The author of this article is guest contributor Jae Canetti, who is in his senior year at the Washington, D.C.-area Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. In 2018, Jae wrote about watching the "Jefes" play at Brooklyn's MCU Park. This article provides an account of a unique evening at Richmond's The Diamond.
Standing well over six feet tall, he towers over the crowd on the stadium concourse. He's clad in bright blue and neon green, and no one in the stadium -- not even the players on the field -- come close to matching his stature or flair. It's Nutzy, the muscled mascot of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, who has ditched his usual white, black and red uniform for one reminiscent of a Mexican lucha libre wrestler, or luchador. This is Nutzy's typical look on Friday nights, when the Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants transforms into Las Ardillas Voladoras.
Photo: Craig Canetti
The Flying Squirrels, whose name translates to "Las Ardillas Voladoras" in Spanish, are among the teams who joined the second year of Minor League Baseball's Copa de la Diversión initiative. Seventy-two clubs took part in this endeavor in 2019, aiming to promote and support Hispanic culture in their ballpark. On specific nights -- Friday home games, in Richmond's case -- participating teams adopted a new identity themed around aspects of Latino heritage that reflected both the spirit of the club and the city they represent. Sporting vibrantly colored uniforms and new logos, teams took the field to Spanish music while fans enjoyed food, games and special guests that celebrated Hispanic culture.
After its test run with two teams (Las Vegas and Charlotte) in 2017, Copa de la Diversión began in earnest in 2018, with 33 teams taking part. That number more than doubled in 2019, amounting to almost half of Minor League Baseball. This rapid expansion not only ensures that more fans are able to enjoy these unique events, but allows the participating teams to collaborate so that both home and visitors can rebrand for the same game.
Dueling Copa de la Diversión identities took the field on July 5 in Richmond, as the Flying Squirrels and Reading Fightin Phils celebrated both America's independence and Richmond's Latino community throughout the course of an unscheduled doubleheader. The teams' July 4 meeting had been postponed due to rain, so they both donned their red, white and blue patriotic uniforms in the opener. In the nightcap, the Fightin Phils assumed their Peleadores ("Fighters") identity and the Squirrels emerged from the home dugout in neon green, black and electric blue Ardillas Voladoras jerseys. Nutzy the luchador, clearly ready to rumble, was emblazoned on their caps.
Photo: Craig Canetti
"Love them. Love spicing it up a bit," said Flying Squirrels infielder Gio Brusa before taking the field at first base for Game 2. "We definitely take bigger crowds for it, and everyone seems real bought in. Look around and you see quite a few Ardillas hats and shirts. It's pretty cool."
Ardillas Voladoras fans with flashy lime-green and teal T-shirt jerseys and caps jumped out from the comparatively muted background of black and red traditionally worn by the Squirrels. According to Anthony Oppermann, marketing director and public address announcer for the team, the presence of Ardillas gear in the stands isn't limited to Friday nights.
"It's been fun to see all the different fans coming in wearing the Copa hat, not only on Copa nights, but on various nights throughout the course of the season," he said. "It's really resonating with kids."
Both in the ballpark and outside of it, the Flying Squirrels front office is utilizing "Las Ardillas Voladoras" branding to bolster Latino awareness in the Richmond community.
"It's given our Hispanic and Latino players something to be involved with. For instance, we formed a really tight relationship with the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce," said Oppermann. "At the beginning of May, they have an event [the Que Pasa Festival] in downtown Richmond that features music, dancing [and] food. It gave our Latino players an opportunity to go and be a part of it, speak their language, try food that was native to their home countries and really allow them to feel more comfortable. It's been fun for them to have our name in their language on the jerseys on Friday nights."
Photo: Craig Canetti
Shannon Stombock, who manages the Squirrels team store, noted a significant uptick in traffic after debuting the merchandise.
"Copa has really increased our sales. We sold a ton of [Ardillas Voladoras merchandise] when we first premiered it, so it was a huge spike," she said. "I think that once people understand the initiative and what it's all about and that other teams are also participating, they get really excited. At first, there was some general confusion, but people love it. They really bought into it and they're really big fans. They like that it's something different."
Squirrels pitcher Alfred Gutierrez, interviewed in his native Spanish, echoed that observation. He commented that "Richmond is great for its fans. They're very united and love the game, and there's a lot of Latino support here. It's exciting and helps us enjoy playing the game."
On the night of July 5, the Fightin Phils, the Squirrels and the fans in attendance were all able to (literally) wear their pride on their sleeves, both as Americans and as supporters or members of the Latino baseball community. This unplanned doubleheader aptly reflected Copa de la Diversión's mission of celebrating diversity in baseball as well as the United States as a whole. It will continue to expand in 2020 -- participating teams will be announced on Nov. 14 -- the next step in an ongoing journey to embrace the indelible value of Latino contributions to both the sport and to the melting pot of la cultura estadounidense.