READING, Pa.—It says something for an organization when it's willing to allow a hyperactive, screaming-like-he-belongs-in-an-insane-asylum hot dog vendor riding an ostrich named Rodrigo to be the face of the franchise.
Reading's Crazy Hot Dog Vendor
But then again, we're talking about the pioneers of between-inning entertainment, who arguably have done it better than any other minor league club for the last two decades—the wacky front office staff of the Reading Phillies (Eastern).
They're usually ready to go out on a limb, even if it's something as bizarre— yet hysterically funny—as the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor.
During the middle of the second inning of every home game, Matt Jackson—AKA the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor—waits along the home dugout on the first-base side. A brief, and somewhat cryptic, video introduction plays on the scoreboard in left field.
And then the weirdness begins.
Out springs the character, spinning and bucking around while wearing a stuffed ostrich costume, pretending to struggle to maintain his balance while whipping hot dogs into the crowd at around 60 mph.
"I've never had anyone chart me or put a (radar) gun on me, so I don't know how hard the throws are," Jackson says. "I know they play some music while I'm out there, but I don't hear anything. I'm totally locked in and everything goes quiet. I guess it's like anything else that requires full focus and physical activity."
R-Phils president Chuck Domino dreamed up the idea for the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor to use as a promotion for Berks Packing, a local third-generation, family-owned meat processor that has been in Reading since 1933.
Domino and general manager Scott Hunsicker remembered seeing Roscoe D. Vendor, who would make the rounds of the minor leagues, wearing a similar costume at the Winter Meetings 10 years ago and decided to improve upon the concept.
Crazy Hot Dog Vendor made his debut in Reading four years ago, and has grown in popularity ever since. But no one could have predicted he'd be such an effective marketing tool to keep people coming back to FirstEnergy Stadium.
Crazy Hot Dog Vendor In Action
This season alone, Jackson has been a key part of Reading's newspaper, television and billboard advertising campaigns—not to mention the T-shirts, plush dolls and bobbleheads in Jackson's image.
"We can't promote our players, so (Chase) Utley in Philadelphia . . . he's the reason kids go to the game (there)," Hunsicker said. "Mascots are cool and we've got five of them, but they can't talk. They're not humanoid. I mean they sort of are, but the crazy thing about the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor is to some kids and adults, he's kind of like our Utley. He's the face of the franchise—and you can talk to him.
"It's very egalitarian. He doesn't have access to things they don't have access to. He just gets to go out there one time, so it's almost like they get to go out there. The way the fans rally around him is fascinating."
It's difficult not to. The 28-year-old Jackson, who joined the team nine years ago as an intern and is part of the on-field promotions staff, was offered the role because the front office loved his personality and athleticism, and he takes the character to a completely different level by approaching his two-minute appearances as if he were about to step into a boxing ring.
"It gives new meaning to the word 'crazy,' " Akron hitting coach Lee May Jr. said after witnessing the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor during a recent five-game series at Reading. "He's got some kind of athleticism to go along with being completely insane. It's one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time."
"People really had no idea what to think of it when we started, but as the crowd liked it and the popularity grew, it definitely became pretty exciting," Jackson says. "It's very much a part of what we do here—it's taken on a life of its own. Whenever I head down to Philly and see Ryan Howard, he asks me how Rodrigo is doing.
"And just so you know, he's kind of a birdbrain. I mean Rodrigo, not Ryan Howard. Rodrigo's just not very smart and gets spooked easily by the crowd. He definitely doesn't like loud noises. That makes him want to run like hell . . . you never really know what he's going to do out there. He always keeps me on my toes, but sometimes it's hard to get off good throws because he's always freaking out."
Turnstiles Keep On Spinning
While the official results won't be in until every league has completed its season, it will be another year of record attendance for the minor leagues.
Through Labor Day, minor league teams had drawn more than 42.6 million fans, an increase of almost a million fans over last season. This would be the fourth consecutive year that the minor leagues set attendance records, after breaking a mark that had previously stood since 1949.
The overall record continues to go up because of new franchises, new markets and new ballparks, but also because of longtime franchises that continue to push themselves to get better. For the second straight year, for example, the San Jose Giants accomplished a feat they couldn't over the previous six: increase attendance and revenue.
In 2006, San Jose drew 157,484 fans in 67 home games—an increase of a little over 7,000 fans in 2005. This year, the Giants drew 171,028, fifth-best in the 10-team California League, bringing its two-season improvement to about 23,000 fans. From 2000-05, the Giants attendance increased by just 13,000 fans.
Many minor league teams set franchise attendance records this season—we'll look at the highs and lows of 2007 in the next issue—but few teams have had such a striking improvement despite a questionable long-term future.
"We revamped the fan experience. You win or lose based on how well the fan is entertained once inside your stadium," said team president Jim Weyermann, who after serving in a variety of roles in professional sports, was hired at the end of 2005 with the objective of improving the team's business plan. "We spent a great deal of time revamping that whole experience, from when you park in the parking lot to how you are greeted when you walk through the turnstiles to the quality of food you eat to the quality of balloons we give out."
The team invested $100,000 in new marketing ideas in the last two seasons, setting up sponsorship deals with four major media outlets in the Bay Area. The emphasis on marketing and on-air promotions has paid off with single-ticket and group sales accounting for the majority of the team's growth.
The team also invested $500,000 in a new scoreboard and video replay equipment, and hired a retired television director who brought in local broadcast journalism students to run the cameras. The Giants tripled the size of their children's activity area, making it a "significant experience for kids," Weyermann said. And a season-ticket holder donated an $80,000 sound system.
"Fans notice," Wyermann said. "You know the difference when you're staying at the Ritz Carlton or the Holiday Inn. We've done a good job at differentiating ourselves from the average. We want to have a great fan experience."
Where the Giants go from here remains a question. The team would like to sell naming rights to its ballpark and use the money for improvements, including expanding the stadium beyond its current capacity of 4,400. But they can't move forward with any long-term commitments until the big league Athletics complete their plans.
The A's want to build a new ballpark in Fremont, which is between Oakland and San Jose, to open as soon as 2011. A move there could potentially force the Giants to move out of San Jose.
"The growth will come with an extended stay in the city," Weyermann said. "We want to feed the things that are working and go from over 2,500 a game to 2,750 to 3,200."