Minor league baseball exists in a strange place on the spectrum of local sports. On one hand, the stakes of each game couldn’t be lower. Most franchises exist merely as a halfway home for their Major League affiliate’s future players.
On the other hand, many of these teams become the pride of the local cities they represent. The games are played for the sake of entertainment, but the franchise serves as a local institution. Hardcore baseball fans grow attached the team and casual fans enjoy the laidback atmosphere and cozy environs of a great minor league ballpark.
The teams and players tend to be treated with a kind of reverence that might belie the relevance of what actually goes on between the white lines.
Which is why the new owner of Jacksonville’s minor league franchise, Ken Babby, knew there would be some rough patches on the way to the community embracing the franchise’s new name — the Jumbo Shrimp.
Babby has been through this process before. During a team retreat last September when the new name was first unveiled to the staff, Babby read off emails he received from fans of his Akron, Ohio franchise when he changed the name from the Akron Aeros to the RubberDucks.
“It was critical for us as a staff to hear that,” said Noel Braha, assistant general manager. “Because in November, when we did the reveal, we got basically verbatim the exact same emails from people across Jacksonville.”
But the Shrimp were confident in their new identity. They had gone through a great deal of work to make sure the name and the brand reflected the city of Jacksonville in a process that began long before the November announcement.
The idea for the name came about during the 2016 season, when the team was throwing names out to see what stuck.
“At first glance, everyone sort of cringed,” Braha recalled.
And yet they soon found that, for better or worse, the name “Jumbo Shrimp” seemed to elicit a response from everyone. It was goofy, to be sure, but it evoked something.
It’s oxymoronic nature fit that of the city of Jacksonville, a large yet small city. It aligned with the town’s history, the birthplace of the shrimping industry in the South.
After getting a look at the logo design, a shrimp in the shape of a “J,” and the color scheme (a red, white and blue combination that references the town’s ties to the Navy) the team knew they had something.
Still, the team wanted to make sure they got this right, and they needed to get a feel for the community.
This responsibility fell to Harold Craw, the team’s general manager. Craw supervises marketing and sales more than he manages any of the players. A minor league baseball GM’s responsibility lies not in the diamond, but in the stands.
“The resounding response we got from everyone was — this is a big city, but everyone knows everybody,” Craw said.
Big city, small town. The more Craw integrated himself into the community, the more he began to realize that representing the city of Jacksonville was going to be a hugely important aspect in this rebrand.
“We made a strategic decision to keep Jacksonville on every one of our uniforms,” Craw said.
However, it took a little bit of time for the city to adjust to the new name. Within a week of its official announcement in November, a petition aimed at keeping the Suns name had garnered 10,000 signatures.
But by the time the season began, a sizable group of dedicated fans had formed around the team’s new identity. The Shrimp opened with the largest attended series in the history of the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Craw explained. “We don’t think anybody else should take us that seriously either.”
The stakes of a minor league baseball game are minimal. These franchises exist to entertain. The Jumbo Shrimp, from their name to their attitude, has dedicated themselves to idea of fun for its own sake better than most.