Freight All Kinds: Loading up for MLB spring training

New York Met mascots on truck

Pitchers and catchers report to Major League Baseball (MLB) spring training sites across Florida and the greater Phoenix area this week, expecting many of the comforts of home to be waiting for them — and their families.

Eight of MLB’s 30 teams count on flawless execution by Old Dominion Freight Line (NASDAQ: ODFL), which pays MLB for the right to call itself the “Official Freight Carrier of Major League Baseball.” Other teams make other arrangements.

New York Mets mascots Mr. and Mrs. Met climb aboard an Old Dominion Freight Line tractor that carried the National League team’s gear to Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Image: Old Dominion Freight Line)

Marketing long ball

As sponsorships go, it is a home run, according to Dick Podiak, Old Dominion vice president of marketing and communications, even though running commercials on MLB Network or Fox Sports doesn’t guarantee freight contracts for the less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier.

There’s no doubt that allowing one of its customers to watch, for example, a Chicago White Sox batting practice at Guaranteed Rate Field is marketing money well spent.

But the all-important revenue boost came when the Sox signed on to have Old Dominion take a shipment to the SoxFest fan event at Chicago’s McCormick Place, not as far as Spring Training in Camelback Ranch in Arizona. But revenue nonetheless.  

An Old Dominion Freight Line trailer wrapped with a Chicago White Sox theme outside Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago. (Image: Old Dominion Freight Line)

“Yes, we love baseball and we love these teams,” Podiak said. ”But we also want to make sure that it makes sense for Old Dominion and that we’re able to grow our shipments based on this.”

Developing relationships through a dozen team sponsorships, most of them multiyear contracts, on top of the five-year MLB deal indirectly steers work to Old Dominion. Word of mouth among equipment managers helps. So does MLB’s endorsement.

“What we’re seeing is that when we perform well with one, we’re able to share that information with the other teams and they’re like, ‘Hey, that may make sense for us.’” Podiak said.

Old Dominion counts the White Sox, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies as customers. Its longest spring training haul is 2,031 miles from Progressive Field in Cleveland to Goodyear, Arizona. The shortest is 363 miles from the Angels’ home in Anaheim, California, to Tempe, Arizona.

The trip from Anaheim. California, home of the Los Angeles Angels, to their Spring Training site in Tempe, Arizona, is 363 miles, the shortest distance of any of the eight teams’ gear that Old Dominion Freight Line hauls. Image: Old Dominion Freight Line)

A Philadelphia story

Dan O’Rourke, in his 13th year as manager of equipment and umpire services for the Philadelphia Phillies, became a fan of Old Dominion’s service in 2019 when he discovered the team needed a third truck because it had so much gear to haul to Clearwater, Florida.

“It was interesting to me because I’m not in the trucking business,” O’Rourke said. “They just boarded off our area of the truck instead of wasting a 28-foot truck with 10 feet of baseball stuff. I thought it was pretty cool.”

Two trucks would suffice if the Phillies’ shipment were just bats, rosin bags, pine tar, Gatorade coolers, sunflower seeds, chewing gum, and the hot dog launcher for fan promotions. 

“Rhys Hoskins spent the winter here,” O’Rourke said. “He gave us a few suitcases. Most of the employees and front-office staff go down to spring training at one time or another during the six weeks. To make life easier, we also take their suitcases.”

The cargo also extends to golf clubs, bicycles, strollers and guitars. All make the 1,058-mile journey south. A perfect game for Old Dominion is on-time, damage-free delivery.

The Phillie Phanatic leads the Old Dominion Freight Line tandem trailers away from Citizens Bank Park as they head south to Spring Training in Clearwater, Florida. (Image: Old Dominion Freight Line)

Baseballs, lots of baseballs

O’Rourke and his team of eight start preparing for spring training after the last game of the previous season.

“It takes us two weeks to clear out the clubhouse,” he said. “And whatever the players don’t want any longer, if it’s in decent shape, we’ll keep it to give to a minor league player up for the first time up who may not have a pair of spikes or batting gloves.”

Ordering new bats and specialty equipment starts in late November. If the goods are ready before the first week in February, they are shipped directly to Clearwater. That was the case with the 1,200 dozen-count boxes, or 14,400 baseballs, budgeted for spring training.

Later arrivals await Old Dominion’s handling. Last Friday, about a dozen pallets moved by forklift onto twin 28-foot trailers. The shipment included six bats made for All-Star right fielder Bryce Harper, two dozen for catcher J.T. Realmuto and the same number for left fielder Hoskins.

Some bats are included as sacrifices. They are given players on the 40-man roster who may not make the team. The Phillies make only a dozen bats each with their name on them.

“They’ll face live pitching within a week of spring training, so we give those kids some other bats to use because you’re going to break some,” O’Rourke said. “So instead of breaking the 12 new ones, we’ll bring some older ones down that they’re comfortable with.”

Comforts of home

The key to a successful spring training, in addition to discovering future superstar talent on the diamond, is making sure the off hours include the important things in a player’s life.

“You just have to listen to the players for what they like and don’t like,” O’Rourke said. “It’s like a marriage. If your wife’s not happy, the house ain’t happy. If the players aren’t happy, everyone’s miserable.”