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More Bite Than Bark In Minors Sea, Prairie And Diamond Dogs Head Major Merchandising Haul

Forget such ho-hum names as Yankees, Cubs and Indians.

There’s gold in names like Sea Dogs, Prairie Dogs and Diamond Dogs. Or Land Sharks, Bay Sharks and Barracudas, not to mention Jammers, Stompers and Barge Bandits.

In baseball’s hinterlands, these are the nicknames in demand, especially if they lend themselves to flashy uniforms with a unique logo that can be plastered on everything from caps and T-shirts to golf balls and seat cushions.

“We had to reorder. We ran out of everything,” said Rip Rowan, general manager of the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs of the fledgling Northeast League, a six-team independent league in New York state.

In Beacon, the Hudson Valley Renegades of the Class A New YorkPenn League are finding out that minor-league merchandise is anything but minor in this season of discontent with the major leagues. Anything with the team’s logo - a raccoon peeking from behind an “H” and a “V” in the shape of crossed bats - is hot stuff.

“It’s absolutely crazy. Right now I’m scrambling for T-shirts again,” said assistant general manager Kathy Lumbard-Cobb.

In the 1980s, major-league baseball decreed that minor-league teams would have to pay royalties if they wanted to use big-league nicknames such as Astros or Red Sox or Expos. That led many minor-league team owners to come up with their own names. Thus the Hoot Owls, Raptors, Rock Cats and Riverdogs inhabit the baseball landscape.

These days, the Toledo Mud Hens seem stodgy by comparison.

“I guess you could get cynical and say it’s a lot of out-of-work baby boomers with marketing and advertising degrees who need to make a living and hit upon marketing minorleague material,” said Lloyd Johnson, a baseball historian and editor of the “The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.”

But as Johnson points out, the history of minor-league baseball is filled with odd-named teams, from the Des Moines, Iowa, Undertakers to the Americus, Ga., Muckalees, and the Paris, Texas, Parasites to the Portland, Ore., Webfoots.

Many ballclubs once were named after the local industry; hence the Amsterdam, N.Y., Rugmakers, the Gloversville, N.Y., Glovers and the Navada Lunatics, a turn-of-the-century Missouri Valley League ballclub that drew its name from a nearby mental hospital.

“The minor-league teams have be come educated with regards to merchandising, and as a result they’re going back to adopt more of these unique names that identify with the community, versus having the generic name of the parent club,” said Misann Ellmaker, director of licensing for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

While minor-league baseball can’t match the major leagues’ billion-dollar merchandising business, sales figures for farm team paraphernalia are strong. Since the National Association began officially licensing minor-league merchandise in 1991, total retail sales have risen from $2.5 million that first year to $60 million in 1994.

This year, sales of minor-league merchandise aren’t expected to top 1994’s figures, a residual effect of retailers getting stuck with overstocks of major-league items because of the last year’s strike, Ellmaker said. Still, minor-league stuff is a major seller.

“We’re probably selling as many minor-league hats as major-league hats at the moment,” says Vincent Russo, co-owner of Mickey’s Place, a baseball memorabilia store down the street from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The store stocks fitted caps from more than 100 minor-league teams, including the Durham Bulls, Salt Lake City Buzz and Everett Aqua Sox.

Washington state’s Aqua Sox are a good example of what a new name and logo can do for a team. The Northwest League franchise found new life at the cash register this year after it switched affiliations from the San Francisco Giants to the Seattle Mariners. The change allowed the team to ditch its Giants-style uniforms and logo for spiffy aquatrimmed duds decorated with a cartoonish lime-green-and-red tree frog catching a ball with his elongated tongue.

“He’s bright and funny, he appeals to both the young and the old. And he’s not too childish and he’s not too serious,” said Aime Bavasi, Everett’s assistant general manager. “I’ve ordered three times as much merchandise this year as I have in the past.”

Which must have the folks in Toledo kicking themselves for not sticking with the team’s pre-1900 name: the Swamp Angels.