Reading's Eastern League club has served as the Double-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies since 1967, the longest current relationship in all of baseball. And throughout this enduring arrangement, the team has simply been known as the Reading Phillies.
At a "Name Change Announcement" party on Saturday at FirstEnergy Stadium, the franchise often referred to as the R-Phils announced it will be known as the Fightin Phils in 2013 and beyond. The name change is the centerpiece of a comprehensive rebranding effort, designed by San Diego-based Brandiose, that features a wide variety of colors and logos. The ultimate goal is to merge the franchise's illustrious past with a more colorful, eye-catching and youth-centric present.
In what is most definitely a Minor League first, the team's primary logo features an ostrich. The flightless bird, depicted in a fists-up fighting pose above the word "Fightins" in a stylized font, is a nod to the enduring popularity of the franchise's Crazy Hot Dog Vendor. The bespectacled character's ballpark routine involves riding his pet ostrich, Rodrigo, onto the field and throwing frankfurters into the crowd while screaming at the top of his lungs.
"There's a lot of fun to be had with a large flightless bird, in the same way that the [Lehigh Valley] IronPigs and [Richmond] Flying Squirrels have a lot of fun with their names," Fightin Phils general manager Scott Hunsicker said in a telephone conversation prior to the official announcement. "It's the sort of thing that can get families excited and kids excited, with the goal being to get more kids to fall in love with baseball."
That desire to forge a greater connection with young fans was one of the primary reasons for the rebranding.
"The 'R-Phils' word mark, I don't think that was something that really speaks to children. We may draw as high a percentage of kids as any team in the country, and that just wasn't doing it," Hunsicker said. "I have three little boys and I know it wasn't speaking to them.....I coach Little League and we have kids playing for teams like the Scrappers and the Storm and the PawSox, but they can never be the R-Phils because it's the same name as the Major League team.
"We have a passion for our franchise and it's not fair that kids in Reading or [nearby] Wyomissing can wear the uniforms of other teams but not ours. We want Little Leagues, both locally and around the country, to be able to call themselves the 'Fightins.'"
The ostrich motif is just one of many new looks swirling around the Fightin Phils. The navy blue home cap features a punching "F" (in which part of the letter takes the shape of a fist), while the lighter blue road cap features an anthropomorphized hot dog with a cursive "B" scrawled upon him in mustard. This latter mark references Reading's status as "Baseballtown," a nickname bestowed upon the city in honor of its longstanding passion for the national pastime. And chief among the array of alternate caps is a navy blue number sporting a deep red feathery "R," which is a nod to the 1950s-era Reading Indians (a team that featured the likes of Roger Maris and Rocky Colavito).
"We know some people aren't going to like the ostrich, but that's OK. That's why we have three hats. You pick the one that means the most to you," Hunsicker said. "The ostrich is for the kids, the fist is aimed more at middle-age, and for the older or more conservative and historically minded fans, there's the 'R' feather hat."
Also historically minded is the Fightin Phils name itself, which was a nickname originally given to the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies' "Whiz Kids" team that improbably won the National League pennant. Among the elements of the rebranding that Hunsicker was most enthusiastic about was the extent to which his team has attempted to replicate the look and feel of those 1950s uniforms.
"It's going to be an exact replica. Exact," Hunsicker said. "[Philadelphia-based sports apparel company] Mitchell & Ness put us in touch with a guy who had one of the game-worn uniforms, and we used sublimation technology to copy it and take the clock back 60 years. These uniforms are going to look as if they could have been worn by Richie Ashburn, and this is all part of the story."
Reading's transition to an identity that is largely independent of the parent club is par for the course for Minor League Baseball. Teams have been eager to tailor the ballpark experience to their own unique brand (especially since affiliation agreements are subject to change on a two- or four-year basis) while selling merchandise that they design and control. Rebranding efforts are rarely without controversy, however, given the traditionalist mind-set of many baseball fans. And in Reading, the backlash has been especially intense. Within days of the Nov. 3 announcement that the team would be changing its name, an online petition had generated more than 1,000 signatures, while a "Save the Reading Phillies" Facebook page boasted more than 2,800 members.
Hunsicker acknowledged that he had been getting "roasted," especially in social media forums, with many area fans calling him arrogant, uncaring and fixated solely on the bottom line. Nonetheless, he approached Saturday's public unveiling not with dread but with a seeming implacable confidence in the next era of a storied and justly revered Eastern League entity.
"It's been tough, but a lot of people are just pushing back against the concept of change," Hunsicker said. "The people who've pushed back just haven't seen it yet. And hopefully, what we've done will address everyone's needs and wants. I think the reality is that once people see it, they're going to like it."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.