Put me in, Coach

How a pair of comedy writers became pro ballplayers

“I’m convinced Eric and I are in a fever dream, and some day we’ll wake up and discover that it never happened.”

Justin Stangel is talking about spending 17 years writing for The Late Show with David Letterman, along with his brother Eric, eventually becoming head writers and Executive Producers. They’d grown up fans of the show. They had also grown up fans of the Yankees in Chappaqua, New York, and for Letterman they frequently shot remotes with the Yankees, making good on two fandoms, with the team’s full cooperation and substantial participation. They fondly recall going down to the Yankees’ spring training complex in Florida in 1998, when the team’s catcher, Joe Girardi (who later became their manager after he retired from playing), agreed to go to a movie theater right after practice—still in full uniform—and watch the just-released Titanic alongside the Late Show’s producer, Biff Henderson.

Justin is currently living another baseball dream: despite lacking, to put it delicately, elite athleticism, this season he and Eric are professional baseball players.

Just for one day. But for seven different teams.

Not only that, they signed with those teams when none knew when they would play again.

If only 2020 itself had been a fever dream that never happened—to any of us. But it did, and for minor-league baseball, the fact that it did happen meant that baseball didn’t. The majors managed to play a pandemic-shortened 60-game schedule (reduced from its customary 162 games), but not a single minor-league game was played. After some initial hope that something of it could be salvaged, the season was completely cancelled by Major League Baseball. Not a dream. A nightmare.

During the spring and summer, while the fate of the minors was still undecided, Eric got the idea to see if he could do something to help them out. He thought a comic diversion would not only lighten the mood in a grim summer. It might also serve to remind fans that those 160 minor-league teams across the country were still there, struggling along with most of the rest of us, although his initial intention was not so serious. “It sounded like a fun thing to do during the pandemic,” he says.

So he contacted the Portland… um, Pickles?

Yes, that’s right. The Portland Pickles. Increasingly over the last decade or so, minor-league team nicknames, along with their logos and associated merchandise, have gottenwhy be delicate here?sillier. This trend does not owe to a lack of seriousness on the part of its owners and management. On the contrary, the advent of outfits called, for example, New Orleans Baby Cakes, El Paso Chihuahuas, and Lansing Lugnuts reflects a deliberate and wholesale rebranding of the minor leagues over the last generation or so—indeed, a virtual overhaul of the entire way Minor League Baseball markets and draws attention to its product: essentially by substituting a different product for the one that takes place on the field.

Not long after the 1988 movie Bull Durham put the minors back into mainstream play, franchises recognized that promoting baseball itself as a way to build and maintain a fan base was a losing game. In the minors, players are assigned to each team by the big-league parent club (which is the players’ employer), and the individual minor-league affiliates have no control over whether those players will be any good, nor over how long they’ll stay before they’re promoted or demoted to another level, or released entirely. 

As a consequence, the identity and, especially, performance of the here-and-gone players have always been virtually irrelevant. They’re hired hands, sent out to the farm as anonymous seasonal toilers, baseball’s version of migrant workers. (If that sounds like an inappropriate comparison, be aware that many of them are not paid a living wage). 

Instead, franchise owners understood that “marketing is the best way for the minors to survive,” Eric says. That marketing has little to do with the athletes or action on the field. A better way is, for example, to sign a pair of illustrious comedy writers to one-day contracts and invite them to the ballpark (pandemic travel permitting) to suit up, horse around with the mascot, and scarf down batting helmets full of ice cream. There was even the dangerous suggestion that the Stangels act as first base coachestogether, at the same timea stunt that sounds like antic fun but could cause a player serious injury and will almost certainly not take place. (“What if Eric and I disagree?” Justin says, only half joking.)

But that mischievous impulse is by no means unique. Seventy years ago, the legendary (some would say infamous) baseball owner Bill Veeck concocted schemes that caused all kinds of playful havoc on the field. There was his legendary 1951 signing of little person Eddie Gaedel, whose 3-foot-7 height made it impossible to throw him a strike. Less well known but even more meddlesome was “Grandstand Managers Night” five days later, in which 1,000 fans seated in a special section chose St. Louis’ lineup and voted on key decisions during the game by holding up Yes/No placards. “They’re making a farce of the game!” the opposing team’s manager carped afterwards. (No wonder. Grandstand-managed St. Louis beat his team.)

Nothing so prankish would ever fly in today’s game, major or minor, but theme nights are now so frequent in the minor leagues that they dominate the schedule and are the raison d’etre for many, if not most, fans’ attendance. These promotions are so extensive in their contenteverything from Seinfeld Night to Star Wars Night (held, naturally, on May the Fourth), from Dog Washes to Food Truck Rodeosthat even the no-theme theme is an annual “theme” for the Lake Elsinore Storm (who also have perhaps the coolest logo in the minor leagues).

The way to brand modern minor-league baseball, then, is via nearly anything but baseball itself, and the best franchises set themselves apart by both the creativity and execution of their schemes, e.g. calling themselves the Pickles and signing the Stangels for a day. The only tried and true way to involve the players in any gimmickry is literally by making them wear it. “They constantly change their jerseys,” Eric notes, and this is not the result of indecisiveness or ADD. It’s a deliberate way to sell more merchandise. Each new jerseymany of them are worn by the players on the field only onceshows up in replica in the team store as a souvenir. These are must-haves not only for teams’ local fan bases but for any of the thousands of people who simply can’t look at a t-shirt bearing a comic book-ready illustration of an angry prairie dog in a cowboy hat spoiling for a fight under the words “Amarillo Sod Poodles” without immediately adding their size to their cart. 

The wacky nicknames and logos bring the comedy, but it is in the service of serious business. Merchandise sales are an essential and booming part of minor-league revenue. From $55 million in 2013, souvenir income skyrocketed by 55 percent to more than $85 million in 2019, the year before the pandemic. Eric thought that perhaps if nothing else, the Stangel brothers’ notorietythey have 175,000 Twitter followers between themmight help sell a few jerseys and hats during a summer when no one could go to the ballpark and buy gear in person.

So he came up with the stunt he proposed to the Pickles: sign us to one-day contracts, have a press conference to announce the signings, and let’s make sure to wave those jerseys around in front of the camera with the Pickles’ mascot a giant pickle, naturallyparticipating in the Zoom call, which would be punctuated by a (scripted) blooper to add to the fun. “Making a farce of the game” was never so appropriate.

Why the Pickles? Because “I make pickles at home,” Eric admits. He adds that “the Pickles’ Twitter feed is really funny.” Minor-league teams get to wear their messaging uniforms more loosely and irreverently than the buttoned-down big leagues do; that’s part of their accessibility and appeal, and nearly all of why they can sign a pair of comedians to contracts without having to ask a big-league parent club’s executive office for permission.

The Pickles said yes to Eric’s proposal. Several more teams followed soon after, and the signings keep on coming; they’re up to seven so far. By the end of this season, the Stangels will have been on the active rosterseven though they may never visit the actual ballparks where they ostensibly “play”of minor-league teams from coast to coast. (If pandemic travel pains ease, they plan to go to some of these ballparks and appear in person.) They have official contracts (salary: $0) to prove their bona fides, signed live in hilarious press conferences conducted by teams who have names as serious as the St. Paul Saintswhose Triple-A players are just one step from the major leaguesand as unserious and as far from Yankee Stadium as the collegiate summer league franchise called the Carolina Disco Turkeys.

You read that right: The Disco Turkeys. What in the sod poodle is a Disco Turkey, you ask? The more salient question is: Why have you not already bought a Disco Turkeys beer koozie? (Too late. Sold out.)

As Adapt has noted plenty of times before, comedy and gimmickry can make for great branding. But as the Stangels discovered when they delved deeper into the plight of the minor leagues in 2020, all the years while the minors were evolving their messaging away from baseball and toward fun, they were also evolving into something else: pillars of their communities.

“We wanted to do this for fun,” Eric says, “but we realized there’s much more here. You don’t really think about minor-league teams as important groups that help their community, but when things are running right, they employ a lot of people locally. They also help raise money for various [charities], and they have reading programs, food drives, house-building fundraising initiatives, and addiction treatment awareness campaigns. A lot of that had to shut down, too.”

“The more we researched,” Justin adds, “the more we realized that the best thing we could do for them was focus on what they do for their communities. That’s what deserves the most attention.” And they’ve made sure to do that during every press conference.

As it happened, the Stangels’ timing in coming to the aid of the minor leagues was perfect, and not only because of the pandemic. The minor-league world was shaken to its core last fall when Major League Baseball followed through on its controversial plan, hatched in 2019, to execute a radical contraction of the minor leagues. More than a quarter of all minor-league teamsand with them, an entire level of the multi-tiered minorswere disaffiliated as of October 2020. That was part of an ongoing effort by Major League Baseball to consolidate its corporate power and streamline both its operations and the game on the field. For MLB, the timing was also perfect, but it was perfect entirely because of the pandemic, and grimly so for the minor leagues. MLB took opportunistic advantage of the shutdown first to cancel the minor-league season (which was by no means the only option) and then, while the farm was dormant and out of the public eye, forsake a quarter of it.

A number of the disaffiliated franchises folded as a consequence of the contraction; others have managed to regroup as scrappy (read: struggling) independent-league teams or summer collegiate franchises with radically shorter seasons (and, as a consequence, lower revenue ceilings). In a year when the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in all walks of life, the move by MLB revealed just how powerless the minorsand indeed most of ushave always been under the economic structure we mostly take for granted. Every now and then, something comes along to remind us how subject we are to the whim and wealth of whatever big-league apparatus chooses to engage and entertain us entirely at its own pleasure. 

Now, you might say, is anyone really going to miss the Orem Owlz, or care that the Vermont Lake Monsters’ 2021 roster comprises a bunch of undergraduates from Division III schools who’ll never get near a big-league roster? Yet these ripples in the inner fabric of the game do reach beyond their communitiesbut not for the corny, myth-soaked faux-reason that “baseball is the soul of America.” (It isn’t. Like it or not, football is: relentlessly loud and violent, and unthinkable without television.)

The reason this matters is that, for many decades, the affiliated minors have not only served their communities at the social-impact level; they have also subtly helped people in these communities, from remote Big Sky country to cities as big as Buffalo, maintain both a connection to the dream of the big-league stage and a thriving network with each other. A second baseman in Montana today could be in Mississippior in the majorstomorrow. In a country as badly ravaged by division and fragmentation as America has been over the last few yearsa problem worsened by the isolating and divisive effects of the pandemicthe minor leagues’ modest but steadfast ubiquity and interconnectedness have been meaningful beyond anything that has ever happened on their fields. Reducing small-town teams’ presence in their communities, along with their ability to serve their communities’ social needs, can have grave consequences, and the Stangels are shining a light on the importance and endangerment of all the good they do. 

The good news is that while the minor leagues may have lost a hefty portion of their officialdom, they haven’t lost their importance and never will. The independent and summer collegiate leagues arising as a result of disaffiliation will generate their own new baseball culture. Perhaps that culture will be better protected from the homogenization of mega-corporate, lawyer-dominated MLB, and perhaps the increasing monoculture of the game at the highest level will get a little shot of variety from way belowpossibly even a return of a dose of Bill Veeck-like outlandishness that once gave the national pastime much-needed color. There will still be crazyindeed, perhaps even craziernicknames and logos, and more gimmicks like signing a pair of comedians to one-day contracts. Those are the baseball and comedy dreams no one ever wants to wake up from.

What Eric and Justin Stangel have done with their comically-driven but deceptively serious stunt is to remind us that you can’t have the New York Yankees without the Batavia Muckdogs, that every Detroit Tiger is cousin to a Disco Turkey, and that the heights of the upper deck rely on the depths of the lower minors, and when we imperil them we imperil our communities, which depend upon these underdogs. The Stangels are making sure that, at least on their watch, the dogs will have their day.

 

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