When it came to creating a new Copa de la Diversión identity, the Fresno Grizzlies went into cruise control.
Over the course of two weekends this season, the Grizzlies honored the car culture of California's Central Valley by suiting up as the Lowriders de Fresno. The Triple-A Washington Nationals affiliate is one of 72 teams participating in Copa de la Diversión, a nationwide Minor League Baseball initiative in which teams celebrate the culture of their Latino fanbase.
This writer, along with MiLB.com's Josh Jackson, was in attendance for the Grizzlies' second Lowriders Weekend, which took place July 27-28. Lowriders of all kinds were displayed on Chukchansi Park's plaza; highlights included July 27's suspension-testing "hopping contest" and a postgame concert by local Santana tribute band Heavy Weather.
While it was exhilarating to see lowrider front ends bouncing 10 feet into the air, the second Lowriders weekend was a decidedly low-key affair when compared to the first. On June 15, the Grizzlies took over nearby Fulton Street with a lowrider car show featuring 120 customized, tricked-out, immaculately painted automobiles. The "People's Choice" award winner was John Munoz of Antioch, California. His car, a '63 Chevy Impala hardback named Tequila Sunrise, will be the featured automobile in the Grizzlies' 2020 Lowriders logo.
Tequila Sunrise, winner of the Lowriders' 2019 People's Choice Award.
When the Grizzlies began brainstorming potential Copa de la Diversión identities, the first thing that came to mind was tacos. In 2015, capitalizing on the popularity of their long-running Taco Truck Throwdown promotion, the team started playing select dates as the Tacos. This endeavor kickstarted a trend throughout Minor League Baseball, in which teams adopt alternate identities based on popular regional food items.
"One of the first ones we talked about initially was Luncheros," said Grizzles director of creative marketing Sam Hansen, referring to the original name for taco trucks in the Central Valley. "And then [team president] Derek Franks [suggested] doing Elotes or a type of food, but we're like, 'Well, nah, we've already done the Tacos.' ... Eventually, it became, 'Well, does it have to be in Spanish?' I mean, 80 percent of our Latino population speaks English. So we have a big Chicano population, and that was why for me, Lowriders made the most sense."
Ray Ortiz, the Grizzlies events and entertainment manager, was also a Lowriders early adopter.
"Fulton Street, outside our stadium, has gone through some renovation the last couple years. It had been a walking mall for the last 40-plus years and they turned it into a street. And on Sundays, they started bringing lowriding back," Ortiz said. "The lowriders would come out and cruise, and it was happening right outside of our stadium. And Dorian [Castro], our graphic designer, he grew up designing lowriders. So I think that kind of gave us the advantage in having a cool design. The colorway gives life to [the Grizzlies] original purple colors and it just really pops. And plus, you know, more people will ooh and aah over a lowrider than an elote."
"And then there was the connection that Fresno was the central location between Los Angeles and the Bay Area," added Hansen. "Lowriding originated in Los Angeles but the first publication [_Lowrider _magazine] originated in San Jose. And then the guy who founded _Lowrider _magazine [Sonny Madrid] was from the Central Valley, so we just thought it was a perfect connection."
They decided on the Lowriders name because, ultimately, it met three key criteria.
"We knew that there was the element there to have really cool merchandise," Hansen said. "We plan to, each year, change the logo out and the winner of the car show will their car icon-ized as part of the uniform next year. There's also the part where we can add those Taco Truck Throwdown elements, where it's bigger than a baseball game and spills out onto the streets, literally, and becomes a huge car show for all of downtown Fresno. And the third thing, we were really excited that it gave us a platform to educate on a national level that lowriders aren't negative. I mean, in the movies it's always the gangbangers that jump in the lowrider and drive off. But then you start meeting people who are actually involved in this culture. This is engineering and art meeting in harmony. That was one of the big things we were trying to push."
Ortiz spent much of the offseason immersing himself in lowriding culture in order to create stadium events that truly reflected the community.
"It was super important to us that we had somebody representing the culture," he said. "We had the idea of creating the [Best in Show] Sonny Madrid Award, which is the award that one of the lowriders won. ... We went to lowrider roundtables and discussions, panel discussions that they had in San Jose, in January, February, March of last year. We wanted to make sure that what we were doing was not only cool and fun but also represented correctly, because this community, the lowriding community, is very passionate about what they do, just like our sports teams are very passionate about who we are. It just all tied in together."
Crucial to the success of the Grizzlies' Lowrider weekends was the participation of the California Travel Team, a group of elite lowrider aficionados who stage car shows all over the country. During July 27's ballgame, Travel Team members Juan Cienfuegos and Robert Barajas explained that they first met Ortiz at a Chukchansi Park "Trunk or Treat" charity event. Ortiz, in the Halloween spirit, was dressed up as a priest.
"We see this priest, and he came out with a Lowriders hat," said Cienfuegos, a Merced, Calfornia, native and proud Monte Carlo owner. "He's like, 'Hey, we've got something here that we want to do. Can you guys help us do it?' And we looked at each other, said, 'Yeah, we could do that.' We knew this was an opportunity to show people how our culture is. We've got to do it."
"It was an honor," said Barajas, a Fresno native who owns multiple lowriders. "We're the Travel Team. We just travel. ... We get there, we do what we got to do. We bring everything, the best of the best. That's how we got the name Travel Team. We go where we need to go. There's no better."
Juan Cienfuegos (left) and Robert Barajas, members of the California Travel team.
"We've been doing this a while. We have a lot of connections," Cienfuegos said. "We got the judges involved, and as soon as [lowrider owners] see who's involved, then we're out there for real. ... We were able to pull off a successful show for our first year. We had heavy hitters coming in, cars from all over. So it was a blessing to be able to do that."
It was also an educational opportunity for the club.
"[The Travel Team] coordinated the load-in, the parking, the signups and pretty much schooled us on how to do a legit car show. So big shout-outs to them and all their crew," said Oritz.
The Grizzlies are confident that Lowriders Weekends will only continue to grow, thanks to the support of the Travel Team and the Central Valley lowriding community.
"We like to keep our secrets close, but we plan to go bigger and better," said Ortiz. "We learned a few lessons and some things that we needed to do a little better, so we'll come back and make it a bigger Lowrider party for 2020."