After a decade-long absence, Minor League Baseball returned to the city of Fresno in 1998 in the form of the Pacific Coast League Grizzlies. From that inaugural season through the conclusion of the 2014 campaign, the Grizzlies were an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. This affiliation was always a primary component of the Grizzlies' identity -- right down to the team's orange and black color scheme -- but the 2015 season marks the start of a new era of the franchise's existence.
This past September, the Giants chose not to renew their Player Development Contract with the Grizzlies. They are partnering with the Sacramento River Cats instead, a move motivated in part by the convenience of geographical proximity. After being abandoned by their long-time parent club, the Grizzlies considered their options and soon entered into a two-year PDC with the Houston Astros.
These changes caused considerable consternation and confusion within the Grizzlies' fan base. The Giants are the most popular Major League team in the Fresno region, and a San Francisco affiliation was all that they had ever known.
The Grizzlies front office, for its part, isn't spending any time lamenting the loss of the Giants. They are embracing the new Houston affiliation and, perhaps even more so, seizing upon the change as an opportunity to create a Fresno-first (as opposed to Giants-first) marketing philosophy.
"We're excited about the ability to hit the reset button and progress forward with a new organizational plan," Grizzlies executive vice president Derek Franks told me in September. "Between the Houston Astros' top-rated farm system, the Minor League Baseball background of Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan and the promotional plan our nationally renowned marketing team is creating, we're building considerable momentum for Opening Day 2015."
Seeking to gain more insight into just what this plan entails, I spoke with Grizzlies marketing director Sam Hansen and communications manager Ryan Young. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, during which the duo spoke about the difficulties and opportunities of this next era of Grizzlies history.
MiLB.com: When it was first announced that the Grizzlies would no longer be an affiliate of the Giants, what was the reaction in Fresno?
Ryan Young: A lot of people thought that we were the ones moving to Sacramento. "Are you guys still a team? Are you still the Grizzlies?" We knew we needed to start that education process right away, regarding what happened, so come April there'd be less questions. Actually, right now we have one of our guys in the next room, storyboarding a video that will explain the whole process.
I think that we've been extremely proactive. We knew what the fan response would be and tried to craft statements that took off the veil and would be truthful. From the beginning [of the offseason], we told people that we would be with the Giants until they said no. And once they told us "no," we let the fans know that. We think we've done things that other teams haven't done, like putting an affiliation Q&A on our website. And, later, we had [an open to the public] "Meet the Astros" event to attract media attention and explain things further. ... We want to make it so that people are not confused, because Minor League [affiliation] agreements, to an average fan, are really confusing.
MiLB.com: And yet, the Giants recently won another World Championship, with a roster that includes many former Grizzlies. It seems difficult to capitalize on that and, at the same time, promote this new Astros affiliation.
Young: Yeah. We hosted World Series "Watch Parties" [at the Grizzlies home of Chukchansi Park], which a lot of fans had asked us to do. But how much could we promote that on social media, which is an open canvas for people to voice their opinion [on the loss of the Giants affiliation]? When we post, people remind us of that. But patience goes a long way, and that's something that [Grizzlies executive vice president] Derek Franks has really stressed. There's a line that we have to toe. We can't ignore the history that we have. We have to make these changes gradually.
Sam Hansen: We're going to do a Giants 2014 World Championship replica ring giveaway, and we're getting some flak for that because now Sacramento is also doing a ring giveaway. But those guys are our players, they were here in Fresno.
Young: Our ticket guys have put together a "rivalry pack" that includes all eight of our games against the River Cats. There are still Giants fans here, so now they'll be rooting for the River Cats. Our job is now to win their hearts and minds and make them Grizzlies fans.
MiLB.com: So it stands to reason, then, that the Grizzlies' rivalry with the River Cats is only going to get more intense?
Young: We'll definitely be engaging with them, going after them a little bit on Twitter. We're not going to back down. Sacramento has had this winning heritage, but it will be interesting to see where they go now that they've jumped in with the Giants.
Hansen: The rivalry also allows us to embrace the excitement of working with the Astros. There's definitely a "Don't Mess With Texas" kind of attitude here in Fresno; the population of Fresno might have more in common with the population of Texas than they do with San Francisco. And Fresno's tone toward Sacramento, California's capital city, is similar to Texas's toward Washington D.C. Don't mess with Fresno.
In Sacramento you'll see people in suits and ties, but here in Fresno we're roll-up-our-sleeves working class. Sacramento promotes its own connection to agriculture, but are you serious? This is Fresno. We're the heart of the Central Valley, and this is embedded in our way of life. Go to Sacramento and then go to Fresno, and you'll immediately see the difference between the two.
MiLB.com: And that ties into your long-term goal of cultivating a distinct "Fresno-first" marketing philosophy.
Hansen: When I first started working for the Grizzlies, in 2011, one of my reasons for coming here was because I wanted to build us up as a Fresno-centric brand. There's a large heritage with the Giants, but to get the energy we need to create something that is truly rooted in the fabric of Fresno culture, not the Bay Area. We're going back to the roots. Professional baseball in Fresno dates back to 1898. We want to celebrate teams like the Fresno Raisin Eaters. We want to talk about being affiliated with the Cardinals in the 1940s, when they won two World Championships in five years. Fresno is where championships are grown, and it's important for people to realize we have a long history of being champions. It's not just with the Giants.
We've started a "Growlifornia"-themed marketing campaign, revolving around our unique California vibe. When California revolted against Mexico [in 1846] it was called the "Bear Flag Rebellion." That's why the California state flag has a bear on it. We're celebrating the Bear Flag Rebellion of 2015, because people here in Fresno feel that rebellious sort of pride. This is our own unique region, and our affiliation with Houston is going to help us get back to those roots.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.