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Baseball's Best (and Weirdest) Ballpark Promotions

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In the 1960s, Major League Baseball teams began giving away bats, balls, caps, and helmets to lure fans to the ballpark. As Mets vice president James K. Thomson told the New York Times in 1968, “People like something for nothing. Everybody comes to the fair.” More than 40 years later, that philosophy still holds true. Here’s a look at this season’s most interesting giveaways at stadiums throughout the league, and a look back at some infamous promotions of the past.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays, who struggle to draw fans to Tropicana Field, have long offered some of the most creative promotions in the league. Last year, the team gave away Carlos Pena toothbrush holders. (After Pena hit a woeful .196 in 2010 and signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs, you can bet there aren’t a lot of Tampa Bay players clamoring to replace the slugger as the team’s promoter of dental hygiene.) This year, the first 10,000 fans age 14 and under at the Rays’ September 4 game will receive an Evan Longoria cereal bowl and spoon set. [Image credit: Brooke Reviews.]

New York Yankees

The first 18,000 fans through the Yankee Stadium gates on April 28 will receive a packet of flower seeds, compliments of the non-profit organization Keep America Beautiful, which was founded in New York City in 1953. If nothing else, the packets may be less attractive to would-be thieves than some other potential giveaways. In 2005, 47,000 Yankees giveaway hats were stolen from a New Jersey warehouse.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox rarely give away items these days—they don’t even have a 2011 promotional schedule on their website—but that wasn’t always the case. In 1982, the team gave out seat cushions for a September game against the Indians. After the Red Sox broke open a close game and hit two home runs in the sixth inning en route to a 12-1 win, many of the 15,000 fans in attendance tossed their cushions onto the field. “It was an awesome sight,” Boston pitcher John Tudor said. Umpires warned the Red Sox that the game would have to be forfeited if the cushions continued to be thrown, leading Fenway Park public address announcer Sherm Feller to tell fans, “Try sitting on the cushions, it’s more comfortable that way.”

Baltimore Orioles

On July 22, the Orioles will offer floppy hats to the first 25,000 fans age 21 and older. Baltimore, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 1997, hopes it never has another reason to host a “Fantastic Fans Night” like the one it did in May of 1988. More than 50,000 people came out to Memorial Stadium to support the struggling Orioles, who were returning home after a dreadful road trip that dropped the team’s record to 1-23. The stadium was decked out in orange and black bunting, there were giveaways throughout the night, Morganna the Kissing Bandit was in attendance, and the team announced that it had agreed on a 15-year lease with the city of Baltimore that included a new downtown ballpark. To top it all off, the Orioles won.

Toronto Blue Jays

The first 15,000 fans to enter the Rogers Centre on July 31 will receive a Roberto Alomar Hall of Fame bobblehead. Ten years ago, the Blue Jays offered a fairly unconventional promotion when they honored a division rival, Orioles legend Cal Ripken, with a bobblehead during the future Hall of Famer’s final road trip to Toronto.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are raking new ground with their Roger Bossard bobblehead giveaway this season. Bossard, who is known as the Sodfather, is the head groundskeeper at U.S. Cellular Field and a consultant for more than a dozen MLB teams. He joined the White Sox as an assistant groundskeeper in 1967 and worked under his father until 1983, when he assumed the lead role.

The White Sox have a great tradition of unique promotions, thanks to the mark that former owner Bill Veeck and one of his protégés, Rudy Schaffer, left on the team. Disco Demolition Night on July 12, 1979, which featured a crate of exploding records and a near-riot, was Bill Veeck’s son Mike’s idea.

Cleveland Indians

On August 13, the Indians will give away Mike Hargrove “Human Rain Delay” bobbleheads. Hargrove, who played for and later managed the Indians, earned his nickname for the inordinate amount of time he took to settle into the batter’s box.

Hargrove was an unwilling participant in another Indians promotion in 1974, when he was managing the Texas Rangers. Hargrove was pelted with hot dogs and spit on during 10-Cent Beer Night at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, which drew a crowd of about 25,000, or 17,000 more than what the Indians had been averaging. A riot erupted in the ninth inning after an Indians fan tried to steal Rangers outfielder Jeff Burroughs’ cap and his teammates stormed out of the dugout wielding bats. When Hargrove returned to Cleveland as manager in 1991, he reportedly hung a photo from the crazy night on the wall in his office.

Detroit Tigers

Outfielder Austin Jackson made an incredible catch in the ninth inning of Armando Galarraga’s imperfect perfect game last season, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by umpire Jim Joyce’s blown call on what should have been the final out of the game. The Tigers will commemorate Jackson’s grab with a figurine for the first 10,000 fans on April 22. As recently as 2006, the Tigers offered 16 free car giveaways, sponsored by GM, during the course of the season.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals will give away team snow globes as part of their Christmas Eve in July celebration on July 24. A more traditional giveaway in 1987 almost cost Kansas City a win. From the AP’s account: “The white caps given to almost 36,000 fans Sunday looked like a frothing, rolling sea in Royals Stadium. Several times, they nearly blinded outfielders to fly balls.” Royals manager Billy Gardner commented on the promotion after the game. “Maybe next time we give away hats we can make them blue,” he said.

Minnesota Twins

On April 24, the first 5,000 adult fans at Minnesota’s Target Field will receive a Matt Capps fishing lure. The promotion is guaranteed to garner less criticism than the Twins’ halter top giveaways to female fans in the late ‘70s. The team eventually did away with the promotion, which a handful of other teams also used, after the daughter of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith convinced team officials that it was in poor taste.

Los Angeles Angels

Fans have the Angels to curse for introducing Thundersticks to the sports world. The plastic balloons, which produce a deafening noise when smacked together, became popular during the team’s run to the World Series in 2002, and have since been banned by many stadiums and arenas. On May 7, the Angels will offer a quieter blast from the past in the form of an Angels Troll doll to all children ages 2-18. Three days later, the team will give away Angels wrestling masks.

Oakland Athletics

On July 17, the A’s will issue 15,000 MC Hammer bobbleheads to fans as part of their 80s Day celebration. (Growing up, Hammer was an A's batboy.) Former Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley probably wouldn’t know what to make of that promotion. When the A’s were located in Kansas City, Finley once had his players ride to their positions on mules.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are offering some unique promotions this season, including an Ichiro hit counter bobblehead (May 6) and a Franklin Gutierrez fly swatter (May 19). During the ‘90s, Jay Buhner Buzz Cut Night was one of the biggest draws of the year. Every fan that showed up to the Kingdome with a buzzed or bald head was given a free ticket in right field. Buhner even shaved some fans’ heads himself.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers have been using giveaways to attract fans since 1972, when the tactic helped the team draw “several thousand more fans” than the relocated franchise did in Washington the previous year. Sunday, May 29, is Rangers swimming pool float giveaway day for the first 10,000 kids age 13 and under.

Atlanta Braves


The Braves will give away replica Atlanta Black Crackers caps to the first 20,000 fans on May 14. The Black Crackers were founded in 1919 and played in the Negro League until 1952. That promotion should go over a whole lot better than one the Braves held in June of 1974, when the team gave away 10,000 Frisbees for a doubleheader against the Reds. The umpires threatened to forfeit the first game after fans littered the field with Frisbees on three separate occasions.

Florida Marlins

The first 5,000 kids on August 14 will receive a Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson back-to-school lunch cooler. The Marlins drew the ire of their own players and the opposing team’s manager when they gave away air-horns last summer. “That was the worst handout or giveaway I’ve ever been a part of in baseball,” Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla said. “This isn’t soccer.” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon also disapproved. “There are cool things and noncool things,” he said. “That’s noncool. I would put it under the column of it didn’t quite work.” Marlins president David Samson defended the promotion, which was scheduled to coincide with the World Cup.

New York Mets

On June 23, the Mets will host a Senior Stroll, which is a nod to the older generation in a world dominated by 'Kids Run the Bases' days. In 2000, the team gave away a 24-page comic book featuring a villain named Larcenous Vein, who planned to blow up a No. 7 subway train, but was defeated by Mets players. It just so happened that during the previous offseason, Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker made headlines with derogatory remarks about the diversity in New York City, referencing the different people a visitor might encounter on the No. 7 train. “It’s a coincidence,” Mets spokesman Jay Horwitz said when asked whether Larcenous Vein was Rocker’s alter ego. “The idea was conceived a long time ago.”

Philadelphia Phillies

May 3 is $1 Hot Dog Night at Citizens Bank Park, which has the potential to be interesting. In 2007, the Phillies gave away Shane Victorino bobblehead dolls featuring the Flyin’ Hawaiian in a hula skirt and playing a ukulele.

Washington Nationals

On September 10, the first 15,000 fans through the gates at Nationals Park will receive a Fan’s Choice bobblehead. The Nationals introduced the idea last season, with Ivan Rodriguez beating out John Lannan, Teddy Roosevelt, and manager Jim Riggleman for the honor via an online vote.

When the Nationals were still the Montreal Expos, the team held an Oh Henry! candy bar promotion in honor of slugger Henry Rodriguez. All fans who brought a proof of purchase of the candy bar received a discounted ticket and a T-shirt. Fans often threw the candy bars on the field following home runs by Rodriguez, who belted a career-high 36 in 1996.

Chicago Cubs

On September 2, the first 4,000 kids age 14 and under will receive American Girl Doll-sized Cubs apparel. Former Cubs executive John McDonough is credited with bringing the Beanie Babies craze to ballparks for the first time in 1997.

Cincinnati Reds


The Reds are giving away Dusty Baker bobbleheads that double as toothpick holders on July 2. In 1991, the team gave away replica World Series rings to celebrate its 1990 title. In 2007, the Reds hosted Ryan Freel Dirty T-Shirt Night and gave away Freel jersey T-shirts with dirt stains printed on the front to honor their always-hustling utility player.

Houston Astros

The Astros will give away Cuddle Pups to the first 10,000 kids on August 7. In 1976, the team gave away free beer after Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt struck out when the clock was on an even minute. “I guess it was good for baseball,” Schmidt said. “Everybody got a beer.” Everybody got a ticket in 1995, when Astros owner Drayton McClane Jr. gave away 54,350 tickets to a game against the Phillies.

Milwaukee Brewers

The first 15,000 fans 21 and older on July 30 will receive a Miller Lite Beer Vendor bobblehead, which is appropriate for a team nicknamed the Brewers that plays its home games in Miller Park. The Brewers nearly forfeited a game in 1997 when fans threw giveaway baseballs on the field in a 5-3 win against the Texas Rangers.

Pittsburgh Pirates


On July 10, kids 14 and under will receive wind-up Pierogi racers, which the Pirates also offered last season. The team sparked a minor controversy in 2008 after giving away Tom Gorzelanny bobbleheads. Some fans complained that Gorzelanny’s plastic middle finger—as opposed to his index finger—was poking out of his glove. A Pirates spokesman said the bobblehead was modeled after a photo provided to the manufacturer.

St. Louis Cardinals

Twenty-five thousand fans on August 9 will receive Adam Wainwright photo baseballs, which is a nice way to remember the NL Cy Young runner-up, who will miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Like the Red Sox, the Cardinals have also witnessed the spectacle of flying seat cushions. After Tom Herr beat the Mets with a grand slam in April of 1987, the giveaways rained down on Busch Stadium’s artificial turf.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks will give away a BBQ set to the first 5,000 fans for its Father’s Day promotion on June 19. In 2007, the team started giving away items at every Saturday and Sunday home game, including six different bobbleheads and a Stephen Drew growth chart poster.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies haven’t announced their 2011 promotional schedule, but the team has traditionally been generous with their giveaways. In 2008, the team offered National League Championship replica trophies in April. The game was snowed out and rescheduled for June.

Los Angeles Dodgers

On April 19, fans will receive a Fernando Valenzuela fleece blanket. It’s pretty difficult to throw a fleece blanket on the field from the upper deck—not that anyone would want to part with their Fernandomania schwag—and that’s a good thing. The Dodgers forfeited the first National League game in 41 years in 1995 after fans threw promotional baseballs on the field in the seventh and ninth innings of an August game against the Cardinals. The second wave of balls was sparked by the ejection of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda with Los Angeles trailing St. Louis 2-1. Speaking at a luncheon honoring Lasorda later that week, Pirates manager Jim Leyland deadpanned, “We’ve been struggling to get a win, so we’ve declared tonight ‘Dodger Paperweight Night.’”

San Diego Padres

The Padres will give away 6-pack tube coolers to fans at Petco Park on April 23. In 2007, the Padres were criticized by a Christian group for hosting Pride Night on the same night they gave away floppy hats to children age 14 and under. “The Padres are playing the part of the Pied Piper, leading unsuspecting children into the homosexual lifestyle as normal,” Richard Thompson, director of the Ann Arbor-based Christian law center, said.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants are giving wearable blankets (read: Snuggies) to the first 20,000 fans on May 20. The team gave away baseballs at Candlestick Park in 1993 and the game was delayed after fans showered the field following a home run. Giants manager Dusty Baker reportedly ordered his players into the dugout, but San Francisco’s outfielders stayed on the field to help remove the balls.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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