I recently bought a Zim Bear.  But perhaps that’s not the best place to start.

To some degree, everyone likes receiving free stuff at a ballgame.  Even when the stuff isn’t really 100% free, and even when it’s sure to clutter your home or collect dust in your garage, there are still plenty of us who thoroughly enjoy the promotional tchotchkes that are regularly handed out in ballparks across the country.

Some people love the utilitarian nature of the giveaway items–who couldn’t use another hat or t-shirt?  Some enjoy the novelty of the item itself–where else can you find a superhero action figure bearing the likeness of your favorite power hitter?*  Others are easier to please–they indiscriminately line up for the swag simply because it bears the insignia of their favorite team.  And still others have some twisted compulsion toward accumulating junk to litter their homes (those people are often called hoarders, and the less said about them, the better).

*I didn’t make this up–one of my nephew’s favorite teething toys was an Andre Ethier action figure called “Super Dre.”

Ideally the best swag has some real-world use.  Hats are the most immediately useful item, and along with t-shirts, probably give the advertising sponsor the best publicity bang for their buck.  But I’ve been handed all kinds of useful giveaways as I walk through the turnstiles–novelty pens, keychains, wallets, and watches all have staying power.  Even the less worthwhile items (is there anything more useless than a bobblehead?) can be allowed to linger in your home or office indefinitely if it strikes a chord with you.

Regardless of what compelled you to keep it, I’d wager that if you’re reading this, you’ve got some promotional giveaway item somewhere in your house right now.

It doesn’t even have to be Cubs-related.  Just the other day my mom asked me why there was an Anaheim Ducks hat in her laundry room.  I couldn’t give her a good answer–although I knew I wasn’t the one who left it there, since I stopped taking other team’s free stuff a while back.**  As a general rule, I waive off any opponent swag I won’t personally use.

**The final straw: I had four Cesar Izturis bobbleheads from his time with the Dodgers that I absolutely could not give away.  The might as well have been used syringes–no one would take them off my hands.

And frankly, we’re living in the Golden Age of useful swag.  Back when I was a little kid, the best you could hope for was a classy pin, a cheap pennant that wasn’t too cluttered with advertising, or maybe a few oddly-sized baseball cards.  You hoped against hope that you’d be handed a free baseball upon arrival.  But free baseball days mostly died out of popularity.***

***I remember a game in San Diego many years ago when Cubs fans threw back their free balls after a couple Padre homeruns, halting the game for several minutes.  That may have had something to do with it.

Then there was the inexplicable Beanie Baby craze, and suddenly every team had their own branded, vaguely animal-resembling toy to hand out to eager children and lonely women.  Bobbleheads enjoyed a similar wave of popularity, and the promotional giveaway industry hasn’t been the same since.

Today the “free” giveaways are pretty creative and staggeringly diverse.  Hats, t-shirts, and bobbleheads are commonplace–the Cubs will give away several of each this season, along with a variety of bags, some branded stationary, and a set of winter accessories.  Look through their schedule of promotional items and you’ll see there’s almost nothing they can’t slap a Cubs logo onto and hand out by the thousands.  And I think that’s great!  Who wouldn’t want a Cubs-branded iPhone skin (August 25th) or luggage tag (September 1st)?  Personally, I’d love to have a wall clock that looks like the Wrigley Field scoreboard (July 29th), even if it is sure to be tackily emblazoned with an unsightly MasterCard logo.

As far as I’m concerned, the high-water mark for the Cubs’ 2012 promotional giveaways comes on Friday, July 27th, when they will bestow a replica of Ron Santo’s Hall of Fame plaque on the first 10,000 fans in attendance.  Any way you cut it, that’s a classy promo.

That’s not to say they’re all gold.  Remember the Ryan Theriot Gone Fishin’ bobbleheadOr the Kosuke Fukudome bobblehead that looked nothing like him?  For every useful giveaway (seriously, how great is the fridge magnet schedule?), there’s a creepy Jeff Samardzija bobblehead (from June 29th) you wouldn’t dare bring into your home, a Cubs-themed Dora the Explorer doll that clearly wants to murder your children, or a camouflaged bucket hat you’ll never wear again.  When you’re giving away that much stuff over the course of one season, they can’t all be winners.

Which brings me back to the Zim Bear.  There’s really nothing classy or redeeming about it.  It’s Don Zimmer’s face on a teddy bear body in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform–that’s it and that’s all.  It serves no purpose and has no function, unless you count creeping out friends and family.  It simply exists to draw a little attention to the Rays and to the Tampa Bay Times (who sponsored the distribution of the bizarre man/animal half-breed collectible).  It’s 100% novelty, and it could only exist in the world of promotional giveaways.

And I think that’s fantastic.

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