Danville’s team in the reconfigured Appalachian League — we’re talking baseball here, but not for long — will be known as the Otterbots.
What the heck is an Otterbot?
Good question. (Thank you). Otterbot is a made-up name, part of a trend in minor league sports to come up with original and wacky names that can be marketed as, well, original and wacky. Gone are the days when sports teams went for common names. Sportscasting.com says the most popular name across the country is the Eagles — used by 1,603 teams across multiple sports and multiple levels of competition. Tigers come in second at 1,354, followed by Bulldogs, Panthers, Wildcats, Warriors and Lions, used by a “mere” 742 teams. There will be none of those in the Appalachian League, which is being repurposed from a professional rookie league to a summer league for college players. Instead, we’ll have the Pulaski River Turtles, the Bristol State Liners, the Bluefield Ridge Runners, the Johnson City Doughboys — and now the Danville Otterbots.
William Shakespeare, who is said to have invented more than 1,700 words, would be proud. For the record, he used the word “otter” in “Henry IV, Part 1,” with a reference to how it is “neither fish nor flesh.”
Enough of that. We are more curious about the modern origin of the name “Otterbot.” Team general manager Austin Scher says the first part of the name is a nod to the Dan River and the “bot” — well, let him explain it. That, he said, is a reference to “the future of STEM education and upcoming industry along the Southside.” As Shakespeare — that literary slugger — wrote in “As You Like It,” “thereby hangs a tale.” Here’s that tale.
Many sports franchises adopt names that harken back to a community’s past. There aren’t many ranches in Dallas but the football team there still is called the Cowboys. Tampa Bay hasn’t been a pirate’s cove for a long time but its team is still called the Buccaneers. Roanoke has seen a long line of teams whose names play on the city’s rail heritage — the Roanoke Express, the Roanoke Steam, the Roanoke Rails, the Virginia Iron Horses (an indoor football team that never played a game), the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs. Roanoke is right to be proud of its rail heritage, but the reality is that was the past, not much of the present and certainly not the future.
The owners of the Danville franchise have done something quite unusual beyond inventing a name. They have picked a futuristic name. To switch our sports metaphors, they have done what hockey players are advised: Don’t skate to where the puck is. Skate to where the puck is going to be. The Danville Otterbots — as a business, not a team — are betting that Danville is headed toward a high-tech future.
There’s some evidence to support this: Danville is a city in the process of reinventing itself. We know it historically as a city of textiles and tobacco. In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, Danville’s minor league team was called the Leafs — and that definitely wasn’t the same kind of leaf as the Toronto Maple Leafs. Those days are long gone. Danville hit rock bottom in the ’80s when the collapse of the textile industry was complete but in recent years has emerged as a national model for how to build a new economy. That’s not hyperbole: In 2018, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas brought two jetloads of state officials there to study what Danville has done and how those ideas could be applied in his state.
What Danville has done is focus on that STEM education cited above — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Danville Community College was the first community college outside of the urban crescent to win special recognition by the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Community leaders enlisted the help of Virginia Tech in creating The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, a high-tech research center. The community has invested in workforce training, with an emphasis on robotics and advanced manufacturing. Danville has positioned itself to attract spillover from small high-tech companies priced out of the Research Triangle in North Carolina — and is starting to get some. Once a loser in globalization, Danville now is coming out a winner. Downtown the city flies eight foreign flags — all representing countries whose companies now are represented in the city.
We still are miffed that in 2018, Corey Stewart — the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate — tried to portray Danville as a “boarded up” ghost town. The city has its challenges to be sure but, as a work in progress, it actually is a success story. Here’s a community that has taken some of the hardest blows possible but now is creating a new future for itself. Stewart stood in front of the former Dan River Mills building and declared “I want to see these mills working.” Guess what? Those mills are gone, never to return. Stewart was looking to the past (and got the electoral reward he deserved when he lost); Danville is looking to the future. Interestingly, so is the baseball team.
The team’s general manager told the Sportslogo site: “When we were looking towards the future, that was the answer. Trying to find out how to combine that with otters became the tough part.” Scher has spoken some pretty profound truth there. Not the part about otters — although making a critter that’s been around for 23 million years futuristic is an artistic challenge. (By contrast, the first humans didn’t appear until about 7 million years ago, so otters have three times as much seniority). No, we’re thinking about the part where he says “when we were looking towards the future, that was the answer.”
A sports team here is setting the standard that lots of politicians should strive to emulate. We recently dinged Travis Hackworth, the Republican candidate for the state Senate in the district that runs from Radford west to the Kentucky line, for making such a big point about being pro-coal. That fine, but coal’s not the future. So what is? That’s what he should be focused on. That’s what localities all across rural Virginia should be focused on. The Danville Otterbots offer a test of sorts. Imagine a sports team shows up and wants to design a new logo that reflects the community. How many places have positioned themselves in such way that the result is futuristic and not nostalgic?
We might even call that the Otterbot test.
— Adapted from The Roanoke Times