MiLB, Marvel combine forces at Comic Con

Event serves as launching-off point for partnership’s next phase

NEW YORK — It’s hard to stand out at a comic convention.

Brushing past you on the way into Javits Center — home of New York Comic Con — is a She-Hulk, green paint busting through her lawyer’s suit, commanding attention for a brief moment before a Woody and Buzz steal it away. Five Spider-Men — none of them Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield or Tom Holland, as far as you can tell — pose for a group photo. Oh, there’s another one. Wait, that’s a Mandalorian. Hold on, a Spider-Mandalorian?

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So Friday, when Minor League mascots Buster (Jersey Shore BlueClaws) and Rowdy (Binghamton Rumble Ponies) managed to turn the heads of kids and adults alike while walking the convention floor, something was up.

The duo, along with mascots from the Hartford Yard Goats and Somerset Patriots a day earlier, was at Comic Con to promote Minor League Baseball’s partnership with Marvel Entertainment that includes 96 clubs adopting comic-book-style logos to be worn at select games during the 2023 season. Sixteen of those logos were on display last week at the Marvel booth, including a fire-breathing horse for Binghamton and Jersey Shore’s new ripped, supersized crab.

What may have appeared at first to be a juxtaposition between competing hobbies — baseball caps displayed in front of a large poster of the Fantastic Four — was indicative of what’s already been an ambitious crossover event.

“Minor League Baseball is the origin story for the superheroes of Major League Baseball,” said MLB vice president of Minor League business operations Kurt Hunzeker. “Aaron Judge had to come through the Minors. Albert Pujols had to come through the Minors. That’s why this partnership makes so much sense.”

The seeds for the 96 logos were planted as early as 2016, when Triple-A Indianapolis first worked with AthLife (the company that facilitates Marvel’s sports partnerships) on Marvel Super Hero theme nights in which the Indians donned Iron Man, Captain America and Hulk uniforms. As attendance spiked at Victory Field, other teams wanted in. And with the success and growth of national programs such as Copa de la Diversión, for example, MLB and Marvel became increasingly interested in expanding the partnership as far as they could.

“We’re bringing Marvel to Eugene, and we’re bringing it to Iowa,” said AthLife CEO Jon Harris. “We’re bringing it to the smaller markets that might not get to touch the Marvel brand in this way. That was really exciting.”

Last October, the two sides officially announced that 96 of the 120 full-season clubs were on board as part of an official three-year deal.

“I think in true Marvel spirit, it probably lasted nanoseconds before the thumbs-up came all around our table,” said Binghamton owner/president David Sobotka.

The first year involved at least one Marvel-themed night for each team, including uniforms from existing characters, and the introduction of a “Defenders of the Diamond” comic-book series. Year two plans to be a major step up from that, involving bespoke characters and looks only existing in the Minor Leagues.

ON-FIELD CAPS FOR 2023 DEBUT AT NEW YORK COMIC CON. DANIEL SHIREY/MLB PHOTOS
Sobotka and his front office, which rebranded from the Mets to the Rumble Ponies before the 2017 season, saw an opportunity to take their identity to a new level. While Marvel has Norse gods, Wakandan kings and mutants in its pantheon, it didn’t have a lot of horses.

“We had a blank canvas to work on,” Sobotka said.

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And so the fiery Rumble Pony with metallic armor was born after only a few brainstorms with Marvel artists, led by Marvel Themed Entertainment creative director Brian Crosby — who happens to be the brother of eight-year Major Leaguer and 2004 AL Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby.

“I think the players are going to be super psyched because they’re athletes, they’re competitive, right?” Sobotka said. “What athlete doesn’t want to think of himself as a superhero?”

They aren’t alone. The questions from on-lookers at New York Comic Con and social-media users since last week have been the same — when can we wear these? More logos will be released in the weeks ahead, culminating in the merchandise sale opening on Nov. 18.

Think of the ongoing unveils as daily teaser trailers until then.

“There’s very much going to be a collectible feature to this,” Hunzeker said. “Even if people are not from whichever Minor League team’s community, they’re going to want to have it because it’s so cool and different. You have two creative brands coming together, and with Marvel’s legendary illustrators and designers, it’s kind of reimagining Minor League Baseball. It’s going to be fun to see them actually on the field.”

The logos, the merch, even the 2023 season won’t mark the end of what Minor League Baseball and Marvel have planned. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone through phases and is up to its fourth now, culminating in November’s release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Harris called this logo release “Phase 1B” — an indication that a lot more is possible in the Minor League/Marvel multiverse.

“We have a few surprises held back,” Harris said. “This was a big one we held back. I already have in mind how this evolves. That I won’t talk about. I’ll just say we’re holding back even more because there’s room for growth in this partnership, which is really exciting.”