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New Wave Of Minor League Names Catches Attention Of O'Conner



NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Fire Frogs. Jumbo Shrimp. Baby Cakes. Yard Goats. Rumble Ponies.

The newest wave of nicknames in the minor leagues has become zanier and zanier over the last couple of years, and has begun to catch the eyes of the nation. The Jumbo Shrimp landed in Sports Illustrated's "He Said It" section, a weekly spot for the sports world's most bizarre quotes, for owner Ken Babby's description of his team's new mascot as a "gritty, tough, hard-working shrimp."

But beyond the media and fans across the country, the trend has also caught the attention of the sport's executives, including Pat O'Conner. Minor League Baseball's president addressed team executives this week about whether something can or needs to be done to stem the tide of wacky nicknames.

Those in power have become concerned that, while marketable, the new nicknames are bringing too much negative publicity to the minor leagues. Staten Island's new nickname search—narrowed to the Pizza Rats, Killer Bees, Heroes, Rock Pigeons and Bridge Trolls—already has raised the ire of area politicians and has been delayed as a result.

In an exclusive interview with Baseball America on Tuesday at the Winter Meetings, O'Conner said that he's certainly concerned about the new names, but also wants to be careful to not overstep his bounds and infringe on what he terms as the "state's rights" of each team.

"I govern from a position of, if you stay within the four corners of our master agreement, I give you as much latitude as you need," O'Conner said. " . . . So on this name-changing thing, they have an asset, it's a considerable asset, it's an intangible, intellectual property asset. I'm not interested in stripping their right to maximize their potential monetization and asset value of that asset.

"There is a line—and I don't know where it is, but I think we've at least pushed up to it if we haven't crossed it—where, in you exercising your rights, (do) you harm your league and the other members. That's my concern."

O'Conner asked the presidents of all 14 minor leagues this week to have individual discussions among themselves about which path they believe is the correct one. Even so, O'Conner recognizes that names that cause him and his fellow executives to blanch might not always cause the same reaction among fans. And if fans are willing to continue to purchase tickets and merchandise and spend their money with the club after a name-change, that's the bottom line.

"Go to your league and talk about this openly. Is there a league concern about this trend?" he said. "I'll be honest with you: Names have come to me and they've come to me—and we will not allow offensive nicknames—and my reaction has been, 'You've got to be kidding me.' And (they wind up) on the top 25 most popular. So I have learned in 25 years that my taste in creativity is terrible.

"I'm not going to project my personal opinions on their business, but if their partners, if they feel that one of these names is across the line to the point that the enterprise of the league, its reputation, whatever, tangible, intangible, harms the league or they harm members in the league, then I think you have to have a conversation about some kind of guidelines or restrictions or governance."

One minor league club official, whose team is in a league with a newly renamed team, said he understands that while these new names can seem off the wall or up against the line of good taste, they often achieve their goal injecting new life into a brand and sending fans through the turnstiles and to the cash registers to purchase merchandise.

"It's unique, it's a great attention-getter," the anonymous official said. "Some of the logos have left a little bit to be desired, but it's all about refreshing your brand, refreshing your image and getting interest in the team. A lot of these teams are getting (recognized) nationwide . . . It definitely does get attention for minor league baseball."

O'Conner also recognizes that these names are not pulled out of thin air. The Rumble Ponies were based on a children's book written by a local author about carousel horses coming to life at night. The Baby Cakes are the prize that come inside a King Cake, a New Orleans-based staple. Pizza Rats, if Staten Island were to choose that name, is based on a video clip of a rat dragging a slice of pizza up a set of subway stairs.

And all of the recent names, with the exception of the Jumbo Shrimp, were the product of fan submissions and then fan votes. O'Conner does want to do something to keep the names from going too far, but he also doesn't want to dissuade teams from having that kind of fan interaction.

"If you take a fan vote, you're taking suggestions in what the final ballot looks like. There can be some filters," he said. "No, I'm not opposed to the fan vote. What I am is, I am watching, and concerned may be a little strong, but there is almost a concern that we're letting our imagination and creativity take us to places  we may not want go."

Even in the case of Staten Island, where city councilwoman Debi Rose said the choices for the team's new name "sound like something out of a zombie apocalypse," O'Conner is hesitant to step in and tell the team it needs to pick something else.

As long as it's not offensive, he says, it's OK, but the team will have to do hard thinking on its own about whether it wants to proceed.

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"That's for them to decide. If they cost themselves attendance, if they cost themselves political relationships, they need to evaluate that," he said. "My counsel to them is: Think all of this through before you do it."

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