Nerds, jocks converge at 'Star Wars' nights

"Star Wars" promotions, such as this one in Lake Elsinore, Calif., have been popular for several years. Lake Elsinore Storm

Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey named his first dog Luke Skywalker, owns an authentic Darth Vader suit and says he’s watched "Star Wars: A New Hope" no fewer than 75 times.

As a professional ballplayer, he hardly seems like the stereotypical hard-core "Star Wars" fan. Yet Dickey, an erudite former English major and Academic All-American at Tennessee, stands proudly at the intersection of jock and nerd, able to deftly relate to the Jedi mindset while explaining his efforts to master the knuckleball.

So imagine his happiness when minor and major league teams decided to start mixing his two passions in recent years by staging "Star Wars" theme nights.

Dickey, a 10-year major leaguer who started his pro career in 1996, says he's participated in five or six of the "Star Wars" nights and that he is looking forward to taking part in the Mets’ night July 23 by helping create and act in some skits.

His favorite minor league jersey -- the only one he's saved -- is a specially designed Buffalo Bisons "Star Wars" jersey from 2010 that he never had the chance to wear in a game because he was called up to the Mets. He made sure the Bisons sent it to him.

"Instead of a Bison on the front, it was an AT-AT Walker [from "The Empire Strikes Back"], and it's got horns on it like bison horns," he says. "It's very cool."

Though he never anticipated his two passions would ever intersect, he understands why they have and why fans flock to "Star Wars" nights.

"It does seem to be a juxtaposition in one sense, but in another it’s a completely relatable narrative," Dickey says of the "Star Wars" saga. "It just really connects with people on a very human level."

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This season, on the 35th anniversary of the release of the first movie, "Star Wars" nights across baseball will be as plentiful as the moons of Yavin (it's an obscure reference, but trust us).

From the Lake Elsinore Storm to the Hickory Crawdads, the South Bend Silver Hawks to the Colorado Springs Sky Sox and the Schaumburg Boomers to the Cedar Rapids Kernels, games will feature Darth Vader throwing out the first pitch, stormtroopers marching down the aisles and fans and players in "talk like Yoda" or "roar like a Wookie" contests.

The first "Star Wars" nights are scheduled for Friday, May 4, on what just happens to be Star Wars Day -- so designated because the date plays off the saga’s most famous line: "May the Force be with you."

In the minor leagues, where teams look for every angle to connect with fans and get people into their parks, "Star Wars" nights are among the most popular annual promotions. This season, the Mets and Detroit Tigers will host events, and 13 major league teams in 2011 had "Star Wars" nights as part of the Stand Up To Cancer ("Use the Force for good") campaign.

The Kane County Cougars on Friday will hold the first of two "Star Wars" nights in 2012. The Omaha Storm Chasers and Toledo Mud Hens also host theirs Friday.

"Going into this year, we figured we’d open it up twice," says Shawn Touney, public relations director for Kane County, who says the Cougars had "Star Wars" nights in 2010 and 2011. Friday’s will be "Episode III," with "Episode IV" on Sept. 1. "If, by chance, mom and dad are vacationing with the kids and they're huge 'Star Wars' fans and they can't make the first one, hopefully they can make the second one. It's a hit with us, so why not give it two dates?"

No one seems to be quite sure who had the idea for the first "Star Wars" night. Lynda Benoit, of LucasFilm Ltd., which owns the rights to the movies, says teams have been hosting them for years in a variety of sports.

"This year alone, we have approximately 15 games in the works across multiple sports," she says.

But not all teams work with LucasFilm. Some simply see the success other teams have had with the nights and launch their own.

Mark Beskid, senior graphic designer for the Lake Elsinore Storm -- a confessed "Star Wars" nerd -- says he was part of the brainstorming that sparked the Storm to hold its first promotion in 2005. The team has held one every season except one since. He says the team may have been the first to produce its own mini "Star Wars" movies to show between innings.

To Beskid, it seemed a natural. Baseball games are family entertainment, and so is "Star Wars." The movies cut across all demographics.

"It's not every game that the nerd culture has its in to a baseball game, you know," he said. "It’s a good way to bridge that."

Brian Troyan sees that firsthand.

Troyan, 36, is a legal researcher and actor in Chicago who wears the full costumes of a stormtrooper or biker scout (from "Return of the Jedi") at games across the Midwest: the Cubs and White Sox, Kane County, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Arena Football's Chicago Slaughter and minor league hockey's Chicago Express.

On "Star Wars" nights, the movie characters often outshine the athletes.

"It's not very often that I get asked for an autograph in my daily life," says Troyan, "but at these sporting events, these kids, they're already primed for that. They'll pull out a baseball, and I'll sign a baseball for them. It's hilarious."

Troyan is a member of the Midwest Garrison of the 501st Legion, an Illinois branch of an international group of "Star Wars" fans that dresses up in authentic, licensed Dark Side costumes from the movies and appears at public and charitable events. There also is an international Rebel Legion representing the forces of good.

Legion branches have been a huge boost to teams that plan these events. Troyan says his group loves to get involved. They'll pose for pictures, deliver food, act out skits and battles and be part of mini movies for the scoreboard.

Leslie Lindsey, promotions manager of the Sacramento River Cats, says when her team decided to stage its first "Star Wars" night in 2011 -- after talking with other teams that had done it -- it contacted LucasFilm, which put the team in touch with local Legions.

"Pretty much without them we couldn’t have done it," she says. "They bring a lot."

Nearly 20 different characters came out, the team filmed a video with mascot Dinger and Darth Vader, and the two choreographed a dance battle for the game.

Vader also used the Force to throw the first pitch.

"We drilled a hole through the baseball and had it on fishing line, so it looked like he was slowly pushing it to our catcher," she says. "It was awesome."

This will be the fifth year the Buffalo Bisons have done "Star Wars," and many acknowledge the Bisons do it as well, or better, than any other team.

"We definitely go all in, says Matt LaSota, the team’s director of entertainment and promotions.

The Bisons, who use the night as a fundraiser for the American Heart Association, design special jerseys for players each year (which are raffled off), sell mini lightsabers, turn every player into a movie character on his scoreboard head shot, stage a postgame "battle" and incorporate "Star Wars" music into a fireworks show. Darth Vader sings "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and last year, Vader and his stormtroopers came out to stop the nightly races between the chicken wing, celery and bleu cheese characters.

But the biggest hit is the Bisons' videos. The team recently completed filming of six, one-minute videos that will be played between innings of its June 9 game.

"Every video starts with that typical 'Star Wars' theme with the music and that text kind of flying," says LaSota. "When we did that last year, we had 15,000 people and you could hear a pin drop in the stadium. It was unbelievable. … People were not going to the concession stands to watch the videos."

To Beskid at Lake Elsinore, the "Star Wars" night atmosphere ranks as one of the best of the season. Fans are in costume, Chewbacca is in the house, and kids are wide-eyed.

"You see a kid dressed up as a little Darth Vader, and then you see a full-blown Darth Vader walk up to him, and the reaction, that’s pretty good," he says.

At Kane County, Touney says he'll always remember the night when the Knights of Columbus, in full regalia with ceremonial swords, were presenting the colors before the game, and the Cougars' mascot, Ozzie T. Cougar, was marching along with them holding a lightsaber.

As the national anthem began, Touney got a kick out of what he saw.

"I took a look over at our mascot, who was right next to 15 members of the Knights of Columbus who all had their swords up," he recalls. "And it just made perfect sense at the time that Ozzie had his lightsaber vertically too, just in perfect congruence with the Knights who were shoulder to shoulder with him."

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A pitcher by trade, the Mets' Dickey sounds as if he'd be as happy to have a lightsaber in his hand as a baseball. Since his boyhood in Tennessee, he's been as captivated as much by the saga's duel with the Dark Side as the pull of the horsehide.

He understands why "Star Wars" connects with so many and why "Star Wars" nights are so popular.

"They're fun, and they're a cultural phenomenon," Dickey says. "Mostly because they really speak to the core of humanity in so many different ways. You’ve got good versus evil, you’ve got a great father-son narrative going on. You’ve got a real redemptive story in the story of Darth Vader. It speaks on so many different levels to the human condition.

"Plus, you put that with what George Lucas did with it, just visually, and you've got maybe the best trilogy ever put out."

Merge it all together at a baseball game, Dickey says, and you have something special. He knows other players get into it too.

"They enjoy it," Dickey says of his teammates through the years. "Baseball players like a good spectacle. When there's something like that going on, we'll hang around in the dugout and watch. And I haven't been alone, whether they admit it or not. I'm fine in my own skin now, so I'm happy to admit I wish I had a lightsaber and was joining in the fun some nights."

Since turning to the knuckleball, Dickey also can see his own duels with that Dark Side pitch, trying to master something that often can't be controlled. Some days, it's a force for good. On others, it's pure evil.

He has to just keep throwing the knuckler and trusting in the Force.

"The problem is, it takes an awful lot of practice to be able to hone that craft," he says of the knuckleball. "It's a very unnatural throw, so it takes a lot of discipline and a lot of repetition to get the mechanic right. In a way, it's like Jedi training."