Welcome to Bat Flips & Nerds, Rob Pritchard…
It is three decades since Kevin Costner first introduced a British audience to the magic of Minor League Baseball, first as ‘Crash’ Davis in Bull Durham, then, a year later, as Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams.
In the first, Costner played a veteran catcher sent down to the lowest level of the Minor Leagues – Single-A – to play for the North Carolina-based Durham Bulls, where he spends the movie mentoring promising pitcher ‘Nuke’, played by Tim Robbins, and romancing groupie Annie Savoy, played by Robbins’ future real-life wife Susan Sarandon.
Bull Durham was a smash hit, grossing more than $50million in the US and winning a host of awards, while also introducing a new audience to baseball at a time when the sport had yet to be broadcast regularly in the UK.
The following year, Kev was back on the mound, so to speak, helping ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham become household names in the fantasy-drama that saw his character hear mysterious voices telling him to build a baseball field on his Iowa farm.
Just like Bull Durham, the film was a huge success, grossing nearly $85million Stateside, being nominated for three Oscars and again reminding Brits of the romantic allure of the sport known as ‘America’s pastime’.
The Minor Leagues are central to the plots of both films, with the Durham Bulls being a real team who have since risen to the highest level – Triple-A – and attract fans from all over the world.
In Field of Dreams, the character of ‘Moonlight’ Graham is based on a real-life ballplayer of the same name who spent seven seasons with the Charlotte Hornets and Binghamton Bingoes, desperate for a chance to prove himself in the Majors, before finally making his one, fleeting appearance for the New York Giants in 1905, where he famously never got an at-bat.
But why is all this relevant?
Well, because the wondrous nature of both films fuelled my interest in baseball as a ten or eleven-year-old schoolboy – an interest that has endured for 30 years.
Baseball and more specifically the Minor Leagues were what I thought sport was all about in all its rugged, tobacco chewing, cap-tipping glory.
My enthusiasm for the sport grew when Channel 5 began screening live Major League games at the start of the 1997 season, fronted by the irresistible Jonny Gould and his preppy American sidekick Josh Chetwynd, then again when I attended the University of Utah for a semester two years later.
I adopted the Houston Astros, who won the National League Central title in three straight seasons between 1997-99, as my team, developing man crushes on the big-hitting first baseman Jeff Bagwell and all-action second baseman Craig Biggio, complete with his pine tar-covered helmet, which I later learnt helped improve his batting grip.
The Astros also had a funky name, drawn from Houston’s history as the home of manned spaceflight, and a futuristic stadium, the Astrodome, to further increase my sense of wonder.
And it is the topic of nicknames that I want to focus on for the remainder of this blog.
It is 150 years since the first openly professional baseball team was formed, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, beginning a trend that has seen clubs adopt attention-grabbing nicknames relating to all manner of relevant subjects, from uniform colours to local industries, from animals to historical references and figures.
In more recent years, with those nicknames have come even more eye-catching team logos, and it was the names and logos of two such Minor League clubs which saw me drive hundreds of miles across Florida to watch them in action.
The city of Jacksonville has, at least recently, been best-known in the UK as the home of the Jaguars – the National Football League franchise owned by moustachioed Pakistani-American businessman Shahid Khan, which has played yearly ‘home’ games at Wembley Stadium.
However, just a home run hit away from the Jaguars’ cavernous TIAA Bank Field are the smaller but equally impressive Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, home to the (wait for it) Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
With the sea off the North East Florida coast teeming with the little pink crustaceans, the nickname is not only attention-grabbing, but also biologically and geographically accurate.
When a family holiday in St Augustine, an hour south of ‘Jax’, coincided with Opening Day 2019, it was a no-brainer that I would drive up I-95 and catch the Jumbo Shrimp in action against Tennessee’s Jackson Generals – named in tribute to the late General and President Andrew Jackson.
The experience did not disappoint. The buzz outside the neat, tidy and spotlessly-clean stadium was akin to that of a cricket or rugby union match, with families, older couples and groups of youngsters and men mingling happily, playing cornhole and enjoying a drink or hotdog in the early evening sunshine.
Inside, The Star Spangled Banner was followed by a helicopter flypast provided by sailors from the nearby Mayport Naval Station. The baseball that followed was competitive and enthusiastically followed by the 8,630 fans present, despite the fact the Jumbo Shrimp went down to a 5-0 loss.
The highlight of the evening, though, came during the seventh-inning stretch, as I did a lap of the stadium and bumped into the team’s mascot. Think of a man dressed as furry, seven-foot tall shrimp and you are seeing Scampi, who happily posed for a selfie before swimming (do shrimps swim?) off to take part in his next on-field activation.
I drove home thoroughly delighted with my first Minor League experience.
Enthused, I decided to take in a second game, the following evening, 90 miles down the road in the resort of Daytona Beach – home of the team with the best name in the sporting world, the Daytona Tortugas!
The Single-A Advanced affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds – the first professional baseball club to give themselves a nickname, remember – the Tortugas were originally named the Cubs, having been affiliated to Chicago’s Major League club of the same name.
When the Cubs were replaced by the Reds in 2014, the team needed a new name and decided to pick one with a ‘local’ angle. After several brainstorming sessions, the team’s staff settled on Tortugas, the Spanish word for turtles.
“Sea turtles are common here,” Tortugas general manager Josh Lawther explained in a statement you could never imagine being made in the English Premier League, or anywhere else outside the United States. “You can find them up and down the beachline. Their nesting season runs parallel to the baseball season, and that adds to the continuity of it.”
In addition to their fantastic nickname, the team also had possibly the best crest I had ever seen – a snarling Tortuga gripping a baseball bat, ready to launch a home run into the Atlantic Ocean.
What’s more, the Tortuga’s played at the Jackie Robinson Ballpark, a picturesque 105-year-old stadium which was the first to allow the black Robinson to play professional baseball in spring training in 1946, when other Florida cities had banned him from appearing for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate Montreal Royals.
I had to see this team in action.
What’s more, the Tortugas were taking on the Florida Fire Frogs in an all-amphibian battle that was not to be missed.
And so I drove down State Route A1A, hugging the Atlantic coast, before parking up an hour before first pitch. After admiring the stadium, and the statue of Robinson outside, I headed straight for the team store. I needed a t-shirt with the Tortugas logo on it!
While in the open-air store, I got talking to a team official, who explained that some locals had initially opposed the Tortugas name, but most had now embraced it, along with the team’s mascot Shelldon.
The official, it turned out, was part-owner Bob Fregolle, and what he told me next confirmed that driving nearly 100 miles to see a Minor League baseball team, simply because I liked their logo, made perfect sense.
“We realised Shelldon had too much to do on a gameday and we needed a second mascot, so we created a turtles-only dating site last season to find Shelldon a mate,” he told me, proudly. “We then created Shelly, and they got married on the final day of the 2018 season. Later this year, we plan for them to have a baby, but the fans don’t know that yet!”
Just as I did with Scampi in Jacksonville, I sought out Shelldon for a selfie. He happily obliged. Well, he had little choice, seeing as the face on his large, green head was stitched into a permanent smile.
I am 40 years old, but at a Minor League Baseball game, normal behaviour did not apply.
I can’t wait to go back and do it all again, although I might not be so quick to seek out a selfie with the mascot of the Amarillo Sod Poodles…