Minor Musings: What’s In A Name; or When Gnats Learned to Fly

“What’s in a name? That which we call a Firefly by any other name would play ball just as sweet.”

Yes, we’re taking license imagining what Shakespeare might have said had he been around these days and was a baseball fan instead of authoring what Rome & Juliet said to each other.

A minor league baseball fan, no less, and unless you’ve been following it on a regular basis, you might not know that some minor league Mets had a name change, and a city relocation this season. The Savannah Sand Gnats transplanted to Columbia, SC, and are now the Fireflies in the Sally League, officially known as the South Atlantic League.

Fireflies? Yes, fireflies! “Let’s Go, Fireflies” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue as easily as “Let’s Go Mets,” but the Sally League also claims Grasshoppers on their standings board, several shellfish – Crawdads and Blue Claws, plus River Dogs, Shorebirds, and the curiously named Asheville Tourists (hard to tell if they’re referring to the fans or the ballplayers. After all, all ballplayers are tourists, as in “just passing through.”)

The Grasshoppers hop around Greensboro, NC, and are a Marlins affiliate. The Crawdads are in Hickory, NC (hoping to someday become Texas Rangers). The Blue Claws are a Phillies affiliate in Lakewood, NJ, one of the more “Northern” members of the “South” Atlantic League, which qualify as a Single A level co-operative. The River Dogs bark for the Yankees, the Shorebirds dream of becoming Orioles, and the Tourists’ future travel plans are pining for the Rockies.

The fact that the Sand Gnats turned into Fireflies is not a headline anymore. The migration and insect evolution was announced last year. The new nickname, however, represents another example of how the minor leagues are evolving into a new breed of merchandising marvels. In the last decade or so, minor league teams have mostly eschewed adopting the parent team’s monicker and are establishing unique designations that lend themselves to clever marketing concepts and ultimately exclusive revenue streams.

Ardent fans already know, but if you don’t keep up with the “farm reports,” you might not know the host cities for the following teams: The Rubber Ducks. The Biscuits. The Isotopes. The Storm Chasers. The Lugnuts. The Yard Goats. The Flying Squirrels. The Loons. And the name guaranteed to strike fear into their opponents – the Chihuahuas!

It’s almost like a new take on the old George Carlin routine: “Football gives us Vikings, Raiders, Giants, Bengals, Bears, and Lions! Baseball gives us grasshoppers, fireflies, squirrels, goats, and loons!”

It’s not like every minor league affiliation has totally abandoned their parent’s surname, as we have the Binghamton Mets as a nearby example. And it’s not like the concept of giving your minor league team name a humorous touch is new, as we have the famed Toledo Mud Hens a long time example. They’ve been Mud Hens for decades, made even more famous by the ongoing references by the Cpl. Klinger character on M*A*S*H.

One of the oldest organizations that attempted a tongue-in-cheek name to attract fans was the Indianapolis Clowns of Negro Leagues fame. Believe it or not, Hank Aaron was once one of those Clowns. Original Met Choo Choo Coleman also was once a Clown, the last Negro League team to disband once the color barrier was broken. Even after the Negro Leagues had dissolved, the Clown continued to barnstorm with seasons of exhibition games into the 1980s.

Some farm teams have continued the tradition of strong, intimidating nicknames, with the best example being the Kannapolis Intimidators of the Sally League, a White Sox affiliate. You might also choose to root for: The Frisco Rough Riders in the Texas League; the Fresno Grizzlies in the Pacific Coast League; the Dayton Dragons, Kane County Cougars, or Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in the Midwest League; or Trenton Thunder in the Eastern League.

Although this fan is not a fan of team designations that are singular with no plural denominations in any sport – “Hi, I’m a Thunder,” or “Hi, I’m a Heat,” or “Hi, I’m a Lightning,” – that trend has also made its way into the minors with an Eastern League Pirate affiliate in Pennsylvania, the Altoona Curve. At least it’s the name of a pitch.

The White Sox club in Winston Salem, NC, named itself after punctuation – The Dash. The Sally League club in West Virginia went for electrifying recognition – The Power. The California League Padres affiliate also followed suit with what happens when you combine thunder and lightning by naming the team the Lake Elsinore Storm.
And you could say the Diamondbacks club in the CAL League named itself a movie/TV show or primitive form of clothing – the Visalia Rawhide.

The bottom line with all of these names is that teams now have built-in marketing avenues that are easily explored with colorful and clever logos, natural tie-ins with merchandising and other advertising concepts, and funky mascots that are attractive to the kids, the next generation of fans.

The ballplayers might not be big fans of wearing characters such as rubber ducks on their jerseys, but their aspirations are greater, and it all works. Although you might wonder, who throws out the first ball for the Albuquerque Isotopes? Homer Simpson?

It’s easy to figure out the name of the mascot for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, right, Rocky? But can Bullwinkle be far behind?

All of these minor musings are a lead in to this question: Have you ever been to a minor league game?

Sure you have, and the area is filled with a bunch of minor league teams within a short drive. The Long Island Ducks, while in the independent Atlantic League, are a great destination, fun for the family, and chance to see former major leaguers mixed in with some hopeful major leaguers. And run by some former Mets, with Kevin Baez in the manager’s seat, and Buddy Harrelson, a part owner, on the coaching lines.

There’s the Brooklyn Cyclones – the only affiliate named after a roller coaster, which sits just several hundred yards away from the ballpark. Many of today’s Mets have paid their dues in Brooklyn, including Michael Conforto.

And there’s the Staten Island Yankees (What? No funky marketing name?) who boast of the greatest scenic vista beyond any ballpark in the country. Beyond their bleachers is the skyline of New York. Beautiful!

The point in all of this is if you are planning your summer vacation, you could literally drive cross country and see a different minor league ballgame in a different city every night. Cost effective. Family friendly. And you’re always close to the field.

Fly, Fireflies, fly!

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