Crawdads get creative in Hickory

The Class A team uses unique promotions to keep its fans on their toes

Hundreds of kids chase after mascot Little C and Conrad during the fifth inning of a Hickory Crawdads game July 15 at LP Frans Stadium. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

HICKORY — Promotions are an effective tool used by every team in minor league baseball to help draw fans into their stadiums and then keep them entertained once they’re there.

The Hickory Crawdads are no exception. They just do it more creatively than most.

While the Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the Texas Rangers still relies heavily on traditional promotional staples such as Dollar Dog Tuesdays, Star Wars Night and Church Bulletin Sundays, the remainder of its schedule is dotted with a series of more unique entries.

Take next week’s homestand against the Rome Braves, for example. Among the upcoming games are a Christmas in July celebration, Dad Bod Night and the tantalizingly intriguing Night of Horrible Promotions.

They’re all the creation of assistant general manager of marketing and merchandise Ashley Salinas and the Crawdads’ director of promotions and community relations, Karly Vollgrebe.

“A lot of teams you’ll see just do Fridays and Saturdays with their big promotions, but we wanted to be more than that,” said Salinas. “Wednesdays are kid-friendly days where we do some wacky promotions to entertain them, Thursdays are a little more adult-themed. Friday nights, anything that will tie well with fireworks is big, and Saturdays are usually our giveaways.

“We did some jersey giveaways this year and before we opened the gates, to see fans lined up down to the corner of the stadium is pretty incredible.”

The fan engagement doesn’t end once those in line enter the gates of LP Frans Stadium.

There’s a full-sized carousel adjacent to left field to help keep the youngest in attendance busy, a party porch with cushioned seats and picnic tables flanking the right field line for those who prefer an adult beverage or two while watching the game, and a stunning view of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond the outfield wall.

Hickory starting pitcher Michael Cuevas delivers to the plate against the Wilmington Blue Rocks during a July 15 game at LP Frans Stadium. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

There’s also an energetic, air guitar-strumming mascot named Conrad the Crawdad who makes his entrance to The B-52’s classic “Rock Lobster” and later leads all kids in attendance in a mad dash across the field.

Between innings, an on-field host who goes by the name of “Moonshot Mitchell” entertains the crowd by leading a series of between-inning contests designed to fit the theme of the night.

Last Friday, for example, the activities included a mashed potatoes eating contest and a game of hot potato to coincide with the Crawdads wearing uniforms of their alter ego, the Couch Potatoes — a name chosen to honor Hickory’s once-flourishing furniture industry and the sweet potatoes that are among the state’s most prevalent cash crops.

“We strive to do something different every night,” Douglas Locascio, who has been the team’s general manager since 2019, said of the production. “We approach it as if every night is going to be someone’s first game and it could be somebody’s last, so let’s make it as memorable as we can.

“We know we’re not going to lead our league in attendance just because we don’t have the size of some of these other teams. But the one thing we will do is try is put on the best performance and entertainment and give the most exceptional customer service.”

Locascio and his front office team must be doing something right. In 2017, the Rangers purchased the Crawdads with a pledge to keep the team in Hickory. They backed that pledge up by financing a series of renovations that added a new LED video board and six luxury suites to the 4,000-seat LP Frans Stadium.

Local government has also gotten into the act by planning a development surrounding the ballpark, parts of which are actually located in two different counties, and the adjacent airport.

“A lot of teams that built their stadiums downtown did so with the plan of building downtown around it,” Locascio said. “We’re fortunate to already be established, and now the city wants to build around us.”

The ongoing improvements, along with the stable ownership of their parent club, went a long way toward helping the Crawdads survive the reorganization that saw 42 minor league teams eliminated in 2020.

It also didn’t hurt that Hickory and its surrounding areas have consistently turned out to support their local team.

The most vocal of those loyal patrons fill Section 108 behind home plate, ringing cowbells, hanging K’s on the screen for every strikeout and chanting to cheers led by megaphone-toting superfan Christopher Pack.

A season ticket holder for the past decade, Pack got the idea to become the Crawdads’ “Mega Man” after attending a road game in Charleston, West Virginia.

“They had a heckler up there called the ‘Toastman,’ and they had a super good fan base up there,” Pack said. “We had a really good time and I told (his wife, Teresa) that I wanted to bring that kind of thing to Hickory.

“It took about three years to catch on, but it really took off in 2015 when we won the championship and it’s good again this year.”

Fans file into LP Frans Stadium for a Hickory Crawdads game on July 15. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Pack’s enthusiasm for the Crawdads is genuine and contagious. He and those around him were just as animated when the home team fell behind 18-1 in the fifth inning against the Blue Rocks as they were during a late comeback that saw Hickory score the game’s final 10 runs before falling short.

“Our season ticket holders are great,” Moonshot Mitchell, whose true identity is group sales executive Emily Mitchell, said. “I’ve really built a relationship with a lot of them. We all hang out, chat and joke around throughout the games.”

That communal atmosphere can be felt all around the park and is part of the charm that makes Crawdads games so popular. Another is the fun provided by the team’s creative promotions staff and the anticipation of what they’ll come up with next.

The idea for Dad Bod Night was hatched when Webster’s announced it was adding the term to its dictionary last spring. According to the Crawdads’ schedule, the promotion is a celebration of “slightly fat, non-muscular physiques.”

As for that Night of Horrible Promotions, Salinas described it as being “as corny and tacky as possible” with mispronounced names over the PA system, a pregame fireworks show “that will probably be the worst one you’ll ever see” and a funny giveaway item.

“There are a lot of questions about what’s been going on with some of this, but it’s been really good,” she said. “We’re already working together for next year’s promotions.”

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