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Making call on Traficant Night



Published: Thu, August 15, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



NILES -- Minor league baseball is well known for its outlandish promotions. The Mahoning Valley Scrappers joined that long list Wednesday.

They touted it as "Jim Traficant Night." They handed out pictures of the former congressman to fans at the gate.

They played some of his famous phrases -- "Beam me up" and "I have a train to run" -- over the public address system.

They dressed some people up in Traficant attire and had them chased by other people dressed in FBI attire.

They even had a mock election in which -- this is no real surprise -- Traficant won convincingly.

The good, the bad

Give the Scrappers promotions department credit for their creativity. Even if only a small group of the 4,500 fans who attended wore toupees or proved they were sons of truck drivers -- another promotion for free admission -- it was a job well done.

But it's tough to buy the Scrappers' line of reasoning. They say the event was held to honor a man who helped to bring minor league baseball to the Mahoning Valley.

This seemed to be about marketing the Scrappers' minor league baseball product, and in doing so, they hit a home run. Especially when they knew there was going to be backlash for "honoring" a convicted felon.

"It's almost like a roast," Scrappers general manager Andy Milovich said. "We're honoring Jim, but at the same time we're getting a few shots and a few laughs out of it.

"I respect people's concerns that they might think of it as in poor taste, but we want to recognize a guy that was a major contributor in making this happen."

The Traficant saga has become national news. By incorporating Mahoning Valley Scrappers baseball into the same political spectrum, it focuses statewide and national media attention to Cafaro Field.

More than the usual number of television trucks were parked in front of the stadium. More than the usual number of media members -- writers and photographers -- circulated in the press box.

If the Scrappers' intentions were really to honor Traficant, wouldn't it have been done in the organization's first couple of years? This comes down to good timing and good business sense.

Playing the part

One of the sources of "Traficant Night" entertainment came from Phil Eckenrode, a 2001 Mineral Ridge High graduate and sophomore at Kent State University.

Eckenrode, whose usual role is that of soft drink vendor, seemed perfect for the part of Jim Traficant impersonator. A political science major, he was tall and lanky, outspoken and funny. His bushy gray wig and long sideburns complemented his dark blue suit and gray pants.

Eckenrode made his way throughout Cafaro Field shouting lines into his megaphone. "Scrappy is a fraud!" he said of the Scrappers' mascot, one of his opponents in a mock election.

Eckenrode talked as if his new role Wednesday at Cafaro Field wasn't difficult. In fact, he has experience portraying Traficant, having done it for a project in high school.

Just curious

Wednesday's promotion conjured up thoughts of what Traficant's reaction would have been to the events that transpired.

"Jim liked to poke fun at himself as much as anybody," Milovich said.

The Scrappers plan to send Traficant some pictures and a T-shirt from Wednesday night. Milovich also noted that "Traficant Night" was probably a one-time promotion.

"Despite the problems that Jim had, no one cared about the Valley more than he did," Milovich said. "It's a tragic way to end a 17-, 18-year congressional run."

XBrian Richesson is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at richesson@vindy.com.




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