The big reveal came and went, the schedule got finalized and the T-shirts are on the shelves. Now, Chris Phillips, president and general manager of the Rocky Mountain Vibes minor league baseball team, has a confession to share: The bull testicles never really had a chance.
“Rocky Mountain Oysters” was one of the more spirited names on the consideration list as Phillips and his employer, Elmore Sports Group, asked fans for help naming their new baseball team in Colorado Springs. The overt reference to a supposed Colorado delicacy was good for some fun PR prattle, but in the end, Phillips and crew wanted something a little more vibrant, and a lot less … grisly.
Eventually, the Rocky Mountain Vibes won the day, along with new mascot “Toasty,” a mischievous-looking marshmallow who will entertain fans this summer as the Vibes compete in baseball’s eight-team Pioneer League.
With teams stretching from Colorado Springs to Great Falls, Montana, the Pioneer League is a rookie-level feeder organization for higher-echelon ball clubs that constitute the elaborate latticework of professional baseball’s farm system. It’s a few steps below the Triple A circuit where the Colorado Springs Sky Sox had played since 1988. That team is no more: After years of slogging it out through cold spring weather and a pitcher-punishing altitude, Southern California-based Elmore Sports uprooted the Sky Sox to San Antonio as part of a complicated four-team move. Emerging from the dust is the Vibes, a new entrant that will compete with the likes of the Grand Junction Rockies, farm team to its Coors Field counterpart, in a 76-game “short-season” schedule.
The fresh start gives Phillips, previously GM for the Sky Sox, a blank slate on which to reframe professional baseball in Colorado Springs. Going, going and gone are the muted colors and exposed-brick classicism of the Sky Sox brand. Taking its place is what Phillips sees as a more energized, youthful appeal that tips its purple-orange-and-magenta cap to summer, sunshine and the Colorado dream. “Our mantra is we’re changing everything about how we do business,” Phillips says.
Phillips is an energetic 17-year minor league baseball veteran with a faint resemblance to the entertainer Howie Mandel. Despite the drop in league pedigree, he’s confident game attendance is bound to rise from the Sky Sox days thanks partly to a Colorado summer fixture: the sun. The Sky Sox’s elongated schedule demanded that the team inaugurate its home games in April, when cold weather and swirling winds kept wary fans away. “We were snowed out on opening day for four of my seven years here,” Phillips says. “April and May were money-losing months for us.” That’s no longer an issue, as the Vibes won’t play at home until June 21, when school’s out and the sun’s up.
Besides the weather, Phillips is banking on a Disney-influenced sort of customer experience to transform the ballpark formerly called Security Service Field. Updated aesthetics include whimsical benches constructed from skiing gear and oversized murals depicting Colorado landscapes. In an homage to Colorado camping, fans can even gobble up fresh s’mores.
But not every Sky Sox tradition is sunsetting: Phillips and his promotional crew will carry on a tradition established by former Sky Sox marketing ace Rai Henninger for theme nights, giveaways and occasionally odd stunts like Harry Potter Night (Aug. 3), Vibe-a-Palooza Night (Sept. 7) and the enduring but as-yet unscheduled Bark in the Park.
There’s evidence the formula can work. Phillips has studied outcomes tied to minor league teams in Spokane, Washington; Hillsboro, Oregon; and Vancouver, British Columbia, that have undergone similar transformations from Triple-A to rookie league baseball. “They all went to short season, and they’re crushing it,” he says.
As for on-field talent, Phillips points out fans will be watching legitimate Major League Baseball aspirants who are drafted out of high school and college by big-league teams. Home-state hero Nolan Arenado is one MLB star who started his professional career at the rookie league level. (The Vibes are part of the Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system.)
One oddity of the rookie league, though, is that the roster won’t be determined until a week or two before the season starts. Players are signed in the narrow window between the College World Series in Omaha and the start of Pioneer League play in June. But the names on the jerseys probably won’t be as influential in putting fans in seats as the price of a ticket – and the overall vibe of the Vibes. “That’s what minor league baseball is about,” Phillips says. “It’s a three-hour escape from reality that won’t break the bank.”
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