`Outside-the-box' promotion nights add to the fun of Hagerstown Suns' ballgames

July 18, 2005|By KEVIN COWHERD

HAGERSTOWN - In the fading twilight of a hot and steamy evening, in an old wooden ballpark built in 1930, I watched five couples renew their wedding vows as thunder rumbled overhead and a police siren wailed in the distance and ballplayers in gleaming white uniforms did sprints in the green outfield grass before a game.

Oh, it was grand. There were maybe 1,500 people in the stands when the ceremony started, and the whole thing came off with just the right touch of dignity and humor.

Look, you had the minister, the Rev. Ken Valentine, give a beautiful reading from 1 Corinthians: 13. ("What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels? If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging symbol?")

But at the same time, you had the Suns' goofy mascot, Woolie B, who looks like a caterpillar caught in some horrible nuclear catastrophe, standing next to him.

You had husbands and wives, some with tears in their eyes, holding hands and promising once again to love, honor and cherish each other. But you also had one of the couples, Robert and Karen Smith and their three boys, all of them dressed in matching blue baseball jerseys, Robert and the boys wearing red, white and blue boutonnieres and Karen with a tiara of red and yellow flowers.

No, when it was over, the couples didn't spit tobacco juice on the ground or slap each other on the butt and say: "Good job out there!"

But it sure was a nice way to begin a ballgame, and everyone seemed to agree that "Renew Your Vows" Night before the Hagerstown Suns faced the West Virginia Power Saturday was a resounding success.

"Well, I guess I tricked her again," said Fred Kreiger, a teacher and baseball coach at North Hagerstown High, who renewed his vows with his wife of 25 years, Susan, also a teacher.

Like the other couples, the Kreigers appeared undaunted when the sky darkened and the thunder began, nor when the police siren pierced the thick, humid night.

"I was hoping that wasn't some kind of omen," Fred Kreiger said with a smile.

He started to say something else, but it was drowned out by an Aerosmith song blasting over the PA system.

Then the couples lined up to have their photos taken, and pretty soon it was time for the national anthem and the ballgame.

Maybe you think "Renew Your Vows" Night sounds off-the-wall, but it was just another day at the office for the Suns.

See, minor-league baseball has always been known for its wacky promotions. And the Suns, a Single A affiliate of the New York Mets, have been the central headquarters for wackiness for years.

Two years ago, they held a "Free Funeral Give-Away" that ESPN: The Magazine labeled the promotion of the year.

To win, you had to write an essay describing your ideal funeral. Keep it humorous and light-hearted, the club advised.

Sure, doesn't every team use death as a marketing vehicle? Some 300 fans wrote in.

The winner received a funeral valued around $8,000, which paid for everything but the headstone. Presentation of the prize took place before a Suns game, with a hearse driving right onto the field and the winner getting his picture taken with the team and the hearse in the background.

"Normally, we try to think outside the box," the Suns' 32-year- old general manager Kurt Landes said with a laugh. "But this was an example of thinking inside the box."

(Oh, yeah. Here's the kicker to this story, which is either macabre or hysterical, depending on your point of view: Fourteen months after an elderly man from Pennsylvania won the free funeral, he died and cashed out his prize.)

But the funeral give-away thing was only one of the nutty promotions put on by the Suns.

With two Japanese interns on their staff last year, they put on the first-ever all-Japanese language radio broadcast of a minor league baseball game.

The year before that, they entered the Guinness Book of World Records for having a 10-year-old do the full radio broadcast of a game, complete with pre-game and post-game interviews.

After three consecutive rain-outs last year, they briefly changed their name from the Suns to the Rain Drops, and this year they held the National Egg-Tossing Championships after another game.

"Our goal is to have people leave the ballpark and say: `Who won the game?'" said Landes, meaning the game is an afterthought to the Suns staff. "We consider ourselves an entertainment franchise, as opposed to a baseball franchise."

So it was out of this creative mindset that five couples came to tiny Municipal Stadium to renew their wedding vows before a baseball game, on a night that felt more like Panama City than Hagerstown.

"Every year, we try to raise the bar, as far as what we do with promotions," said Landes, the team's GM for the past four seasons. He likened the brainstorming to "throwing mud against the wall and seeing what sticks."

What stuck this time was "Renew Your Vows" Night, which got some hundreds more fans into the stands and would win another Promo of the Year award if I had anything to say about it.

"It was awesome," said Robert Smith, as he and his family left the field, and the Suns trotted out to their positions to begin the game.

"I cried," said Karen Smith, puffy eyes hidden by sunglasses, adding that it was the perfect way to renew their marriage of 15 years.

Oh, yeah, the Suns lost to the Power, 2-0. Not that too many people will remember.

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