One way minor league and independent professional baseball clubs differ from MLB is in their willingness to commit to innovative (some might say goofy) in-game promotions. As much as I love the baseball at Frontier League games, it’s clearly not major-league caliber. In addition, the players would really rather not be here; their goal is to get to the show. And in the affiliated minor leagues, the primary team goal isn’t even to win (though I’m sure they all want to). The main focus is to develop players for the major league team.
All of which leads the sub-majors (defined here as minor league affiliates and independent pros like the Frontier League) to come up with ways to get fans in the gate and, once there, keep them entertained so they’ll come back. The Freedom haven’t just committed to promotions; they’ve moved there and burned their passport.
I pulled into the parking lot of UC Health Stadium on a cloudy Friday night and looked up at the video billboard to find I’d chosen “Super Hero Night”, missing “Martial Arts Night” by a couple of days. The promotions schedule relies heavily on discounted booze, with “Thirsty Thursdays” (one dollar draft beers), “Taco Tuesdays” ($2 tacos and Mexican-style lagers), and “Whiskey Wednesdays” ($1 off bourbon cocktails). Like many other parks, UC Health has a bar area in one corner of the concourse. Unlike the others, there is an attached smoking area. Because Kentucky.
For several innings during this game, one lucky fan won the right to be attached with velcro to a billboard just outside the right field fence. Armed with a baseball glove, he was trying to catch a home run ball, in which case he’d win $8,110. Boone County sponsors the promotion to encourage home owners to call 811 before digging on their property and damaging utility lines. I guess they figured nobody would do it for $811. (But I would. Hell, I’d pay $811.)
At one point between innings costumed characters (presumably interns clutching very short straws) raced around the infield. This is a common promotion in the majors, with racing presidents (Washington Nationals), sausages (Milwaukee Brewers), pierogies (Pittsburgh Pirates), etc., etc., etc.
But the Freedom chose to envelop the contestants in inflated eyeballs. The costumes were about four feet across and caused a lot of stumbling which was – of course – the point.
Later, all of the kids in the ballpark were gathered just outside the third base line and suddenly loosed to run across the field at the end of an inning. The interns were trying to herd them in one direction and get them back in the stands within thirty seconds. It was a valiant effort, but four-year-olds don’t have the sense of urgency required to accomplish the task, so the staff chased kids around the field for a minute or two as the pitcher warmed up.
The ballpark sits right next to interstate 75, the main north-south artery through Cincinnati, Ohio. You can hear the roar of traffic from anywhere inside. The stadium was neat and well-kept, with artificial carpet instead of real grass. The usual playground is located down the left field line, but a multi-story inflatable slide is added at game time.
The concession stands feature several Cincinnati-area staples, including Montgomery Inn Ribs, chili, Christian Moerlein beer, and – gulp – goetta sliders.
If you aren’t from Cincinnati, you probably don’t know what goetta is. Well over 90% of all U.S. goetta sales take place in and around the Queen City. I’ve tasted it before, and I’m not a fan. It’s basically sausage with steel cut oatmeal mixed in. I like sausage and I like oatmeal, but not together. It’s like mixing beer and maple syrup. They both need to stay in their own country.
Aaron Brodie serves as Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations for the Freedom, and he arranged several interviews for me. We met on the concourse during batting practice, and he gave me his take on the team and players’ personalities. Two of the players scheduled for an interview were Xavier Turner and Jose Brizuela.
Both had successful college careers and were drafted by major league organizations. Turner was drafted out of high school but chose to play college baseball at Vanderbilt. After his sophomore season he was again drafted, and this time signed a contract with the Texas Rangers. He bounced around in A ball for two years, ending up on the disabled list three times. Then at the end of the 2016 season, the Rangers released him shortly after MLB mandated a 100-game suspension for failing a test for a “drug of abuse”.
A suspension of that length means that he failed drug tests at least three times. If any MLB organization signs him to a contract in the future, he’ll have to serve the suspension before playing a single game.
Turner was out of baseball completely in 2017, working for his father at a baseball academy in their hometown of Sandusky, Ohio.
“I was depressed and didn’t know if I wanted to play baseball anymore,” he said. “I was going through a lot off the field. But then I entered the real world and found out how real it was.”
Being out of the game and wondering what might have been convinced him to give professional baseball another shot. Florence manager Dennis Pelfrey contacted him after seeing some video posted by an amateur scout, and Turner signed with the Freedom in February of 2018.
Turner understands that the suspension is a big hurdle for affiliated teams to overcome. They’d have to sign him and then essentially wait for an entire season before seeing him on the field.
“It only takes one out of 32 teams to like you, but I know (the suspension is) playing a big part in how they feel about me. But all I can do is control what I can control, and do the right things on and off the field.”
Brizuela was also drafted out of high school but deferred signing until the Oakland Athletics drafted him after three years at Florida State. He played at the A level for two years, never hitting above .270. Oakland released him during 2017 spring training, and he signed with the Freedom. In Florence he hit .321 with 13 homers and got a contract from the Dodgers. In sixteen games at the end of the 2017 season, he hit .353 with single-A Rancho Cucamonga, then was inexplicably released during the 2018 spring training.
Brodie had warned me in an email that Brizuela was “media shy”. I asked him if Brizuela had ever mentioned why the Dodgers released him after he hit .350 in A ball. Brodie said that he wouldn’t really give an answer, just saying it was “one of those things”. He also told me that it was hard to get the player to even agree to promotional videos. I asked whether there was a language barrier since Brizuela was born in Venezuela, but that’s not an issue since he’d grown up in Miami.
Players have avoided or declined interviews with me before, and this sounded like what was going on. I assured Brodie that it wasn’t a big deal if I didn’t get to talk to him. A player (or anybody else, for that matter) who grudgingly gives up a few minutes to talk is unlikely to say anything interesting anyway. If you’re on deadline and a player affects the game in a significant way, you have no choice and have to press the issue. But I’ve never goaded anybody into good quotes. Maybe that’s a professional failing of mine, but in this context I can do without awkward interviews.
In a game they lost 5-4, the Freedom had a chance to take the lead in the eighth inning. Brizuela doubled with one out, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Andres Mercurio singled to right field, but Brizuela ran through the manager’s stop sign at third and was thrown out at home. Mercurio tried to take second on the play, but he was thrown out as well to end the scoring threat.
A few days after I left, Florence sold Brizuela’s contract to the New York Mets and he was assigned to their short-season A team in Brooklyn. For his part, Turner was activated from the disabled list and hit two home runs in his first six games back. It’s hard to imagine a team giving Turner another chance. But, like all pro sports, baseball is a bottom line game. And certainly stranger things have happened. Like attaching somebody to a wall with velcro.