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Remembering 2013: Can’t win ’em all

The dreaded off-season has arrived.  But fear not, despite news being a little slower this time of year, we have plenty of content to keep you occupied here at BlogToBlogChamps.  Each Monday, we’ll publish a feature from the 2013 York Revolutionary Times, the official game day magazine of the York Revolution for you to re-enjoy, or read for the first time in case you missed it at the ballpark.  This week, we look back at some eccentric General Manager hi-jinks in York and beyond.  Often, team struggles can be turned into a positive for an organization.

By Paul Braverman

The York Revolution front office staff awoke for their game day meeting on the morning of Saturday, May 24, 2008 to a sun-splashed York, PA.  Despite the recent struggles of the second-year Revolution, who were 8-19 at the time, at least this was one day where the staff wouldn’t have to worry about the tarp.  No rain was in the forecast.

Once all the details had been discussed for that night’s game, Matt O’Brien, then Revs General Manager proclaimed:  “We’re bad right now, we gotta do something.  What are we gonna do?” he said in challenge to the rest of the staff.

Knowing that nobody in the room had anything to do with assembling the team, the staff of minor league baseball veterans and quick-learning newbies immediately knew what O’Brien meant.  It was time to break up a losing streak.

Losers of five in a row and nine of 10, one staffer noted that the last time the Revs had won a game, a 5-4 victory over Lancaster on May 18, the staff had pulled tarp that day amidst off and on rain.  Done.

Under the watchful eye of groundskeeper Brandon Putman, the staff pulled the tarp on and off the bone dry field in an effort to turn the first half around, in front of a large (and confused) crowd filing into Sovereign Bank Stadium for the game. That was combined with kiddie pool “wishing wells” placed around the ballpark for fans to wish away the losing a penny at a time, as well as a station staffed by an intern holding nothing but a large plywood board, for fans to “knock on wood.”  In the matter of just a few hours, it unofficially became “Superstition Night” at Sovereign Bank Stadium.

Therein lies the beauty of this business:  Losing certainly doesn’t help, but it doesn’t necessarily have to hurt.  Especially if you’re working with and inspired by creative people.

Growing up across the street from McDonough Park in Geneva, NY, I was privy to perhaps the best story of “losing marketing” ever perpetrated in minor league baseball.  The 1987 Geneva Cubs of the Short Season Class A New York Penn League won the league championship. The following season in ’88 with a new batch of Cubs draft picks, they proceeded to start the season 1-22. 1-22!  And that’s in a 78-game season that starts in June for freshly signed college players to begin their career.

The G-Cubs General Manager was the youngest in all of baseball, a 23-year-old named Ken Shepard in his first season on the job.  He, much like O’Brien 20 years later in York, was mulling over a way to turn around his club’s even more hideous losing ways.

“We decided that I would sleep in the press box until the team won again,” remembered Shepard. And he stayed – for a while – through both home and road losses.

If that sounds like just a really cute story, keep in mind that McDonough Park is not a modern ballpark such as Sovereign Bank Stadium.  The press box there now is just as it was then; completely wooden and un-painted with plenty of six legged visitors at night. A story and a half steel ladder takes you up there.  The press box at Sovereign Bank Stadium is essentially the Waldorf-Astoria in comparison.

On June 26, with the G-Cubs at 1-10 on a six game losing streak, Shepard entered the press box.  On July 1 they were 1-15 after losing again, meaning Shepard still had to sleep in the press box to keep his promise.  Problem was, he had a wedding to attend in Nebraska, perhaps assuming the Cubs would’ve put at least one in the win column that week.  For the three nights he was away, he slept in the Rosenblatt Stadium press box, home to the Triple-A Omaha Royals to keep up his end of the deal.

Shepard brought his sleeping bag back to McDonough Park, and on July 9, after nearly a fortnight of sleeping in ballparks spanning two time zones, a league record 18 consecutive losses and a bevy of national media coverage, the G-Cubs sent Shepard home with a home victory over the Watertown Pirates, the same team they had knocked off for the New York-Penn Championship the year before.  The Geneva fans chanted “go home Ken, go home Ken” late in the game. Manager Bill Hayes smoked a victory cigar after the game, celebrating the Cubs improvement to 2-22 on the year.

“I can’t even remember all the different media outlets that covered us during that,” said Shepard. Luckily, thanks to the Geneva Cubs 1989 souvenir program that recapped the whole ’88 saga (and cleared up the 25-year-old details above in my head), I was able to uncover the list:  USA Today, The New York Times, The Sporting News, CNN, ESPN, the Today Show, KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City and a radio station in Vancouver in addition to all the local media coverage in Geneva and neighboring Rochester and Syracuse.

While winning a championship in ’87 was a great thing for Geneva, the ’88 season proved what the business is really about; not always winning, certainly never about losing, but always about creativity.  Geneva’s attendance jumped by 5,000 fans in 1988 due completely due to the spectacle and media coverage of the bumbling G-Cubs and their GM only a year after winning it all.

“At a young age, that really galvanized my already big interest in the industry, seeing how we were able to entertain during tough circumstances that year and how it was about more than winning,” said Shepard.

Indeed, Shepard is still immersed years later, now with us in the Atlantic League in his second year as GM of the Bridgeport Bluefish.  And when the Bluefish suffered through a 12-game losing streak in the first half, Shepard could only scoff.  After all, he had been through much worse, and he hardly panicked.

“I joked with my wife that I might have to start sleeping in the press box.”

Of course, no one roots for a losing streak so a wacky promotion can take place.  You just simply try to win more than you lose, and if not, play the hand you’re dealt the best you can.  Although the Revolution lost their fifth in a row 2-1 to Camden and dropped to 8-20 on “Superstition Night” in 2008, they rebounded in a major way, going 63-49 the rest of the season, and won the Freedom Division second half with a 41-29 record, clinching the first playoff berth in franchise history.

The Geneva Cubs’ turnaround was perhaps even more remarkable, despite the fact in a short season they had no chance at the playoffs after a 1-22 start.  Their final record was 27-51, meaning Geneva went a downright respectable 26-29 after their putrid start.

Depending on how superstitious you are, O’Brien and Shepard’s antics may or may not have lent a hand to their teams’ turnarounds in 1988 and 2008.  But a fun night at the ballpark can always mask struggles on the field, and in Shepard’s case, the national media exposure in ’88 was something that no amount of winning in’87 could’ve attracted.

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