a few hugs, a kid ran up behind him with his brand new bat and laid a pretty good cut right across Kool-Aid Man’s backside.
Kool-Aid Man waddled around in a circle to find the culprit, only to be hit by another little monster from the other side. Kool-Aid Man made another slow turn, only to be hit again, then he figured out he could turn faster if he jumped and spun in the air.

It ended with Kool-Aid Man jumping and twirling, knocking kids down right and left while reinforcements surged forward to give him the piƱata treatment.

The story caused flashbacks for Minor League Baseball’s official Game Day data-caster Mike Garrity.

“I stuck my foot in the chest of a little kid when I was a mascot once,” Garrity said. “He pulled my tail.”

Garrity, one-time sports information director at UALR and assistant athletic director for operations at Florida International, has spent a colorful life in the world of sports.

In addition to defending himself against that anonymous kid while in costume as the Eastern Washington University Eagle, Garrity served as the Columbia Basin (Wash.) Community College Hawk and the Kennewick (Wash.) High School Lion.

“I worked my way through college as a mascot,” Garrity said. “I kept the tail from every mascot I played.”

In a twist of fate, Garrity went on to serve as floor manager at various Sun Belt Conference basketball tournaments and became known as the mean guy who kicks unruly mascots out of games, as he did Western Kentucky’s Big Red, Middle Tennessee’s Lightning and the entire Indian Family of Arkansas State.

In his travels with the Wimp Sanderson - coached UALR Trojans, Garrity was in the University of Texas-Pan American arena on a night when the host school handed out tortillas for a halftime, hit-the-center-circle promotion and a chance at a free lunch.
Naturally, the fans didn’t wait for halftime.

“Mike, they hit me in the head with a tortilla,” Sanderson said.

Garrity recalled a football halftime show in which Florida International’s dancers, the Golden Dazzlers, were to arrive dressed in jeans and white T-shirts on the backs of motorcycles for their performance.

Just before the performance, a huge Florida thunderstorm broke. Remember, the dancers were wearing white T-shirts.

“It went wrong but that’s not always bad,” Garrity said. “The players running off the field all just stopped.”

Cooper was at one of the great Major League Baseball promotions of all time, the Houston Astrodome’s “Foam Night,” when Floyd Bannister struck out Johnny Bench on an even-numbered minute, earning a free beer for every fan of drinking age.

Close to 14,000 of the 25,000 left for the beer stand as if their lives depended on it.

But that’s how it is with sports promotions and mascots sometimes — you play, you pay.

“No one is watching the game,” Cooper said. “They’re all up there getting their free beer.”