Unusual nicknames in minor league baseball have often been the center of debate, delight and disdain. While some teams, such as the New Orleans Baby Cakes and Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, have adopted their out-of-the-box monikers permanently, dozens of major league affiliates across the country wore temporary name changes this season, with life spans starting at 24 hours.
The nation-sweeping trend hit the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. On Aug. 18, the Delmarva Shorebirds — the Orioles’ Low-A affiliate — switched out their orange uniforms for ones adorned with white-bread sandwiches encasing the famous pork-medley patty. Concession stands served scrapple-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, scrapple breakfast pizza, scrapple nuggets and “Dogfish Head’s Beer for Breakfast,” brewed with scrapple.
Behold, the Delmarva Scrapple, for one day only.
“It wasn't a publicity stunt where you sold a few sandwiches. People were really buying it,” Delmarva general manager Chris Bitters said.
“They're food items that the community resonates with. That's the important part. People here are passionate about scrapple. You're passionate about it in one of two ways. You either love it, or you hate it. You're not going to find too many people who go, 'Scrapple? Eh. I could do with it, or I could do without it.’ ” Bitters said.
Bitters is a Californian who’d never eaten scrapple growing up but, like many in this area eventually fell victim to its greasy lure. His kids eat it.
One-third of the announced 5,186 who attended that night, according to Bitters, bought something scrapple, whether it was gear or grub.
“Whether it's a permanent team name or something like we're doing, it [has] to be something that resonates in your community,” he said.
For the Aberdeen IronBirds, that’s the bay and the military. The Short-A team took name rebranding a step further than its Eastern Shore counterparts, surrendering its IronBirds name for 12 games of the season.
The team fronted as the Star-Spangled Banners for every Sunday home game, highlighted by Military Appreciation Day on Aug. 9, thanks to the observations of a new staffer, who pointed out a War of 1812-themed Maryland license plate, said IronBirds general manager Matt Slatus. The team worked with Fort McHenry to approve the idea and even bring its flag out to the field on the first night.
“It definitely wasn't a political statement in any way,” Slatus said. “It's just that we're proud to be from Maryland, we're proud to be based in Maryland. Maryland is the home to the national anthem.”
To coincide with the Bassmaster Elite fishing competition, which was to be held nearby but was canceled because of flooding and unsafe boating conditions, the IronBirds also rechristened themselves the Harford County Anglers of Aberdeen on July 27 and 28.
And if that wasn’t enough, after a successful night in 2017, they then brought the Steamed Crabs back for a second season Aug. 24, a sold-out game. Tables piled high with Old Bay-crusted crustaceans. The glorious visage of mascot Kalvin the Krab (named after Cal Ripken Jr., of course) returned.
All three games featured unique uniforms, which were auctioned off postgame to benefit local charities.
“Fans love seeing different uniforms. They love seeing players in funky hats. They love seeing players in blue instead of black-and-orange for a night,” Slatus said. “Deep down, we're still the Orioles, we're still the IronBirds, we're still Cal Ripken's team. But we like to have a little bit of fun along the way.”
Aberdeen, which drew an average of 3,964 in 2017, didn’t notice much of an attendance bump from the promotion. It could have planned the night as a pick-me-up for a slow day, but instead penciled it in for a weekend, which would normally draw a larger crowd anyway, and against the Staten Island Yankees, an important game.
And therein lies the point.
“I think, in minor league baseball, for the players, it's one thing — it's a training ground, it's a road to the big leagues — but to the fans, it's a lot more than that,” Slatus said. “It's a piece of your regional market. It's a piece of your local community. What you're seeing are these markets having fun with something that's special to them.”
But as innocent things sometimes do, the fleeting rebrands around the minors drew the ire of some fans who did not find the name change palatable, as in the case of the Delmarva Scrapple.
“A fan asked me on social media, ‘quoted’ us on social media and said ‘Are you so desperate you need to change your name?’ ” Bitters said.
“I responded back, ‘Desperate? What do you mean, desperate? We’re having fun for a night. How is that desperate?’ ”
A few teams suffered the wrath of the old-name loyalists as the Staten Island Pizza Rats, nee Yankees, did. Bitters has a friend in the Yankees organization who reported receiving flak from fans over the “edgy” pick for its five-game name change, which honored the now-mythical rodent that carried a slice of cheese pizza down New York City subway steps.
The Order Sons of Italy in America Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno Lodge #212 — an Italian community — canceled their own Italian Heritage Night at the ballpark to express their anger, according to Staten Island Live.
In a letter, the group wrote, “In their infinite wisdom, they have decided to add ‘Rats’ to ‘Pizza’ ( Yes! Pizza.. One of the few positive things people automatically associate with Italians and Italy). To say the least, that’s a pizza topping that gives me a bad case of (agita).”
Staten Island made more money as the “Pizza Rats” for five days in 2018 than it did as the Yankees for the whole of 2017, per SBNation.
The picket line didn’t stop with some fans, though the seriousness did. In response to the Connecticut Tigers becoming the New England Lobster Rolls, one ballclub — even if it was a joke — still felt that embracing whimsy should be a commitment:
They're not serious. Only committing to one day pfffft.
As young as the alternative-name fad is, it’s nothing new for a minor league team to change its name. Between 1980 and 2011, eight minor league baseball teams on average rebranded each year, sometimes because of a change of city, MLB parent team or a desire for a new look, a 2016 study found. When a team rebrands itself from an MLB name to a “local name” — for example, the Binghamton Mets to the Rumble Ponies —there’s an increase in attendance.
There’s also a bump in reactions on social media, which are not always positive.
“People from outside of the area only see it on social but maybe don't understand the joke. They think it's a name that shouldn't be called, whether you're talking about the New Orleans Baby Cakes, for instance,” Bitters said. “On social, you'd think they'd made their own graves. But then if you look, and they're in the top 25 of merchandise sales.”
The novelty factor is as inseparable from minor league baseball as a shark to a remora fish. One needs the other to survive. But the novelty of a new, uncommon name can wear off pretty soon, as the study found, sometimes within a year.
So doing it for one day makes sense. There isn't time for people to marvel and forget.
Here’s an abridged list of temporary name changes across the country:
33 teams across minor league baseball also took part in MiLB’s “Copa de la Diversión,” or “Fun Cup,” donning Spanish names such as the Cangrejos Fantasmas de Chesapeake, or, Bowie Baysox.