Latin Roots (Don’t Fence Me In Pt. 2)

Welcome to Hispanic Heritage Month where Major League Baseball continues to exploit Latinx players in an attempt to reframe its history from their egregious sins and now pander to the Latinx community for profit. Let’s just cut to the chase and say that its time to stop using inclusivity to make money and not to actually try and understand any lifestyle, heritage or culture. I’d like to point out a few things before I start my breakdown of the program. First you will notice that most of my figures and observations come from my experience attending Sacramento River Cats games. I’d like to make it clear that my use of the River Cats was in no way an attempt to harm the reputation of this team or their ownership, but simply a matter of convenience because they are my hometown team, and from where I drew most of my opinions of the Divertido program instituted by Minor League Baseball. The River Cats Baseball Club’s ownership and front office have shown over the last twenty years how much they value their community, and their fans. I would also like to point out that a person can be Hispanic, and not Latinx, or vice versa. For this piece I will be referring to Latinx players as this term refers to a geographical area and not a language or culture.  

In 2016 Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez teamed up with a Texas PR firm called LatinWorks to start the “Ponle Acento” movement, when translated means “Put an accent on it”. This was a push to have Latinx players put accents and tildes on the back of their jerseys. Teaming up with Major League Baseball their goal was to showcase the history of Latinx players in MLB. Later that summer MLB introduced its biggest push toward the Latinx community when they made a huge push in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month which included adding an accent mark to their silhouetted batters’ logo.  They focused on a national marketing campaign and 23 of the 30 teams hosted Hispanic Heritage games. These games were infused with a “Latinx” fan experience that included themed entertainment, food, and giveaways coupled with the home team wearing the special “Ponle Acento” t-shirts for batting practice. This would lead Minor League Baseball to introduce “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan” (Its fun to be a fan) for the 2017 season.   

Christened to “Copa De La Diversión” (Fun Cup) or at times “MiLB es Divertido” (Minor League Baseball is Fun) starting in 2018 this program is an attempt to reach out and build a fan base out of the Latinx communities around the country. When the program started in 2017 there were four cities selected for the program’s debut with a nationwide rollout for 2018 with 33 teams. In 2019 the participating teams grew to 72 and had the Minor League season not been postponed due to Covid that number would have jumped to 94 in 2020. Minor League Baseball called the campaign a “massive success” citing numbers per their website of 1.8 million fans attending nearly 400 Copa games in 2019, donating more than $400,000 in cash and “gifts in kind” to local Hispanic philanthropies, as well as averaging nearly 20% more attendance per Copa game vs the average per game attendance. That sounds great on paper but lets look at these numbers a little closer.  

1.8 million fans over 400 games comes to 4,500 fans per game. Of the 16 teams in the Pacific Coast League the average seating capacity per stadium is 10,603, which includes the outliers of 6,200 in Wolff Stadium in San Antonio and the 15,334 of Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City. As a comparison the Short Season Northwest League had an average capacity of 4,249 within its eight teams. The Minor Leagues boasts that Copa games averaged 20% more attendance than the average per game attendance but do not mention that most of the Copa games were held on weekends. The $400,000 in cash and “gifts in kind” I will say is a nice influx for whichever charities received the donations as it averaged $5,500, but I was unable to find how the money and gifts were divided up.  

I first started to think about this promotion on Cinco de Mayo 2019 when the Reno Aces played as Los Corazones de Reno against the Los Dorados de Sacramento (River Cats). Initially I thought that it was pretty cool that this event fell on Cinco de Mayo, and I was excited about the whole Divertido campaign. Over the season it was a nice idea that just fell short, at least here in the Sacramento market which in January 2020 was ranked the third most diverse city in California behind Stockton and Oakland according to U.S. News. The River Cats play in West Sacramento, Yolo County, California on the Sacramento River. Yolo County is made up of 30.3% Hispanics/Latinx, while the City of Sacramento which lies just across the river is 28.7% Hispanic/Latinx. I did not use Sacramento County’s demographics (21.2% Hispanic/Latinx) because of the overall size of the County itself which does not necessarily make attending a River Cats game the most convenient option as the most Southern end of Sacramento County may find themselves closer to a Stockton Ports game.  
 
Baseball’s attempts to attract a Latinx fanbase is offensive. Stereotypes are abundant in the MiLB es Divertido plan; mariachi bands on the concourse, Mexican dancers, and special menu items that focus on Mexican cuisine with a side of gentrification. This program is not to attract new Latinx fans, but a program for Minor League Baseball clubs to put on a face of inclusivity. The River Cats are fortunate to have a fan base that is already diverse. Those who attend come from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and the team is a draw all on its own which makes focusing on a culture to exploit for financial gain in the name of community outreach disheartening. Last summer I asked the (now former) River Cats Manager of Communications and Baseball Operations if he would be able to get me the number on how the Divertido program has affected attendance, if it reached its target market, and what exactly the market was. He did not have the numbers available and they were never given to me later. I was told that originally Divertido was introduced by Minor League Baseball in cities who had a high number of Hispanics in its population, but this year (2019) they were expanding it to everyone. There is no doubt that profits were the focus of this campaign from the beginning, and I am not blaming MiLB for doing this, but it needs to stop being pushed as community outreach and inclusivity because it’s not. 

Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe I hear that MiLB is reaching out to the Latinx community and I assume they are talking about the migrant workers and lower income families who would not typically attend a ballgame. If this is indeed the target audience, Major and Minor League Baseball does not seem recognize that those they are trying to reach through this program do not necessarily have the disposable income, and more importantly time, to bring their families to a game. Even with a family pack that supplies 4 tickets, 4 hats, 4 meal vouches, and watching the fireworks on the field, that is going to be $100 for a family of four. This is a great package available to anyone but the Latinx population who go to the games are people who have disposable income, more often than not are fluent in English, and assimilated to American culture. We are going to the games whether these events take place or not. If Minor League Baseball really wants to bring in more fans from the Latinx community reduced prices need to be offered for Divertido events. There are no reduced prices in Sacramento, in fact tickets bought on the day of game go up in price, which would be when an immigrant family would attend and without having bought tickets in advance.  

Race relations continue to be at the forefront of our society and in continuation of my blog post “Don’t Fence Me In (Part 1)” with filmmaker, and former Major League Baseball player Adrian Cardenas, I asked about his experience as a Latino in professional baseball, and whether he found himself facing any discrimination during his career.  

“Although I’m Cuban-American, and consider myself Cuban-American,  I definitely pass as white. I’m fair skinned with light eyes, I in essence was very privileged relatively speaking. When I got drafted, I was 18, (and) definitely  feeling very self-conscious about my accent. Every time I’d speak someone would be like, oh where are you from, you’re definitely not American. Things like that affected me and for a long while there growing up I was so self-conscious about my accent that I wanted to not learn Spanish and sort of forget Spanish and just try to perfect my English so that no one could detect an accent. It wasn’t  until I started playing professionally where I noticed the value of knowing both languages”.  

While understanding his privilege, Adrian still faced some adversity but was able to find a way to grow and be accepted by his teammates.  

“On one hand I was never Hispanic enough for the Hispanics, or American  enough for the Americans. I served in many cases as a mediator for discussions that someone who didn’t know Spanish would have with someone who only  knew Spanish, and that was a beautiful experience, it allowed me in.  It allowed  me to see how I’m similar and see how I’m different”. 

Adrian’s bilingual ability have also been exploited by teams.  

“It also brought along some not so nice experiences to where I had to at one point, fire a Latin player for a manager who didn’t know Spanish. I was called into the office, and he said look, I don’t know how to tell you this but I don’t know a word of Spanish and I  want to make sure that he understands me, but we’re firing him. Can you do this for me?  So I had to go to the office and fire him. Its hard for a lot of people to put themselves in a minority. The things that minorities have to overcome, talking specifically about being  Hispanic, black, or just non-white really. Its unfortunate that people just don’t take the  time to empathize and understand what it means to be an immigrant. The obstacles that  need to be overcome and how resilient we are”.  

So what is baseball doing for these players? A new trend in baseball is paying the players while they are young and unproven as opposed to paying them when they are older and declining in their abilities. I get the reasoning and it makes complete sense that this would be done, but how much revenue will these young players lose? Yes, its much better to guarantee this money now because anything can happen, and one could argue how much money does one person really need? Well that answer will vary of course, but I feel that players born outside of the United States will still get the short end of the stick. If a player like Ronald Acuña Jr can get shafted by his agent in taking a $100M ten year contract what does the future hold for players who aren’t of Acuña’s caliber. Acuña has made it very clear that he is happy with the contract, and honestly, who wouldn’t be? $100M is life changing for anyone but even more so for a poor kid from Latin America. An even greater injustice was the contract of Ozzie Albies who inked a deal for $35M over seven years. Rumor has it that these contracts came about because the players’ agents were worried about losing the players before they were paid the top dollar they would have deserved down the road. The Braves were happy to get these deals done, but this set baseball back. Where do signings go from here? It seems like teams are securing younger players early with large contracts but potentially much smaller investment than what they would have earned had things not changed. How will this affect players born in the United States? Carter Stewart a top prospect of the 2017 draft class who was taken 8th overall by the Atlanta Braves turned down their offer when he was shown a contract below slot due to an injury and then later bolted to Japan for a guaranteed $7M. That is great for Carter, but the international born player will still suffer. More than three quarters of Latinx players who are signed will drop out of baseball within four years, and less than 3% make it to the Major Leagues. Americans face the same odds, but nearly 70% will advance at least one level and are four times as likely to reach the Majors. 

“In my experience, it was always clear that although there were so many teams of so many players, very few had a chance of making it to the Major Leagues. Not because they were not capable of playing or weren’t talented enough, more so because of the investment given to the very few players. Coming to terms with that as a player was a big deal for so many. They’d have incredible years and just not get the chance; they’d have incredible years and get demoted. They were way more consistent, which is arguably one of the most important qualities you can have as a baseball player, than a highly touted prospect and still never get the shot over him, and that was the reality of it”.  

I’m sure someone will point out the number of Latinx players that fill rosters up and down professional baseball to discredit ant bias toward them, but baseball’s exploitation of the poor Latinx player starts in their home countries. They are put into baseball camps/schools and taken from their homes, separated from their families, and then those who are “good enough” are brought over to a new country where they don’t know the culture or the language and if  they don’t produce for their owners, they are cast aside.  To get an understanding of what these players go through, please take the time to watch the 2008 Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck film Sugar. This film features Andre Holland, best known for his roles in 42, Selma, and Moonlight, in a supporting role about the life of a professional baseball player from the Dominican Republic nicknamed “Sugar”.

So, is Major League Baseball doing anything to improve baseball for the Latinx player? Inadvertently the answer is yes. Major League Baseball’s decision to contract the Minor Leagues is far better for the game and may reduce some of this exploitation of foreign-born players. I don’t know if contraction is actually going to make this better but it does seem like a promising idea and one that I fully support going forward as it seems like it will reduce the amount of players who are simply filling roster spots. I recognize the hardship that communities will face by losing a team, although Major League Baseball plans to set up collegiate wood leagues or independent league teams.  
As you read this you may be thinking, “at least they’re trying”, “you can’t expect things to be perfect”, “baby steps”!! Well, of course I don’t expect things to be perfect, but I do feel its time that businesses do not take advantage of other’s differences. I’m all for these clubs making a dollar any way they can, this is America and more power to them if they can squeeze every hard-earned penny from your cold dead hands. The problem I have is doing so in the name of inclusivity. The goals of these promotions are to make money, and not to understand or educate on any heritage or culture, if anything the stereotypes make it more offensive.  

I do not hate everything about the Divertido program. I’m a huge fan of the artwork on the alternate jerseys and hats, especially when done by local artists. I like when teams put some thought into their alternate names to be the historical aspects of their community, and I hope that teams continue to do this without out the rest of the fanfare. If there was one team that I saw who seems to be getting it all right, it had to be the Fresno Grizzlies of the Pacific Coast League. Whether it be a Copa game or a regular game they have been able to incorporate an atmosphere of inclusivity that looks and feels like their community. From the on-field entertainment, to the fans in their seats, something worked. 

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