Part of Todd "Parney" Parnell's job duties as vice president of the Richmond Flying Squirrels is to be social. Whether he's greeting fans at the gate, taking part in on-field stunts and promotions, or spreading cheer and the Flying Squirrels brand at pubs and restaurants around town, the 2011 Minor League Executive of the Year has become quite the popular figure in Richmond since helping bring baseball back to the Diamond four years ago.
Or as Chuck Greenberg, Parnell’s former boss with the Altoona Curve and State College Spikes, likes to say: "He's the best people person in minor league baseball."
But even Parney knows that if a popularity contest were to be held in Richmond, he would play second-fiddle to the man the Flying Squirrels will be honoring at the ballpark tonight: Virginia Commonwealth men's basketball coach Shaka Smart.
"He's the king," Parnell said of Smart. "He gets the gold medal for popularity and all the rest of us are just trying to be on the platform."
Tonight is Shaka Smart Night at the Diamond, and the coach who led the Rams to the Final Four two years ago will be on hand to throw out the first pitch, shake hands, sign autographs and promote his favorite charity: FRIENDS Association for Children, which provides day care and after-school programming for local kids.
The Flying Squirrels will pay tribute to Smart by passing out a bobblehead in his likeness to the first 2,000 fans through the gates at the Diamond. Parnell says the promotion is a natural, as the Diamond also serves as the home field for Virginia Commonwealth's baseball team. A large contingent of VCU alumni and students will be on hand, Parnell said, and Richmond will wear special black and gold jerseys representing VCU's colors.
Those uniforms will be auctioned off after the game in honor of another local legend: former baseball coach Paul Keyes, who died last November at the age of 50 after battling melanoma. Proceeds from the auction will benefit the Paul Keyes Memorial Scholarship Foundation.
"I miss him everyday," Parnell said of Keyes, who had worked at VCU since 1985, spent the past 18 seasons years as the Rams' baseball coach and was instrumental in helping form a partnership with the Flying Squirrels. "He was a well-respected person in the baseball community, and even more so, he was a person who got it and affected a lot of people's lives."
Bobbles Here, Bobbles There . . .
It's hardly an unofficial holiday for bobbleheads (not like the May the Fourth is for Star Wars). In fact, it is just another weekend around the minor leagues, one in which plenty of creative giveaways and promotions fill teams' schedules.
So, if collecting bobbleheads is your thing, there are plenty on offer.
• George Brett BobbleArms, Saturday, Omaha Storm Chasers: (Pacific Coast): The Storm Chasers entered their offseason team meetings intent on adding more promotions and giveaways this season. The idea was raised to create a bobblehead of their big league affiliate Kansas City Royals’ most famous alumni, George Brett, and to do so in the most creative of ways: celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Hall of Famer's famous pine tar incident.
So the team scrapped the bobblehead idea and instead drew up a Georget Brett BobbleArms doll, whose arms will wave in similar fashion as Brett's did after umpires nullified his go-ahead home run against the Yankees and ruled him out for having too much pine tar on his bat.
"Everyone has done bobbleheads and there have even been bobblefeet for soccer players and other things like that," Omaha general manager Martie Cordaro said. "We wanted to do something different."
Brett won't be on hand to come storming out of the Storm Chasers' dugout at Werner Park, but he did sign off on the promotion and helped make it a reality, Cordaro said.
• Goodyear BobbleBlimp, Saturday, Akron Aeros (Eastern): Under first-year owner Ken Babby, the Aeros have put an emphasis on promotions and giveaways this season as a way to reach out to its fan base and reverse the downward trend in attendance over the past several years.
The team has already passed out a bobblehead of former Ohio State and new University of Akron football coach Jim Tressel and will soon pay tribute to the city's ties to the birthplace of Quaker Oats with an Ode to Oats promotion (May 27), and will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pro Football Hall of Fame by passing out an orange juice squeezer in the shape of the HOF's roof (July 27).
On Saturday night, the Aeros will honor something near and dear to the hearts of Akron residents: the Goodyear blimp. Located just across town from Goodyear headquarters, the Aeros will pass out a BobbleBlimp to the first 1,000 fans through the gates of Canal Park.
"People get excited about the blimp in Akron," said Aeros director of media relations Adam Liberman, an Akron native who previously spent 10 years in the Atlanta Braves media relations department. "One of the neat things about growing up in Akron is that blimp would be out . . . It's a neat little promotion that so far has gotten a good response in the community."
Other bobblehead giveaways this weekend include: Avisail Garcia Bobblehead (tonight, West Michigan WhiteCaps); Matt Kemp Bobblehead (tonight, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes); Freddie Freeman Bobblehead (Saturday, Gwinnett Braves); Matt Cain Bobblehead (Saturday, Fresno Grizzlies); Barry Zito Bobblehead (Sunday, Sacramento River Cats).