The Future Of Baseball?
Hardball promo jumps ahead to Century 21

Amid the hair-pulling, hand-wringing Y2K tension currently clotting the airwaves, it was just a matter of time before some marketing genius tied end-of-the-century nonsense and major league sports together. The ballots are in and the winner of "Most Ludicrous Promotional Idea of the Century" goes to Century 21, the yellow-jacketed "Official Real Estate Organization of Major League Baseball."

See also...
... by Patrick Hughes
... in the Scope section
... from August 13, 1999

For the duration of the 1999 baseball season, Century 21 is sponsoring "Turn Ahead the Clock Night" at 14 major stadiums around the country. On this special time-warp night, patrons are asked to imagine that the game is actually being played in the year 2021. The press release promises that the game will "rocket to the future," that left field will become "Left Sector" and the pitcher's mound will be replaced by its space age successor, "Upper Pod." Genius, I tell you.

I have to admit, when I first heard of the idea, I thought it sounded clever: Über-ball-players, cloned from the shaved skin cells of Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, pitch 150 mile-an-hour fastballs at stadium. Mark McGuire Jr. becomes the first billion-dollar home run hitter, and Billy Martin is brought back from the dead to be fired again by George Steinbrenner's immortal brain-in-a-jar. No such luck. The proof of concept at the Minnesota Twins games was an ancient James "Scotty" Doohan of the old Star Trek driving out to the pitcher's mound in a DeLorean to throw out the first pitch. And things were even worse at San Francisco's Candlestick Park when the Turn-Ahead-the-Clock circus arrived with a decisive thud at a game between the first-place Giants and 1998 World Series runners-up San Diego Padres.

They had something for everyone. The first 15,000 fans got a cheesy metallic Giants cap. The stadium played every pop song that even remotely hinted at an outer space theme (up to and including "Purple People Eater"), and the announcer's voice was modulated to sound like HAL 9000. The Jumbotron ran fictional "news" headlines all night long: dumb cracks about "President" Chelsea Clinton (drawing boos), the failed attempt to clone Willie Mays ("There's only one Willie Mays!"), and constantly updated scores from a game between the Mercury Fire and the Saturn Rings.

But the worst aspect of "Turn Ahead the Clock Night" was the uniforms. The Giants' traditional orange and gray was replaced with a black on white space suit, and the Padres had some blue and silver monstrosity resembling a rejected KISS outfit. "They look like the Jetsons," remarked Giants fan Ethan Aronson. A Giants employee who wished to remain anonymous distanced himself from the costumes: "It's all Century 21's doing," he balked. In an apparent exhibition of discomfort, many players tore the billowing sleeves off their uniforms and played bare-armed in the chilly San Francisco night. The game itself wasn't so bad. Ellis Burks cracked a grand slam in the bottom of the third inning, and the Giants went on to win big, 10-2.

Don't get me wrong. Like most people, I enjoy the occasional kickback of promotional giveaways at sporting events. It's like getting a rebate after shelling out all that money for tickets, parking, and the world's most expensive Budweiser. My favorite promotional day was at RFK stadium during the 1992 NFC playoff game between the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Falcons. Everyone through the turnstile got a signature burgundy and gold seat cushion. When the 'Skins scored the go-ahead touchdown in the middle of the fourth quarter, suddenly the air was filled with flying seat cushions as everyone in the stadium went bananas.

Will this ever catch on? Baseball is over a hundred years old and is rich in tradition. It will take more than some lame-brained marketing scheme to get fans to imagine what is in store for them. The only thing I can think of that's a foregone conclusion for the future of baseball is the $15 hot dog.

Patrick Hughes lives in the future where the football season lasts all year long.