In a world with a normal baseball season, last Monday’s game would have been a big one for the Giants. The day would have marked Madison Bumgarner’s first trip to Oracle Park as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and that matchup would have dominated the conversation leading up to the game.
But behind the scenes, some Giants officials had long had April 6 circled for a different reason.
Bumgarner’s decision to sign with Arizona changed the focus of that game, but in the organization’s business offices, it already was viewed as an experiment of sorts. The Giants planned to give out a Mike Yastrzemski bobblehead that night, trying something new in a bid to increase ticket sales during what was expected to be another down year on the field. Bobblehead days, which remain wildly popular, have traditionally been on weekends.
“The spirit going into this season was to experiment and try some new things with promotions,” said Mario Alioto, the Giants’ longtime executive VP of business operations. “What would happen if we did it on a Monday night? What kind of customer would that attract? Unfortunately, we didn’t get that chance to test it.”
The Yastrzemski bobblehead would have been an experiment, but it also would have been a continuation of one of the longest-running themes at Oracle Park. For two decades, bobblehead days have been an event for the Giants, whether they’re contending for a World Series title or working on a subtle rebuild.
When team employees see a particular weekend date selling at a higher rate, it tends to be a bobblehead day. Years ago, when the Giants would hand out just 20,000 of them, the lines in the morning would extend down the Embarcadero towards the Bay Bridge, forcing players to wait for a gap as they tried to get into their parking lot. It wasn’t uncommon before the three-title stretch to watch fans walk into the ballpark with their ticket, grab a coveted bobblehead and soon head right back out to the street.
The Giants have given out bobbleheads of just about every star to come through their clubhouse since 1999. There are all sorts of variations of Willie Mays bobbleheads — Mays swinging a bat, Mays riding in a parade, Mays making The Catch. Bruce Bochy got a bobblehead. Kruk and Kuip got one. Marty Lurie did, too. This season, E-40 was going to get one.
Yastrzemski, though, was the only current player to have a bobblehead night scheduled for 2020, which got me thinking: “How do the Giants decide which players to turn into bobbleheads every season?” An indefinite shutdown of the sport seemed the perfect time to look for an answer. It turns out it’s pretty simple.
“There’s really no science to it,” Alioto said. “It’s who is popular, and then, is there a big moment we want to celebrate.”
Alioto and his team start planning the next season’s promotions as soon as they get the schedule from MLB. Last year, an early concern was figuring out which day was the perfect one to retire Will Clark’s number (Saturday, July 11, with 20,000 fans getting a hat). They sit in a room at Oracle Park and try to figure out which anniversaries they want to acknowledge, or which reunions they’ll hold. When it comes to selecting bobbleheads, “you kind of know based on who is performing,” Alioto said. They ask a simple question: Who earned a bobblehead?
“Mike Yastrzemski, a year ago no one knew who he was and he was a big part of the season last year, so we thought it would be fun,” Alioto said. “We also had Barry Bonds to celebrate 20 years at the ballpark. It’s about where there’s news and who would be fun.
“Now, I will say, when Tim Lincecum was here it was always fun to see if there’s a different way to do that. It’s always fun to see if there’s someone who has a different windup or long hair.”
Ahh, the hair.
“The hair does help,” Alioto said, laughing. “Having an interesting look helps, it helps in a bobblehead.”
That hair, plus his windup and unmatched popularity, made Lincecum one of the best subjects in bobblehead history, and the Giants handed out plenty of them, with one even including fake hair that you could move around. In recent years, Brandon Crawford’s hair-and-beard combo have made him a popular subject for the organization’s marketing arm.
Alioto and his team try to be selective, though.
“There is a concern of overdoing it with some players,” he said. “I think sometimes it’s the moment that’s more exciting than just, ‘here’s a player bobblehead.’ “
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The Giants could give out a generic Buster Posey bobblehead every June and see a boost at the gate, but they’ve tried to get more creative. The 2020 slate included just Yastrzemski (the breakout star of the 2019 team), Bonds (to celebrate the ballpark’s anniversary) and a limited release of E-40 bobbleheads to celebrate Hip-Hop night at the yard.
Last season, the Giants had a Mays bobblehead to commemorate 20 years of handing them out, an Evan Longoria bobblehead (he was traded over too late in 2018 to be a prominent promotional item) and a “Let Pablo Pitch” bobblehead to honor one of the previous season’s best moments. They also scheduled a Dereck Rodriguez bobblehead day that became more nerve-wracking than they expected.
Rodriguez, in theory, was a perfect choice. He was the breakout of 2018 and he has the long hair that lends itself so well to creative promotions. He connected with fans and had a cool backstory.
The Giants scheduled Rodriguez bobblehead day for June 29, but when Farhan Zaidi took over, he made a surprise announcement at the Winter Meetings that he hoped the Giants had so much depth that Rodriguez and Andrew Suarez would start the year in Triple-A. Rodriguez ended up winning a job, but he struggled early on and was optioned to the minors on May 11. There were plenty of people around the organization who cringed that day and noted he had a promotion coming up, but Rodriguez was recalled two weeks later and ended up staying on the roster until July.
Alioto said he hasn’t run into many issues like that, but admitted that sometimes he seeks a second opinion.
“There are times when if we’re going to do a promotion, we want to make sure the baseball operations folks know what we’re doing,” he said.
The Giants learned this lesson from the other side in 2012. Three weeks after they made a franchise-altering trade for Hunter Pence, the Phillies went ahead with Hunter Pence bobblehead day. They had manufactured more than 40,000 of them before that season and decided not to waste them. Pence signed off on the idea and thanked fans in a note that was hastily printed and stuffed into every box.
“Thanks, Phillies fans, for the great memories,” it read. “I’m glad my Bobble Figurine will still be given out even though I’m no longer in Philadelphia. I hope it will serve as a lasting reminder of my time there. It was a year of my career that I will never forget.”
Keeping that story in mind probably is prudent for Giants marketing and sales people who now work with a front office that makes quicker roster moves. Imagine, for instance, if the Giants had started to build a promotional campaign around Kevin Pillar? The center fielder, had he been tendered a contract, would have fit a lot of what the business side looks for. He was wildly popular and had a baseball story that could be turned into a bobblehead. Perhaps the Giants would have made one of Pillar leaping over a wall.
“I remember the first Willie Mays bobblehead was just a bobblehead standing there and it wasn’t doing anything,” Alioto said. “Now it’s much more advanced. We had one with a sound chip in it. We had Tony Bennett singing. The Willie Mays bobblehead with his catch at the Polo Grounds, we had the ball going into the glove. We’ve been pretty successful in putting ones out that we think are fun and popular.”
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The Giants know how to do this better than anyone. That’s because they were the team that brought the popular keepsake back in 1999.
It was the last year of Candlestick Park and they were looking for retro items to close out the ballpark, and Alioto — a lifelong Giants fan — remembered how he used to buy bobbleheads at Candlestick when he was a kid. They took the idea to their supplier to see if they could make a modern version that was affordable and could be given to fans.
“The first sample came back the opposite of what we wanted, it was a little skinny statue with a little tiny head,” Alioto said. “But needless to say, we got it right. We gave them away in 1999 and it came in a white box that was kind of heavy, but the fans loved it.
“I never thought it would take off the way it has. I knew we had a winner when years later I was on vacation in Europe and I was in front of the Vatican and I saw bobbleheads of the pope, and I thought, ‘Boy, we really started something.’ “