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Creepy or cuddly, Zim Bears are hot

They've been called creepy, petrifying and freaky, with an occasional cute and hilarious tossed in for kindness' sake.

We're talking Zim Bears, stuffed bears in a Rays uniform with the face of senior adviser Don Zimmer.

The Rays are giving them to the first 10,000 fans at tonight's game against the Tigers. Team officials expect people to arrive up to four hours before the 7:10 p.m. game.

Bear-y scary or not, everyone now wants one.

News of the Zim Bears went viral in February when the Rays announced this season's schedule of promotions. Fans cheered Evan Longoria's walk-off home run figurine, the Joe Maddon sunglasses and DJ Kitty bobblehead.

But they went wild over the Zim Bears.

"We heard from people all over the country, even from people in Japanese baseball,'' said Tom Hoof, the team's vice president of marketing. "The amount of reaction kind of surprised us.''

The online Bleacher Report quickly declared the Zim Bear the most interesting promotional item for the 2012 Major League Baseball season. The U.S. Postal Service made a commercial for its flat-rate boxes about a family desperate to get rid of a Zim Bear.

Comments on the Rays' Facebook page have ranged from "better lock it in the Yankees clubhouse'' to "Creepy, but I secretly want one!'' Photos of B.J. Upton, Hideki Matsui and other players posing with a bear got a few thousand "Likes" on Facebook.

Even Maddon, the Rays manager, played along and wore the bear on his shoulder during a media session. He called it cute and cuddly, but not something he would put in a 2-year-old's crib.

Zimmer, 81, has been surprised and amused by all the attention, telling reporters when he first saw the bear: "I don't know what to think.'' Health issues may keep him from tonight's game.

The team started the giveaways a few years ago to boost attendance on Friday nights and wanted to do something to honor Zimmer, one of baseball's beloved legends. It teamed up with Match-Up Promotions in Orlando to create a prototype using a stock photo of a bald, big-jowled Zimmer, the model for tonight's giveaway.

"We were like everyone else. We all thought it was so cute, but so scary looking,'' said Jeff Collins, Match-Up's vice president of sales. "We're very happy with the buzz.''

The company hasn't mass-marketed the bears yet, but expects to promote them to other MLB clients. Similar versions with a face of a favorite player or coach may appear in other cities, he said.

The Rays do about 30 giveaways a year, mostly for weekend games. Not since the team handed out AL championship commemorative rings in 2009 has a promotional item proven so popular.

Personalized plush toys aren't new, but have been gaining popularity. Minime of Chino, Calif., recently added mall and shopping center kiosks across the region where customers can put their photo on a stuffed toy or doll.

"What better gift to give your boss than one that celebrates him?'' said Minime spokeswoman Lori Mann. "It's the new bobblehead.''

Already, people are trying to presell their Zim Bear on eBay. Sellers will ship it unopened in its original packaging. Buyers get to decide if it's cute or creepy.

Creepy or cuddly, Zim Bears are hot 06/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 11:11pm]
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