The London Rippers: Live Game Notes

The London Rippers:  Live Game Notes

The London Rippers are a professional baseball team located in London, Ontario and are part of the non-affiliated Frontier League.  The league has produced a few players that have gone on to have Major League careers, most notably Brendan Donnelly, Jason Simontacchi, Bryan Tollberg, DJ Carrasco, George Sherrill, Chris Jakubauskas, Clay Zavada and Dylan Axelrod.

In September of last year, we reported on rumblings that London was about to get a professional baseball team.  When it was announced in November of 2011 that London would indeed be getting a team and the name of the team would be “The Rippers,” controversy ensued.  With a team logo depicting a sinister cartoon –  wearing a black trenchcoat & top hat – comparisons were quickly made to the famous serial killer “Jack The Ripper” of London, England.

A depiction of Jack The Ripper

The mayor of London, Ontario, Joe Fontana, asked team owner David Martin to change the team’s name:

“On behalf of London City Council, we want to express serious concerns about the name of London’s newest baseball team. While the team owner’s intention may not have been to draw a connection to Jack the Ripper, we believe this name is unfortunate particularly in light of our focus on ending woman abuse. We will be speaking to the owner today and give him an opportunity to reconsider the name.”

Owner David Martin released a statement, defending the Rippers name as part of a fictitious story generated around the team’s mascot, Diamond Jack:

Team president and general manager David Martin was unapologetic, saying the name, Rippers, is a common baseball term that speaks to the bat prowess of the cartoon character they’ve created as part of a marketing strategy.

“That (Jack The Ripper) is not our story,” said Martin, when told about the reaction. “Ripping a ball is used in baseball all the time.”

Martin said the character’s name is Diamond Jack, a frustrated hockey player who found he could “rip” the cover off baseballs. Despite his talent, teams grew weary of the expense of replacing balls so Diamond Jack decided to form his own team in London, Ontario.

“It’s Phantom of the Opera meets baseball. He’s a mysterious character who is somewhat edgy,” said Martin.

The Diamond Jack story:

“Jack  ‘murdered every single ball'”

Megan Walker of the London Abused Women’s Shelter had this to say in regards to the Rippers’ name:

“It doesn’t matter what they think, it’s what the people think,” said Walker, noting London’s deep-rooted commitment to ending abuse against women. “You don’t have to be the brightest bulb on the block to realize Jack and Ripper go together. People are outraged. I think it’s appalling. It’s insulting and stupid and they better rethink their entire marketing strategy.”

The controversy attracted international media attention, garnering interest from NBC, USA Today and even Rush Limbaugh.

There were rumours of a protest to kick off the London Rippers season, but nothing came of it and the team moved on unscathed.

Or did it?

I attended a home game between the Rippers and the visiting Washington Wild Things on Monday, June 18th.  The concerns about insulting fan intelligence with the denial of the Jack the Ripper link and alienating those offended by the Ripper name seem to be valid.  Granted, it was a Monday night, but while the attendance was announced at 414, there were less than 100 fans actually at the ballpark to witness the game.

While it is true that the Rippers stood their ground and kept their name, the “Diamond Jack” mascot is no longer in existence.  Diamond Jack was supposed to be a mysterious “phantom” who would be “lurking in Labatt Park.”  Apparently parents were uncomfortable with a predatory mascot in a black trenchcoat creeping throughout the stands while they tried to enjoy the game with their family.  Instead, the Rippers’ mascot is a hound dog named “Fungo.”  Instead of slashing the skin off the ball with a knife, Fungo prefers to chew it off with his teeth.

As I mentioned previously, the Rippers play in Labatt Park, the oldest continually operating baseball grounds in the world.  Tickets range from $7.00 for bleacher seating to $14.00 for “VIP” seating – a section of three rows behind home plate.  The Rippers share Labatt Park with the London Majors of the Intercounty Baseball League, an Ontario-based amateur baseball league.

Of course, comparing the London Rippers to the London Majors is inevitable. Curious Londoners want to know what the difference between the two teams is.  Frontier League players are generally college players who have not been drafted by Major League teams, or former draft picks whose careers have stalled in the minors.  The Frontier League is made up of mostly American-born players – there are five Canadian players on the London Rippers; generally all players on IBL rosters are Canadian.  Most Intercounty players have not been drafted, but to be fair, they are exposed to Major League scouts far less than their American counterparts.  Frontier League players can not be over the age of 27; there is no age limit in the Intercounty Baseball League.   To me, in terms of talent level, both leagues are more or less on the same level.

The Rippers sent Matt Sommo to the mound, a University of New Haven alumnus and former player in the American Association.  He was a very average looking pitcher, with an average fastball and half-decent slider that he struggled to locate.

The Wild Things countered with Eric Blackwell, a right-handed Kenny Powers look-alike.  Blackwell has played in the North American League, and like Sommo, the American Association.

Blackwell struggled early on but got stronger – and sharper – as the game progressed.  Blackwell appeared to have a four-pitch mix:  a fastball that ranged between 88-90mph (there were scouts on hand with radar guns), a hard curve, a slider and a change-up with impressive fade.

The game was fairly sloppy for the most part;  the London team committed four errors in the game.  The talent level on each team varied widely.  It was apparent which players had been through Major League instructional camps and which hadn’t.  Some routes to fly balls were bizarre and circuitous; there were hitches in attempts to turn double plays.  It appeared that there were more power bats in both the London and Washington lineups than I am used to seeing in Intercounty.  Both London and Washington hit home runs in the game and routinely hit deep drives to the warning track.  Labatt Park has dimensions greater than that of the Rogers Centre and is generally viewed as a pitcher’s park.

Rippers’ pitcher Matt Sommo lasted only three innings before being replaced by Adam Arnold.  A former draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, Arnold has experience playing in the Rookie-level Pioneer League and the independent Can-Am League.  His fastball sat in the low 90s but was as straight as an arrow.  In short, the Wild Things hit him hard.

Former Michigan Wolverine Brandon Sinnery came on in relief of Arnold.  The tall, lanky son-of-a-gun is listed at 6’4″ but he looks even taller considering that he weighs only 165lbs.  Don’t let his slight frame fool you – he can run the ball up there.  This was his Frontier League debut and he lasted two innings while striking out one.  There were three scouts on hand tracking his pitches.

The product on the field was really not all that impressive.  To make up for it, the Rippers really play up the hokey, cheesy, camp in-game experience that was popularized in the movie Bull Durham.  Delayed sound effects, terrible music and tongue-in-cheek plays on words are peppered throughout the game.  For instance, whenever Wild Things’ infielder Shain Stoner walked to the plate, the Rippers would play a certain song that paid homage to the player’s surname:

After a collision at the plate, the quick-witted Rippers DJ played Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”  Why you ask?  It contains these lyrics:

If I
Should stay
I would only be in
Your way


In fact, the Rippers DJ had a little bit of a Whitney Houston obsession:

Another point that is worthy of mention:  alcohol is not served at Rippers games.  I’m not sure if it is because they haven’t been able to get a liquor license or it is just team policy, but it strikes me as odd that an “edgy” team such as the Rippers wouldn’t serve alcohol at their games.

Most of the typical concession items are available: chips, pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers.  The hot dogs and hamburgers are actually grilled on a barbecue in the parking lot.  This is a refreshing and well-needed change from typical ballpark steamed weenies.  I did hear one fan complain that popcorn wasn’t available – mostly because it is available at London Majors games.

In regards to the game being a family friendly atmosphere, I’m not sure.  When entering the ballpark, there is a station where kids (or even big kids) can go to in order to see how fast their fastball is.  The best part about? It’s free!

There are a few on-field events where kids can participate in trivia, try and hit bases with newspapers (I know, it sounds strange) and other activities.  Again, it was a Monday night, but these activities didn’t really seem to have the desired effect.  I do like the fact that the Rippers are making an effort, but their marketing campaign of having a scary dog/scary trench coat guy doesn’t really align with children. Kudos to them for changing their mascot to a dog, and the real life Fungo is not at all scary-looking.

After having seen a Rippers game, my initial reaction is that there is much ado about nothing.  The on-field product was mediocre, however, it was still fairly enjoyable.  The team does not emphasize the story of “Diamond Jack” – in fact, there is nothing even remotely offensive in regards to any aspect of the fan experience .  It would be worthwhile  to attend a weekend afternoon game to fully gauge what the experience is like with (presumably) more fans.  Team owner David Martin has taken a lot of flack in regards to starting a professional baseball team in London but it is plain to see he has put his heart and soul into this team.  Not only is Martin the owner, but he is also the GM and on-field manager.  It takes a lot of guts, passion and determination to start a baseball team and I hope that the team eventually is a success and draws enough fans to make it worthwhile.  It is important not only for baseball in London, but in Ontario and Canada as well.

Images courtesy of  the London Rippers, the Frontier League and myself.

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