By Matt Kawahara
Published in Sacramento Bee
The Oakland A's gave away a gnome figurine of reliever Sean Doolittle before their Saturday, April 30, 2016, game against the Houston Astros. The gnome shows Doolittle wearing a Metallica shirt and plays a clip of the band's song "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which Doolittle uses as his entrance music.
OAKLAND – Sean Doolittle has faced some of baseball’s most feared hitters as an A’s reliever. But that didn’t prepare the left-hander for the first time he went beard-to-beard with his own promotional garden gnome.
“Weirdly, I think it kind of looks like me,” Doolittle said of the figurine handed out by the A’s to fans before Saturday’s game against the Houston Astros. “A lot of times you can’t really tell – at best they have a vague resemblance. But that was really weird the first time I saw it. It was kind of like an out-of-body experience.”
With his scraggly red beard and ruddy complexion, Doolittle bears more than a passing resemblance to your garden-variety gnome. But he’s far from the first person in major-league baseball to be portrayed that way. No longer confined to the lawn, gnomes in the likenesses of players, coaches and mascots have sprouted up in stadiums across the country in recent years as a popular giveaway.
Gnomes are similar to traditional bobblehead dolls – but with pointy hats, bigger feet and, in some cases, copious facial hair – but bobbleheads have a connection to baseball that goes back decades.
The first major-league team to hold a gnome giveaway is believed to be the Giants, who in 2012 handed out gnome figurines of then-closer Brian Wilson, playing off of the right-hander’s eccentric personality and distinctive black beard.
“The way he looked, the way he pitched, everything about his style seemed to fit with a gnome,” said Mario Alioto, the Giants’ executive vice president of business operations. “We were just having some fun. It’s amazing sometimes what works and what doesn’t. But it’s kind of taken off.”
The next year, eight Major League Baseball teams had gnome giveaways, according to a league spokesman, followed by seven in 2014 and nine in 2015. This season, a dozen clubs are scheduled to hand out gnomes, ranging from the Red Sox devoting a gnome to retiring slugger David Ortiz to the Dodgers’ gnome of co-owner Magic Johnson to the Mets handing out a figurine of pitcher Noah Syndergaard – a “Syndergaard-en gnome.”
“It’s funny in nature,” said Troy Smith, the A’s senior director of marketing. “(Baseball players) are actually athletic, and when you make them into a gnome it turns them into something completely different, this kind of pudgy character. You need to have the right player who can kind of accept it, own it.”
Giants right fielder Hunter Pence, who was given the gnome treatment last year, agreed.
“There’s something about the gnome that’s happy and cheerful,” he said. “It’s just kind of an attitude, you know? It’s not necessarily the physical attributes. It’s the personality of the gnome that’s cool.”
While promotional items are meant to help bring fans into the stadium, Smith said the A’s try to use theirs to give a glimpse into players’ personalities, too.
The Oakland A's giveaway staffer Cora Owens of Castro Valley hands out Sean Doolittle gnomes during Saturday's game at the coliseum in Oakland, Calif., Saturday, April 30, 2016.
Their inaugural gnome, of Grant Balfour in 2013, depicted the emotional then-closer in the middle of a scream. Doolittle’s gnome is wearing a Metallica T-shirt instead of a jersey and plays a clip of the band’s song, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which can be heard at the Coliseum when the reliever enters a game.
“That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish,” Smith said. “We’re trying to connect fans and players by telling the player’s story.”
Not everyone sees such depth in the gnome. Last season, the Baltimore Orioles gave out a gnome of manager Buck Showalter, who questioned, in good nature, the promotional strategy when it was announced during spring training.
“What is the purpose?” Showalter wondered, according to The Baltimore Sun. “Do people get up in the morning and they go, ‘Honey, are we going to the game today? … They’ve got that gnome tonight. Pack up the kids. We’re going’?”
In some cases, maybe. Smith said while bobbleheads still dwarf the competition in giveaway popularity, gnomes are “probably second or third.” The Giants’ Alioto said one indication of an effective promotion is how quickly tickets sell for that game when they become available. While bobblehead games are always strong sellers, he said, “the gnomes are starting to act that way as well.”
“Teams in every professional sport share ideas,” said Michael Colangelo, assistant director at the USC Sports Business Institute. “And when one idea tends to be a big hit, you’ll see other teams try and replicate the same thing to try and drive fans to the game.
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s gnome-specific. I think what teams are doing is just trying to think of creative new ways, through giveaways, to drive people to games. And it just so happens that the hot thing right now is gnomes.”
For their gnome supply, the A’s and Giants use Bensussen Deutsch and Associates, a Washington state-based company that works with many major-league teams on their in-stadium promotions. Steve Avanessian, vice president of client services in BDA’s sports marketing division, said demand for gnomes in MLB seems to have grown as an offshoot of the resurgence in bobblehead popularity that began around 1999.
“We’ve taken the bobbleheads in the past 15, 16 years to where we’re getting likenesses so true to player characteristics that they’ve sort of become a three-dimensional player’s card,” Avanessian said. “It’s down to the pine tar that might be on the pants, a rip in this, how perfect a sweat band is.
“Gnomes have been sort of that variation. You can put them in their uniform, so they still have the player’s image. But at the same time, you can present a lot of other personality.”
That can vary in the eye of the gnome-holder. The Giants are handing out a gnome in the likeness of manager Bruce Bochy, who said he was unaware of the July 31 giveaway until asked about it last week and shown a picture of his gnome by a reporter.
“It looks like, who is it, Attila? Attila the Hun?” Bochy said. “That’s who it looks like a little bit, doesn’t it?
“It looks like I went to a tanning booth,” he added, approvingly. “That’s something.”
So far, Avanessian said, demand for gnomes has stayed rooted in major-league baseball, though “it’s not to say we won’t see it in other sports.”
Now that the idea seems to have gained a boot-hold, Avanessian said he expects teams to start looking for new ways to accessorize their gnomes – whether that’s mounting them on unique bases, making them move or, as in Doolittle’s case, giving them an interactive quality.
In addition to its sound feature, the Doolittle gnome – 15,000 were given out Saturday to A’s fans – has a beard that is not solid like the rest of its body, but composed of an appropriately bristly material, making the figure all the more eerily lifelike.
“The coolest part to me is it was able to capture a little bit of my personality,” Doolittle said. “It’s one thing to have a gnome or a bobblehead giveaway where it’s like you in your uniform with a glove or a bat or something. But for it to also show a different side of you, a part of your personality, I think that’s really cool.”
Matt Kawahara: 916-321-1015, @matthewkawahara
Original published in The Sacramento Bee.