On nearly any day, the most popular figure at Durham Bulls Athletic Park is neither a player nor a manager. It’s Wool E. Bull, the iconic minor league franchise’s mischievous, dancing, go-kart driving mascot that is regularly trailed around the ballpark by kids and parents seeking pictures and autographs.
Wool E.’s fame is hardly limited to the DBAP, as the character makes between 250 and 300 appearances at schools, parades and charity events around the Triangle region. Yet the mascot’s popularity is limited to the outfit because the person who has brought Wool E. Bull to life for the past 10 years prefers to remain anonymous.
“The character is the character,” said the person behind Wool E. Bull, who agreed to discuss the life of a minor league mascot on the condition of anonymity. “Some people like to divulge that they are the character. I prefer to keep Wool E. sacred. The Durham Bulls have been good about that: Keeping Wool E. Wool E.”
What follows is my conversation with the person who makes a full-time living as Wool E. Bull about the fun, challenges and aspirations of a minor league mascot. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
Chuck Greenberg once described longtime minor league executive Todd “Parney” Parnell as the best people-person in all of baseball, that he has a natural talent for building relationships with people from all walks of life. What becomes clear in talking with Parney, the vice president and chief operating officer of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, is that he cares for the people around the game at least as much as they care for him.
Parney has used that passion and love for baseball and people to become one of the most well-respected—and certainly the most energetic—operator in minor league baseball over the past three decades. From Reading to Altoona to State College to Richmond, Parney has matched a colorful personality with an even more colorful wardrobe to do anything and everything for the sake of the team. That attitude has made the Flying Squirrels one of the most popular teams in the minors since Parney helped launch the franchise with Chuck Domino in 2010.
What follows is my conversation with Parney in which he discusses his approach to people and running a team, and why he loves minor league baseball so much. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
Ben Hill has seen it all and done it all when it comes to the antics of minor league baseball. By the end of this season, he will also have visited all of minor league baseball’s ballparks over his career of covering the wild and wacky side of the sport for milb.com. The journey marks quite a milestone for Hill, who has become an expert on minor league promotions and ballpark entertainment since joining MiLB.com in 2005 and launching his popular Ben’s Biz Blog two years later.
In his “On the Road” columns, Hill provides a first-hand look at a team’s promotions and ballpark entertainment, often participating in a variety of on-field shenanigans and giving a dining guide to concession fare—the latter he has passed on to “Designated Eaters” since being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012. His weekend “Promo Previews” have been a must-read for people in the industry and passionate fans.
What follows is my conversation with Hill about his path and experiences in minor league baseball. The transcript has been edited in places for length and clarity.
You certainly are not a traditional journalist. You have a beat that you cover, but your cover it almost from the inside. How would you describe what you do?
Sometimes I ask myself that: What exactly am I? In a way I still don’t know. My official title is writer at MiLB.com and it has been pretty much since I was part-time to start this in 2005. When I try to describe what I do in a fairly succinct way, what I tell everyone is that I cover the business and culture of minor league baseball for MiLB.com. That is about as simply as I can put it. I think that sums up the beat pretty well: business and culture. Continue reading
Smell the Change.
Laugh. Cheer. Oink.
Bacon is Better.
These are all mottos that Kurt Landes has embraced while bringing the zaniness of minor league baseball into the mainstream during his tenure as president and general manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Landes has established himself as one of the preeminent promoters in minor league baseball, beginning as a young GM with the Daytona Cubs and Hagerstown Suns before launching the IronPigs franchise in 2008. He has since become a trendsetter, building the IronPigs into one of the top draws in the minors while pushing the limits with creative promotions.
What follows is my conversation with Landes about his quick rise through the minors, how he approaches promotions and his philosophy for building a successful brand. His insight should be useful for anyone involved in marketing—whether in professional baseball or elsewhere. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
When did you decide that you want to work in minor league baseball? What about minor league baseball appealed to you as a career?
Like many high school kids, I was really involved in sports growing up, so I wanted to be involved in sports but I didn’t really know what that meant. I ended up going to Bowling Green State University in Ohio and doing a lot of different internships and practicums in different areas of sport, and one of those was with the Toledo Mud Hens. And I really enjoyed it and really gravitated toward using sport and entertainment collectively. I enjoyed that a lot.
The following year they asked me to come back full-time. And that was back in 1995. I cut my teeth and got my start with the Mud Hens in Ohio. I really understood how baseball and sport was a vehicle for entertainment and I really enjoyed that cross-section, and minor league baseball kind of hooked me at that point in time.
Josh Whetzel has been calling minor league baseball games for nearly 25 years. Beginning in 1995 with the now-defunct Albany (Ga.) Polecats, Whetzel has steadily climbed his way up the minor league ladder, including stints with the Kinston Indians and Binghamton Mets before joining the Rochester Red Wings in 2003.
Like most everyone else in the minors, Whetzel, a native of Parsons, Kan., keeps his sights set on making it to the majors. Though a career in the minors can be a grind — whether as a player, executive or broadcaster — Whetzel considers himself fortunate to be calling games in the International League.
What follows is my conversation with Whetzel about his path through minors and what it takes to make it as a broadcaster in baseball. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
Can you describe what a day in the life of a minor league broadcaster is like?
It kind of varies a lot depending on the guy and his job description. Quite frankly, I have a few less responsibilities than probably a lot of the other minor league broadcasters, which is fine by me. It gives me more time to focus on trying to come up with stuff to talk about in the games.
My previous jobs, I was more involved in the PR stuff and putting together game notes and that sort of thing. In this particular job with the Red Wings, I don’t have to do as much of the PR stuff and I am not involved with the game notes, and so basically I spend all day getting ready for the broadcast, scouring the internet for tidbits of information that I am going to use in the game that night.
I know a little bit about your backstory, that you survived cancer at a young age and in some ways that helped lead you into a career as a broadcaster. Can you shed some light on that experience?
By the time I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to get into sports broadcasting, but I’m not the sort of person who is good at asking people for stuff, so I didn’t necessarily know how to get a job in radio. I was helping the local sports announcer in my hometown do stats for high school games and that sort of thing. And when I got diagnosed with cancer when I was going into my senior year of high school, some classmates of mine knew that I was a huge baseball fan, and specifically a Dodgers fan. So they contacted an outfit called the Dream Factory, which is kind of like Make-A-Wish, and organized a trip to Los Angeles for me to see the Dodgers.
Minor league baseball hasn’t been the same since Jason Klein and Casey White arrived nearly two decades ago and began reshaping the industry by designing team names and logos with a flair for the outrageous. The lifelong friends from San Diego have taken their company Brandiose to new heights, working with roughly half of the sport’s teams and leading the industry that strives for family-friendly entertainment to a new level of silliness.
Brandiose has created many of minor league baseball’s top-selling (and most outrageous) brands, including the El Paso Chihuahuas, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Omaha Storm Chasers and Richmond Flying Squirrels. Their approach has not been embraced by everyone, with some observers questioning whether teams are going too far off the beaten path, but Klein and White wouldn’t want it any other way.
What follows is my conversation with Klein on how Brandiose has evolved while changing minor league baseball, and what the future might hold for himself and White, and minor league baseball as an industry. The transcript has been edited in parts for clarity.
Your story is pretty well known within the Minor League Baseball community, beginning with landing your first client, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, out of college. What was that experience like and how did it shape your careers?
Being so close to Disney growing up, we loved the idea that a story transported you to another world. We took that approach of storytelling with our work and built the brand around a character named “Gem Dandy.” We didn’t really know what the Diamond Jaxx was [about], so we invented this additional story about the diamond mines in the hills of Tennessee.
The brand was great, a lot of visual elements to the story, pickaxes, the character had a handlebar mustache like the Pringles man, which had the naming rights to the park. But there are no diamond mines in the hills of Tennessee. So, I think that was the biggest lesson, that you have got to do your research. So from that point forward, we started travelling and doing on-site research for every brand we created.
Chuck Greenberg broke into minor league baseball on April 1, 2001, after completing the purchase of the Altoona Curve. A minor league outsider whose experience in sports grew out of overseeing the sale of his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins to his client and friend Mario Lemieux, Greenberg has grown into one of the most successful and influential owners in minor league baseball.
In the 16 years since his purchase of the Curve, Greenberg has grown his minor league stable by adding the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and State College Spikes in 2006, selling the Curve back to previous owner Bob Lozinak in 2008, and buying the Frisco RoughRiders in 2014. He oversaw the purchase of the Texas Rangers out of bankruptcy court in 2010 and briefly served as team president before resigning due to a dispute with co-owner and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. Greenberg sits on the board of trustees for Minor League Baseball and helped create the Baseball Internet Rights Company (BIRCO).
What follows is my conversation with Greenberg about his path in minor league baseball — which while not traditional, could serve as a blueprint for aspiring owners and executives — as well as his views on the state of the game. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
It’s been over 15 years since you broke into minor league baseball. Coming from outside of the sport, what was your inspiration for buying a minor league team?
Ironically, today April 1, is 16 years to the day we closed on the purchase of the Altoona Curve. So, it’s been 16 years today. We had our first game on Thursday, April 4, and it was quite a scramble to get ready. I only brought in two people, Parney [Todd Parnell] and Rick Janac, and we got handed this string of keys and we didn’t know which key opened up the men’s room or anything else. But we figured it out and had a great opener with [former Steeler] Jerome Bettis throwing out the first pitch and it’s been a blast ever since.