Their new caps had green frogs on them. That, at first, was hard for the ballplayers from Howard County, Md., to swallow. In years past, these...
Their new caps had green frogs on them. That, at first, was hard for the ballplayers from Howard County, Md., to swallow.
In years past, these Little Leaguers had been Royals, Indians and Blue Jays, adopting the names and uniforms of major-league teams. But this year, their outfits are modeled on the minor-league Everett AquaSox, whose logo features a tree frog snagging a baseball with its tongue.
“It was weird,” said Chris Cason, 12.
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“Everett, Washington?” said Aidan Hoolachan, 13, remembering his reaction. “What’s that?”
The AquaSox are among a menagerie of oddly named teams inhabiting youth ballfields this spring. This year, parents find themselves cheering for the Lugnuts, SeaWolves, Muckdogs, Sand Gnats and RockHounds.
The names all come from franchises at the lower levels of professional baseball, scattered from Erie, Pa., to Midland, Texas.
A decade or so ago, their caps and jerseys were hardly available outside their stadium gift shops. Now, because of a shifting landscape in sports economics, minor-league clubs have become merchandising machines.
Lately they have broken into the lucrative market of Little League uniforms, benefiting from appealing logos and lower prices than those modeled on major-league uniforms.
“It’s still heavily major league, but minor leagues are starting to make an impact,” said David Deane, president of a Charlottesville, Va.-based jersey supplier, the Downtown Athletic Store.
Across the minor leagues, business from youth teams has more than doubled since 2000. Sales to Little Leagues represented about 5 percent of the $38.7 million worth of minor-league merchandise sold last year, according to baseball officials.
The indirect benefits are even greater, said Pat O’Conner, minor-league baseball’s chief operating officer.
“Junior is going to wear our logo twice a week [at games] and his hat every day,” O’Conner said. “That’s priceless.”
The origin of this trend has more to do with business than with baseball.
For decades, minor-league teams relied on Major League Baseball for much of their funding. Each team was associated with a parent club, such as the New York Yankees, and provided a home for its young prospects.
In return, the big-league clubs paid for bats, balls, uniforms and other expenses.
That changed in the early 1990s. Under an agreement between the majors and the minors, the minor-league clubs had to share more of their costs and had to start paying a “ticket tax” to Major League Baseball.
Partially in response to this change, the minor leagues turned to merchandising.
Many got rid of team names that were the same as those of their parent club. In their place, they brought in cartoonish characters.
There is a dizzy lugnut in Lansing, Mich., a menacing beaver in Portland, and, in Montgomery, Ala., a goggle-eyed biscuit with a butter pat for a tongue.
The Aberdeen, Md., IronBirds, a team owned by Cal Ripken Jr., adopted a smiling warplane as its logo. The former Modesto A’s in Northern California became the Nuts, with a logo featuring a smiling almond and walnut.
The success of this merchandising brought an unexpected benefit: Youth teams began asking for permission to be Biscuits, Beavers or Nuts.
The Northwest Washington, D.C., Little League chose minor-league gear as it searched for an alternative to big-league jerseys about four years ago.
Parents had complained about surly big leaguers setting a bad example. They saw the minor-league designs and “were just stunned at how cute [the uniforms] were,” league President Jim Mauro said. “There is something that is not corrupted about it.”
Other youth leagues chose minor-league logos to save money. These uniforms are handled through a different licensing agreement and are often several dollars cheaper than their major-league equivalents, coaches and vendors said.
Though some area youth leagues have switched from major to minor duds, team sales of major-league gear have continued to grow nationally, said Steve Armus, vice president of licensing for Major League Baseball properties.
He said the losers in all this might be such nontrademarked team names as Sluggers or Wildcats, or the names of such sponsors as pizza parlors or auto garages.
The jerseys have received mixed reviews from the players wearing them.
James Elliot, a coach of 8- and 9-year-olds in Fairfax, Va., said his charges — some of them Yankees last year — were happy to be the Lugnuts.
“They get a kick out of it, sitting in the dugout yelling, ‘Go Nuts!'” Elliott said.
It was a different story among the older boys on the AquaSox in Howard County.
“I was a little concerned,” said David Curry, their coach, “about being able to get 13- and 14-year-olds excited about having a little green frog on their cap.”
Curry did what he could, showing the players the Web site for the real AquaSox and inventing a new battle cry: “Fear the Frogs!”
Eventually, the players came around.
As they warmed up one evening last week before a game against the Bats, who wear the colors of a minor-league team from Louisville, Ky., AquaSox players said they’ve even started wearing the frog hats to school.
The reason? The same one that has always been able to change baseball players’ minds.
“We’ve been winning,” Chris Cason said.