Trade show baseball's other high-dollar business

TERESA M. WALKER AP Sports Writer Published:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The fluffy green-and-white Phillie Phanatic hat is eye-catching enough. Then with a simple push of a pump wrapped in red cloth, the furry mascot's red tongue unfurls.

Yes, the Phanatic is sticking its tongue right at you.

"They sell themselves, they really do," Rick Maldonado of Forever Collectibles-Team Beans said. "I mean there is no pitch behind it. I'm usually wearing it, and I'll talk to my buyers. 'Hey, you want something cool?' Then I squeeze it, and then they get that chuckle and it's like, 'Wow. What else you guys doing this year?'"

Welcome to the baseball trade show at the winter meetings where business is everything but the high-profile signing and trading of players.

Companies pitch their wares to both major and minor league teams -- from expected to the outrageous. There's jerseys, T-shirts, trash cans and stadium seating right along with the mascot pump hat that suddenly looks like a must-have item and will be on sale by the time baseball season starts in April.

Collapsible chairs not enough? Now there's a packable coffee table complete with four cup holders for tailgating. New Era's display features a batch of ski caps for the usual cold weather markets like the Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets -- right alongside one for the Miami Marlins. That white, orange and black knit cap is sure to keep fans snug even on the chilliest of south Florida days.

Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins was among those on the floor Tuesday. He was working the booth for Outbid, an online auction site for autographs and memorabilia in sports, entertainment and other areas. Jenkins was greeting fans, handing out signed balls and pictures.

"This is my first trade show. They have everything here -- bats, balls, mascots, everything. It is unbelievable," he said.

There's "The Cleaning Machine" made by Sonny Cereneka of Hacienda Heights, Calif., that has been helping scrub dirt off practice baseballs for about 35 years. Marilynn Cereneka said the New York Mets told her husband that machine helped save them $22,000 on baseballs back in 2008.

Hungry? Take a walk around the food exhibits with hot dogs, pretzels and candy. For more haute cuisine, try the garlic fries or chipotle chili aioli offered up by Tulkoff Food Products. This is the second year at the winter meetings for the company, Danielle Hauserman said. Tulkoff picked up the Toledo Mud Hens, Daytona Cubs and Greensboro Grasshoppers after their first trade show a year ago.

"We're a way to kind of kick up your burger or hot dog," she said.

Game Wear helps baseball fans show their love of the sport using the ball itself for bracelets, key chains, necklaces and even pet leashes and collars. Frank Cerullo Jr. first carved up a baseball while playing in college at George Washington, and the white leather necklace with the red seam stitching proved so popular he went from working in computer technology for a hospital to starting his company in his parents' basement to office space in Hoboken, N.J.

"What makes our product special is the fusion of taking your team, taking the sport and fusing it together, and I feel that's the magic in our product," Cerullo said.

Former big league first baseman Pete LaCock also was on hand, representing Zinger bats before he starts managing next year in the independent America West Baseball League.

"These are fun to come to. You see a lot of old friends," he said, moments after greeting Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk, a former Kansas City Royals teammate.

There's so much to see, it can be exhausting.

Luckily, Rawlings Sporting Goods has a big leather chair shaped like a catcher's mitt sitting at the edge of the company's display, which draws people in. Rawlings sells approximately 10 of the chairs each year for $3,200 apiece using the same leather in their gloves as part of a product line that now features luggage and wallets. Names can be monogrammed into the thumb or palm of the chair, too.

Charlette Eastman of American Fork, Utah, whose family recently sold the Zinger Bat Company, sat in the catcher's mitt chair for a much-needed rest after helping promote the company.

"It's wonderful," Eastman said. "I'm just going to see how much I can buy it for."

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AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker contributed to this report.