At this level, it's a challenge to keep winning because your roster changes so much. Over the course of last season, we had 13 players called up from our opening-day roster. —Orem Owlz general manager Rick Berry
On the field, the Orem Owlz continue to pile up an impressive bunch of Pioneer League baseball championships, winning five of them over the last 13 years.
Off the field, the Ogden Raptors just keep putting a bunch of fans in the stands, piling up the league's leading attendance figures every year since 1997.
And beginning Monday night, it's time for the Beehive State's two Rookie League teams to "Play ball!" once again.
The Owlz open defense of their latest league title Monday night at Brent Brown Ballpark, on the campus of Utah Valley University, with a 7 p.m. game against the in-state rival Raptors who, despite all their success at drawing plenty of fans to their jewel of a ballpark, Lindquist Field, haven't taken home a Pioneer League championship since the late 1960s.
The Owlz, meanwhile, have claimed Pioneer League crowns in 2004 (when they were the Provo Angels), 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2016. Along the way, they've ousted Ogden out of the playoffs five times since 2009, knocking off the Raptors in the league semifinals three straight times from 2009-11, in 2014 and again last year.
Along with its five league championships, the highly successful Orem franchise, which along with the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees is an affiliate of the parent Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim organization, has also posted five runner-up finishes in the Pioneer League playoffs.
"At this level, it's a challenge to keep winning because your roster changes so much," said Rick Berry, the Owlz' second-year general manager. "Over the course of last season, we had 13 players called up from our opening-day roster.
"The first half of the season, we had a great hitting team and were scoring a lot of runs. But then we got decimated with call-ups and really struggled for a while. We had guys playing positions they were not used to playing, and we had a lot of really young guys on our roster.
"Then late in the season, we turned things around," Berry said. "The kids got hot and we got on a roll at the right time. Pitching wins championships, and we got great pitching in the playoffs. Things just came together at the right time for us."
The Owlz recently got an opportunity to celebrate their latest league championship in a truly wonderful way.
"We had a really cool ring ceremony where we went down to Arizona for the last Angels home game at spring training, and they presented all of our players from last year's team their championship rings," Berry said. "It was a great night for them; they put ’em all out there on the pitcher's mound for a team photo.
"Another cool thing about that is that the championship ring turned out so nice, all the Angels' staff people wanted ’em, too."
The franchise will donate an exact, personalized replica of the Owlz 2016 championship ring to one lucky fan during Monday night's season-opener. Fans can enter the ring drawing online at contest.oremowlz.com and also by clicking on the Owlz Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sites. Entry forms will also be available at the ballpark prior to Monday's game.
Pioneer League president Jim McCurdy will be on hand Monday night to present the Owlz with their 2016 championship banner, which will be dropped from the rafters, and a postgame fireworks display will be staged.
Along with new menu items at the ballpark's concession stands, the Owlz have several fun promotional nights planned for this season. They include:
"Pirates of the Caribbean Night" on June 29; "BYU Legends Night" on June 30, which will serve as a fundraiser for Utah Special Olympics and will feature several former BYU football, baseball, basketball and golf stars who've gone on to the professional ranks; "Star Wars Night" on July 10, with characters from the popular film series at the ballpark that night; "Paint the Park Pink Night" for breast cancer awareness on July 21; "Utah Mascot Night" featuring 10 of the state's most popular mascots on July 22; "Disney Princess Night" on Aug. 4, when the first 1,500 fans through the gates will receive a free fidget-spinner; and "Luau Night" on Aug. 5, to name just a few.
Also, a unique promotion will be "Bobble Hand Night" on July 1, when the first thousand fans who come into the ballpark will receive a "Thing-A-Ma-Bobble," which is a bobble hand with a replica of each of the Owlz five championship rings adorning its fingers and thumb.
And Aug. 19 will be "Invincible Night," with former NFL player Vince Papale, subject of the inspirational 2006 film "Invincible" starring Mark Wahlberg, on hand to greet fans and sign autographs, with the movie being shown at the ballpark after the game.
In addition to Monday night, fireworks will also be staged at the Home of the Owlz on July 3 and 24.
Looking for first title
Meanwhile, up north, Ogden is still looking for its first league title in almost 50 years, having lost in the championship series four times since the franchise was reincarnated in the mid-1990s.
In fact, under the current eight-team Pioneer League configuration, Ogden and Grand Junction, Colorado, are the only two franchises that haven't yet won a league championship.
"We've been the Cubs of the Pioneer League for many years," Raptors team president Dave Baggott said as the Ogden franchise prepares for its 24th season under its current regime. "We're the Rodney Dangerfield of the Utah sports scene — we can't get no respect.
"But I'm really glad that the Orem franchise has been so successful. I think that's wonderful.
"It's all about a team getting hot when it needs to get hot," Baggott said. "A team can get hot the last 5-6 days of the regular season and carry that on into the playoffs. Pitching and defense wins championships, and we haven't been able to put that combination together yet late in the year.
"But I'll tell you what, the playoffs between Orem and Ogden are often more exciting than the championship series."
What the Raptors might lack in league pennants, they make up for in popularity when it comes to their fan base. Since moving into Lindquist Field in 1997, Ogden has led the league in attendance every year.
"I don't focus on what I can't do, I focus on what I can do," Baggott said. "And what I care about is our local fan base; that's what matters to me. And each night, our fans get an opportunity to enjoy an incredible view while watching athletes from two teams who are trying to make it to the major leagues someday."
Among those former Raptors players who've made their major league dreams come true are current standouts Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Kenley Jansen, Dee Gordon, J.J. Hardy and Russell Martin, along with former stars like Prince Fielder, Chad Billingsley, Corey Hart and Ben Sheets.
One reason the Raptors' attendance continues to lead the league each year is the team's daily promotions — and no, the unauthorized but well-publicized (and widely scorned) "Hourglass Night" will definitely not be one of them.
Among the special nights planned for this season are the following:
"Mini-Monday Bobblehead Nights," when miniature bobblehead figurines will be given away featuring former Raptor players Fielder, Seager, Jansen, Pederson and Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda, who guided the Ogden Dodgers to three straight Pioneer League pennants in the late-1960s; "Taco Tuesdays," featuring $1 tacos; "Ugly Outfit Wednesdays," when all fans will be encouraged to wear the ugliest clothes they can find, whereupon a panel of judges will award winners with Raptors apparel as well as a grand prize of a $100 gift card to a local department store "so they can go get some new clothes," Baggott said; "Thirsty Thursdays," when draft and domestic canned beer will be sold for $2 and soft drinks will be half-price; "Free T Fridays," when a limited number of specially designed free T-shirts will be given away; "Date Night" Saturdays, when those who buy one Raptors ticket will get a second ticket for their date free of charge; and "Aloha Sundays," when fans are encouraged to wear their best Hawaiian gear and the Raptors' players and coaches will wear Hawaiian-styled jerseys.
To honor the U.S. military, the Raptors will wear digital camouflage jerseys on Friday nights, and there will be the usual series of fireworks nights as well, beginning with the home-opener on Wednesday when the Owlz come to town for a two-night return engagement following their two-game set Monday and Tuesday at Orem.
So get the hot dogs on the grill and start icing down the beverages — yep, it's time to "Play ball!" indeed.