Keeping turnstiles clicking with freebies

Bowwow-themed giveaways are popular. Ollie here, a fan fave for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, had its own bobblehead. Expect to see many other stunts, from Whoppee Cushions to Christmas stockings. Courtesy New Hampshire Fisher Cats

• Photo gallery: Minor league promotions (Part 2)Photo Gallery

Editor's note: This feature on ballpark giveaways is the second in a two-part series on the best promotions in the bush leagues. Click here for Part 1.

Let's face it, everyone likes a freebie. Whether it's a free lunch as a sign of our boss' appreciation, a token party favor for attending a friend's wedding or the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, swag just has a way of making us smile.

When it comes to scratching this itch, the ballparks of minor league baseball deliver with a sort of regularity unparalleled among the other widely popular American entertainment venues.

Hit the movies on a Friday night and you'll be hard pressed to come back home with anything more than the butter-stained remnants of the popcorn bag for which you grossly overpaid. Head to a restaurant and order anything more complicated to prepare than a Happy Meal and you won't be pocketing any prize by which to remember the night, unless you count the credit card receipt.

But all summer long the parks of the bush leagues treat fans to quirky keepsakes. And it's not just the kiddies who benefit or the hardcore team apparel-ensconced fanatics. Heck, it's not even the guys and gals among each team's fan base who are thus rewarded. There really is something for every stripe of fan on each season's minor league giveaways calendar.

To wit: It's only May and one team already has scheduled a treat for the local dogs among its ruffers ... err ... rooters. And another team has treated its resident dog lovers to a handout.

The West Virginia Power team planned to offer complimentary dog bowls to the first 500 canines to pass through the Appalachian Power Park gates on "Bark in the Park" night May 3. Due to inclement weather, though, the game in Charleston, W.Va., had to be postponed and the team is in the process of rescheduling the event.

But a dog bowl giveaway is just the sort of innovative freebie fans really eat up.

"In the past [on "Bark in the Park" night] we've given away T-shirts to the first thousand fans," Power assistant general manager Kristin Call said. "But this year we wanted to do something more specific to the night, and that is how we arrived at the dog bowl giveaway."

Tailoring giveaways so that each one tickles the fancy of a specific constituency within a given fan base is also a savvy approach.

Rick Brenner serves as president of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, who on May 7 treated local dog lovers to a bobblehead depicting Ollie, the golden retriever who "works" at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester, N.H.

"We keep a constant eye on what's working at other parks in other markets and then we tailor our offerings to fit our local fans," Brenner said. "Ollie is very popular here so [the giveaway] made sense for us."

While bobbleheads are nearly always well received, fans appreciate the oddball item here and there.

"We always strive to do something different," said Tommy Viola, public relations director for the Reading Phillies.

He should know. His Pennsylvania team already has followed up last year's Ryan Howard lawn gnome giveaway with a second Howard gnome, and later this season it will treat fans to a "Chooching" Carlos Ruiz owl. (Ruiz -- known as Chooch by teammates -- and Howard played for Reading in 2004.)

"We pick a player and then brainstorm about how we can build on him and his connection to the team," Viola said. "Sometimes an idea will seem crazy at first, but you can't be afraid to run with it and see where it will lead."

With the dogs of Greater Charleston, the dog lovers of southern New Hampshire and the birdwatchers of eastern Pennsylvania all taken care of, the teams of baseball's bushes will no doubt satisfy the game's other diverse fan groups with this year's giveaways, too.

Here are some of the more intriguing giveaways on the minor league schedules:

"Whoopee Cushion Deflation Night," St. Paul Saints, May 14

(First 2,500 fans)

Midway Stadium
1771 Energy Park Drive
St. Paul, MN
651-644-6659 | website

The cheeky Saints, of the independent American Association, are always happy to goof on the local big league teams in their market -- the Twins and Vikings. Those teams, of course, shared the Metrodome until the Twins moved to Target Field last season.

On this night, when the local nine plays the Sioux Falls Pheasants, the Saints spoof the bleak December day in 2010 when the dome's roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow. Football fans may recall the blizzard forcing the Vikings and Giants to play a game in Detroit. To commemorate the deflating of the roof -- which is supported by 250,000 cubic-feet of air pressure per minute -- some 2,500 Saints fans will simultaneously sit on Metrodome Whoopee Cushions.

"We felt that the nature of this giveaway best embodies the collective feelings of Minnesotans as they watched the dome collapse," Saints spokesman Derek Sharrer said. "The event continues to tear at the fabric of the community. This is an opportunity for fans to relieve themselves with a deflating of their own. It then will be behind us."

Pink Jersey purse, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, May 15

(First 2,000 women 18 and older)

Coca-Cola Park
1050 IronPigs Way
Allentown, PA 18109
610-841-7447 | website

It's a putdown to call a fan a "pink hat" -- slang for a casual rooter who is too trendy to wear the team's ordinary colors. But there's nothing wrong with toting a pink purse to the game -- or heading home with one -- at least not in Allentown, Pa., where the International League's Lehigh Valley IronPigs will hand out just such an item. Pigs followers looking to further accessorize should return to Coca-Cola Park on May 26, when the first 2,000 ladies will receive IronPigs flip-flops.

Miniature U.S. flag, Savannah Sand Gnats, June 14

(First 1,000 fans)

Historic Grayson Stadium
1401 E. Victory Drive
Savannah, GA 31404
912-351-9150 | website

The South Atlantic League Gnats celebrate Flag Day by gifting miniature Stars and Stripes to the first 1,000 patriots to turn out at Grayson Stadium for a game against the Rome Braves.

Free ticket, Northwest Arkansas Naturals, June 19

(Students kindergarten through 12th grade with an A or B on their report card)

Arvest Ballpark
56th Street and Watkins Avenue
Springdale, AR 72766
479-927-4900 | website

The Texas League Naturals know they have some smart cookies among their fans. That's why they will offer any youngster arriving at Arvest Ballpark for this game against the Springfield Cardinals with a complimentary reserved ticket, provided they produce a report card that shows they earned at least one A or B grade. To sweeten the pot, the first 500 dads attending this Father's Day game will receive souvenir baseballs and fathers and sons can play catch on the field after the game.

The so-called "Report Card Day" is just a small component of a larger effort the Naturals make to support education in the community. Their "School Kids Days" throughout the season provide discounted tickets for classes to visit the ballpark. And more than just providing a day away from school, the team provides teachers and students with age-appropriate educational packets to help connect the game to learning activities.

Heidi Watney bobblehead, New Hampshire Fisher Cats, July 8

(First 1,500 fans)

Northeast Delta Dental Stadium
1 Line Drive
Manchester, NH 03101
603-641-2005 | website

While players traditionally have served as the inspiration for the bobbing dolls that collectors love, mascots and celebrities and politicians and even bat-boys have come to be honored in miniature.

This year the Fisher Cats -- a Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays -- will so honor popular New England Sports Network (NESN) sideline reporter Heidi Watney, who works the stands and clubhouse at Fenway Park during Boston Red Sox broadcasts.

The promotion makes a lot of sense, as the Fisher Cats play just 50 miles north of Boston and share a fan base with the BoSox. And Watney has a relationship with the Cats stemming from her annual participation in the Fisher Cats' fall fundraiser -- The Granite State Baseball Dinner.

With Watney's help, the event has raised more than $155,000 in each of the past two years to benefit the Fisher Cats Foundation, Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Ted Williams Museum.

Beach ball, Savannah Sand Gnats, July 8

(First 1,000 fans)

Historic Grayson Stadium
1401 E. Victory Drive
Savannah, GA 31404
912-351-9150 | website

As summer bounds into full gear, sun-worshipping fans will receive a little inflatable prize to make their excursions to the nearby beaches of Tybee Island more memorable.

We can only hope, however, these beach balls don't wind up getting batted onto the field in the later innings.

Light bulb, Memphis Redbirds, July 19

(First 1,500 fans)

AutoZone Park
200 Union Ave.
Memphis, TN 38103
901-721-6000 | website

It's the wise minor league team that appeals to its fans for suggestions on how to make the ballpark experience as fantastic as possible. On "Idea Night," the Pacific Coast League Redbirds will do just that.

First, they'll solicit feedback regarding the food, music, between-inning stunts and, yes, giveaway items they offer. Then, at the end of the night, they'll give fans the very symbol of a great idea -- a light bulb. The giveaway is being sponsored, appropriately, by the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.

Angels flashback cap, Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino, July 29

(First 1,500 fans)

Arrowhead Credit Union Park
280 S. E St.
San Bernardino, CA 92401
909-888-9922 | website

The California League 66ers offer a colorful chapeau that recounts the evolution of their new parent club's identity. Prior to this season, the 66ers were affiliated with the Dodgers. Now they are part of the Angels' family.

To recap (pun intended): When the big league Angels debuted in 1961 they were known as the Los Angeles Angels. They became the California Angels in 1965. In 1997, they were the Anaheim Angels. But they weren't finished yet. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim has been their calling card since 2005. As the team name changed, so did the team logo. And this hat incorporates four different Angels logos into its design.

The giveaway occurs on the day the 66ers will celebrate the 1970s with special between-inning promotions, features on the Angels players of the decade, and music from the Bee Gees, AC/DC, the Jackson Five and other vintage lineups.

"The flashback hat is a perfect tie in with our '70s theme night," 66ers spokesman Matt Kowallis said. "In addition, it's a great way to celebrate and promote our new affiliation with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim."

Christmas stocking, Lynchburg Hillcats, July 29

(First 1,000 fans)

Calvin Falwell Field
3180 Fort Ave.
Lynchburg, VA 24501
434-528-1144 | website

"Christmas in July" has become a staple of many teams' theme night offerings in recent years, ranking right up there with variations on "Halfway to Halloween," "Dollar Dog Night" and other fan favorites. To make this year's summer yule more special, the Carolina League Hillcats will give fans a present that's sure to have them dreaming of waking to find opening day tickets hanging by the fire when Dec. 25 arrives.

Dickey-Stephens Park scoreboard replica, Arkansas Travelers, July 30

(First 1,500 adults)

Dickey-Stephens Park
400 W. Broadway
North Little Rock, AR 72114
501-664-1555 | website

Fans of the Arkansas Travelers find their ballpark experience enhanced by a state-of-the-art scoreboard in left field. The 18- by 34-foot behemoth is one of the largest such boards in the bushes. As was the case at many of the game's yards of earlier days, it is topped by an old-fashioned clock. It's a classy touch at one of the Southern League's most aesthetically appealing parks.

Now local fans will be able to bring a piece of the ballpark magic home with them, thanks to miniature scoreboards the "Travs" will hand out before this game against the Tulsa Drillers. The clock on the keepsake is permanently fixed to "game time," which is 7:10 p.m.

"Our giant outfield scoreboard may be the most eye-catching of all the great features of Dickey-Stephens Park," team general manager Pete Laven said. "We've featured our entire stadium, as well as the signature clock tower in front of the stadium, in [giveaway] statues over the past two seasons, so I felt it was time to give our fans the opportunity to add a scoreboard replica to their Dickey-Stephens Park collection. This item will look great on anyone's mantle."

Carlos Ruiz "Chooching" owl, Reading Phillies, Aug. 2

(First 3,000 adults)

FirstEnergy Stadium
1900 Centre Ave. /RT 61 South
Reading, PA 19605
610-375-8469 | website

A year after introducing a new era of ballpark giveaway with their innovative Ryan Howard lawn gnome, the R-Phils present a Carlos Ruiz figurine that depicts the former Reading star with a "Chooching" owl roosting on his bat.

The catcher, who has since made a name for himself in Philadelphia, batted .284 with 17 HRs and 50 RBIs for the Reading in 2004. Ruiz's nickname is Chooch; a voice box inside the figurine utters "Chooch" in a sound similar to the call of an owl.

Brian Wilson garden gnome, Hagerstown Suns, Aug. 6

(First 1,000 fans)

Municipal Stadium
274 E. Memorial Blvd.
Hagerstown, MD 21740
301-791-6266 | website

At first glance, All-Star closer Brian Wilson is anything but gnomish. The burly Giant stands 6-foot-2 and weighs more than 200 pounds. But he does have that crazy beard, which, upon closer inspection, makes him a prime candidate to receive the type of treatment Howard did last year. Thus, lucky fans will head home from this game between the Suns and their South Atlantic League rivals from Greensboro with their very own Brian Wilson garden gnomes.

Wilson appeared in 23 games for the Suns in 2004, recording the first three saves of his professional career. Last year, he led the majors with 48 saves.

"Brian Wilson is a memorable part of Hagerstown Suns history," Suns spokesman Bryan Holland said, "and after helping the San Francisco Giants capture the 2010 World Series title, we feel this is a perfect time to remind our great fan base that members of Suns baseball go on to do great things."

Bookmark, Winnipeg Goldeyes, Aug. 10

(First 4,500 fans)

Shaw Park
One Portage Ave. E.
Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B 3N3
204-982-2273 | website

On "Library Night," this American Association club will reward local readers with a page saver courtesy of the Winnipeg Libraries. This will be the Goldeyes' fifth consecutive year celebrating book repositories and reading and the second straight year when fans receive a bookmark.

The night is the centerpiece of a season-long initiative to encourage youngsters to read over the summer. It includes ticket rewards for children who attend reading programs during the summer, a book drive for charity at the game and a Public Library kiosk, at which gamegoers can sign up for memberships and learn more about the programs at the local libraries.

Outside the diamond, Goldeyes players will visit libraries throughout Winnipeg this summer to read to children.

NFL hat, Delmarva Shorebirds, Sept. 2

(First 500 fans)

Arthur W. Perdue Stadium
6400 Hobbs Road
Salisbury, MD 21804
410-219-3112 | website

Whether or not there's an NFL season in 2011, the South Atlantic League Shorebirds will treat fans to a gridiron-inspired giveaway. Fans will be presented with a choice of hats emblazoned with logos of the Eagles, Redskins and Ravens.

For those unfamiliar with the geography of the Mid-Atlantic Coast, the Delmarva Peninsula is occupied by three states -- Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Hence, the peninsula's name and the divided loyalties of its sports fans. One thing the locals agree on, at least, is their affinity for the Shorebirds, who are an affiliate of the big league Orioles.

Josh Pahigian is the author of seven baseball books, including "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out" and "The Ultimate Baseball Road-Trip," which he co-authored with his friend Kevin O'Connell. Pahigian serves as an adjunct writing professor at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. Contact him at jpahigian@une.edu.