Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre applied the first strokes of a franchise makeover last night by replacing its Yankees nickname of the past six seasons with a new moniker that, while short on the tradition that the team’s previous name carried, offers plenty of creativity.
The third team name in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s franchise history is the RailRiders. It is the one team management is counting on to help erase the struggles of the past few seasons and kick off a new era at a newly renovated ballpark scheduled to debut on Opening Day next season.
The name intends to serve as a tribute to Scranton’s rail history, in particular the Laurel Line that once connected Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, and was the winner of a name-the-team contest that also included underwhelming finalists like Blast, Black Diamond Bears, Fireflies, Porcupines and Trolley Frogs. (For the record, RailRiders also was the favorite of Baseball America readers who participated in a poll on our Facebook page.)
RailRiders management kept the new name a secret since voting concluded in late August and unveiled it last night at a coming-out party in which it also displayed their new logo, designed by the sports marketing firm Brandiose, depicting a grimacing Porcupine riding atop the name RailRiders in the shape of a locomotive. The porcupine will be the team’s mascot after it finished on the most number of ballots in the name-the-team contest.
The team also showed off their new jerseys, with the home ones maintaining the Yankee pinstripes and blue cap as a nod to traditionalists who didn’t support a name change.
"To rekindle the past in a new, modern way was very important to us,” RailRiders general manager Rob Crain told the Scranton Times-Tribune. “When we were rebranding the club, we wanted to make sure that we touched our roots."
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman supported the new team name in a video message to fans at the celebration.
"I think we picked the best name out of the whole group," said Cashman, whose Yankees are part owners of the Triple-A team with Mandalay Baseball Properties. “I look forward to the top of the charts on merchandise sales, with people saying it loud and saying it proud. It's an awesome new stadium coming on line, a new uniform and rebranding it. And the association with the Yankees is as strong as ever."
The name is unique and opens the door to a variety of marketing campaigns and branding opportunities around the ballpark. The team hopes to follow in the success other newly-minted teams have had with offbeat team identities—like Flying Squirrels and IronPigs.
“The RailRiders brand signifies our re-energized commitment to the community, not only with a new team name and logos, but our unwavering focus to provide the best in affordable, family fun entertainment," said Crain, according to the Citizen Voice.
As much as RailRiders kick-starts the team’s future at its ballpark that enters the winter months in the midst of a $43 million facelift, it also puts the finishing touches on their unsuccessful recent past. The Yankees identity hardly worked out as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre had hoped when they signed on as the Bronx Bombers’ Triple-A affiliate after the 2006 season. The Phillies had just ended their 17-year partnership with Scranton and left town for a new franchise and ballpark coming to Lehigh Valley. Scranton stumbled upon an opportunity with the Yankees, who had cut ties with Columbus after 27 years, and decided to drop their venerable Red Barons nickname to adopt the one of their new big league affiliate.
Scranton officials thought they struck gold by affiliating with the Yankees, and for a couple of seasons it seemed they had done just that. Fans flocked to the ballpark in the first year of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, buying plenty of souvenirs along the way, as the team increased its overall attendance by more than 200,000 and drew a total of 580,908 in 66 openings—fifth-best in the IL. The team held steady at the gate in Year Two, but the honeymoon in Scranton was drawing to a close. The combination of a sour economy, a series of ballpark malfunctions and fans’ displeasure with what they perceived as a corporate management style of team operators Mandalay Baseball sent the team spiraling. Attendance dipped 28 percent over the next three seasons, leaving Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 12th in the 14-team International League with a 5,095 per-game average in 2011. The Yankees spent all of the 2012 season on the road while PNC Field began its complete renovation.
The changes happening in Scranton are far more than cosmetic. The new ballpark has the makings to be a gem, taking full advantage of the scenic Montage Mountain it cuts into while offering all the amenities of a modern ballpark. Mandalay Baseball, which exercised its option to buy the team from local officials this offseason, has found an eager general manager in Crain, who had spent the past four years as an assistant GM with the Omaha Storm Chasers of the Pacific Coast League. Crain, 30, heard fans' complaints about a lack of promotions and giveaways at the ballpark in previous seasons and has already set a new promotions schedule for 2013 that offers fans a treat every day of the week.
Scranton didn’t celebrate its new name with a press conference or a formulaic release. Rather, they took a page out of the Lehigh Valley playbook and threw a party for fans complete with fire-eating entertainers, face-painters and free food and drinks. (It was Lehigh Valley in 2007 that introduced the name IronPIgs to its fanbase with a bash that included pig races.)
“The community support was great,” Crain said of fans who packed a local ballroom, according to the Times-Tribune. “It really did just blow my mind. Spectacular."