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The Reading Fightin Phils take on the New Hampshire Fisher Cats at First Energy Stadium in Reading, PA, on July 19, 2019. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News
The Reading Fightin Phils take on the New Hampshire Fisher Cats at First Energy Stadium in Reading, PA, on July 19, 2019. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News

In the city of Reading and beyond, baseball is the pastime of the Americas

As part of Minor League Baseball’s Copa de Diversión initiative, the Reading Fightin Phils are joining a nationwide effort to embrace the sport’s Latino fans.

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In the minor leagues, baseball is laid bare, in all of its unpredictability and spaciousness. The modest stadiums, approximately 172 scattered throughout the United States, harbor something of the essence of the sport, unclouded by multimillion-dollar contracts and the glitz and glam of the majors. And what a minor league team lacks in stability and stars, as an endless rotation of prospects on their way up and veterans on their way out cycles through, it makes up for in plentiful array of costumed characters and an overwhelming amount of between-inning entertainment.

The Reading Fightin Phils, the Philadelphia Phillies Double-A minor league affiliate, is no different. On a sweltering hot night on July 19, the cast of mascots includes the wacky hot dog vendor, a costumed Smartie man with fake rotting teeth who tries to intervene in a vegetable race (cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots), two people riding in a go-cart from right field down the first base line, a miscellaneous fluffy animal, and, last but certainly not least, an imposing figure called El Luchador who yells out “Wepa!!!” as he glares out from behind a glittery white baseball mask and sports a jersey emblazoned with the team’s Spanish name, “Los Peleadores.”

This final figure is a more recent addition to the mascot line-up at First Energy Stadium, and the man behind the mask has proved instrumental in leading the charge in Reading for a movement that has taken root across minor league baseball to push teams to better connect with Latino communities.

Roberto Sanchez, the diversity outreach coordinator for the Reading Fightin Phils and sometime-Luchador, said that it all started back in 2017, when he got a call asking him, “How would you translate ‘Fightin Phils’ into Spanish?”.

Fighting the good lucha

Sanchez, Reading-born-and-raised, loves baseball with the passion of so many who have grown up living, eating, and breathing the sport. He played in high school and college, and ended up working as an intern for the Fightin Phils as a 22-year-old college graduate and “loved every single minute of it.”

“I was enamored by the fact that the field was my backyard,” recalled Sanchez.

His parents immigrated to the mainland from Puerto Rico before he was born, going first to Winchester, Virginia, where, Sanchez said, they were “the only two colored people.” Sanchez’s mother had a sister in Reading, and when they visited her they decided to move to the small city in Central PA, which even at that time had a considerable Puerto Rican community.

The city’s Puerto Rican and other Latino communities have only grown since then, to the point where the city of roughly 88,000 is now close to 70% Latino. After his internship with the Phils, Sanchez stayed in the area and worked in banking for 16 years. In that span of time, he said that he has seen how area businesses have adapted and grown their efforts to reach out to bilingual and Spanish-speaking customers.

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“When I first started in banking, we didn’t have bilingual material to provide the customers. By the time I was done in 2016 with banking, every single bank but one had bilingual material they would give the customers. And every single branch that I would have gone to would have at least one bilingual person to communicate with customers that were Spanish speaking,” Sanchez said.

But the Fightin Phils are behind banks and other businesses in establishing a strong connection with Latinos in the city. Sanchez estimates that even now, only 10-15% of attendees at most games are Latino, though he hopes to see that number increase.

The day that Sanchez got the call asking him to translate the team’s name was the start of the Reading Fightin Phils involvement in the Copa de Diversión, a Minor League Baseball (MiLB) initiative launched in 2017. The nationwide campaign hopes to see more Latino fans engaged and coming out to the ballgame in MiLB parks throughout the country.

Literally translating to the “fun cup,” the initiative aimed to inspire teams to develop and implement marketing plans that would appeal to Latinos. Participating teams can change their name to an alternate Spanish name, and many wear jerseys emblazoned with the new team name on select nights during the season while promoting merchandise and other related events.

The initiative has already proved successful beyond the wildest dreams of its original architects in MiLB’s front office. With teams’ alter egos ranging from the Coquís in Lehigh Valley, to the Margaritas of El Paso, to one of Sanchez’s favorites, the Flying Chanclas of San Antonio, the merchandise and associated events have resonated with local Latino communities and beyond. In 2018, the 33 participating teams generated a combined $U.S. 3.7 million in revenue and had a 12.5% attendance increase. The initiative now includes 72 teams for the 2019 season.

In addition to increasing Latino engagement and attendance at games, another goal of the Copa is to work towards diversifying the front offices of professional baseball. For teams that wanted to participate in the Copa, they had to think about who in their front office was bilingual — and if they didn’t have someone, they had to hire them, as the Fightin Phils did with Sanchez.

“This stadium is six, seven minutes away from the Main Street in Reading, which is Penn Street, there’s about 50 some thousand Latinos in this community, but the front office has lacked a bilingual person or someone from Latin descent,” Sanchez said.

“Just me being named diversity outreach coordinator, I’ve had so many people reach out and say, ‘hey, how do we get involved,’ or ‘how do we get tickets to a game, how can we book a party at the stadium,’ that had either never been here or had no interest in setting something up at the stadium,” he noted, adding that the team’s outreach also includes translated Spanish-language pocket schedules at bodegas throughout the city and a website in Spanish.

The Reading team, which first participated in the Copa in 2018, is wearing jerseys with their Spanish name, “Los Peleadores,” for five Friday home games throughout the 2019 season. Billed as “Fiesta Fridays,” the promotion also brings local Latin food vendors to the stadium and features announcements for the game in Spanish (courtesy of the one and only El Luchador).

But it’s not just the minor leagues - the idea of engaging diverse communities has made it to the Show, as many Major League Baseball (MLB) teams are working to expand their markets and increase their connection with different communities. This is especially true for Latinos in the U.S., who, besides being the fastest-growing demographic in the country, are also a prime market for a sport in which now close to a third of the players are Latino.

Kenny Johnson, the Philadelphia Phillies community engagement outreach coordinator, said that in his close to 10 years in the position, he has focused on showing up at local events and festivals, large and small, and other community sites throughout Philadelphia for what he says is “an initial handshake” with the Phillies organization. Last year, Johnson said the team donated more than 2,000 free tickets through the MLB Commissioner’s initiative to Philly organizations  that serve the city’s Latino communities.

Developing relationships with communities that might not find playing baseball or attending Phillies games to be as accessible due to limited resources is vital to the future of the sport itself, said Johnson - especially in light of what has been a sharp decline in the number of African-American players at the professional level since the 1990s.

Johnson noted that programs like the MLB’s Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) work to provide resources to African-American and Latino communities in cities that are interested in playing the sport but lack the necessary equipment.

“I think that in order for baseball to be the national pastime, we have to be inclusive, we have to be diverse, and we have to make those efforts to get baseball out there to the communities in hopes that on the field will be reflective of those communities that make up the nation, and for our particular purposes, of Philadelphia,” he said.

‘A lot of people’s pastime’

DeeDee Rodriguez and Alba Fernandez, both Reading residents, sat high up in the last row of the stands as the sun sank down behind the third base line on July 19, the penultimate Fiesta Friday of the season. The first game of a doubleheader had ended, and the players had only a few minutes after their victory to change from their regular jerseys into the red “Los Peleadores” uniforms that they would wear for the next match-up against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

Rodriguez, who is the president of the local Puerto Rican Latin-Association, recalled sitting in those same stands as a young girl with her father, a Puerto Rican who is a complete ‘Phillie Phanatic,” she said with a laugh.

“They make it fun here now. Way different from back in the day when I used to come here with my dad. You just sat here and watched the game. Now they got all this..activities and mascots,” she said.

“They get you engaged,” agreed Fernandez, who, unlike Rodriguez, does not consider herself to be a baseball fan — but she said that she can still see how the team has been working to better engage Latinos in Reading.

Fernandez grew up in Reading from the age of 14, when she came from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, which, due to its geographic location, shares a lot culturally with the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic - including a profound love for baseball.

She was familiar with the sport’s importance in the Caribbean region, and it made sense then that the minor league team would want to connect to the growing Latino market in Reading — one they realized they were missing out on.

“Baseball is a sport that’s played in those countries, but they weren’t coming to see the players,” Fernandez said of the Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Venezuelan communities in Reading. “You saw the players on the screen,” she said, gesturing to the jumbotron where some of the team’s Latino players introduced themselves in Spanish to kick off Fiesta Friday. “They were Venezuelans, Dominicans. So I think they needed to have that connection."

Fernandez and Rodriguez both know Sanchez from childhood, and say that his work as the diversity outreach coordinator with the team has already had an impact; they both have noticed more interest in the Latino communities in coming to games. Rodriguez said that she believes that having Fiesta Fridays, where the game is announced in Spanish, “makes the Latinos more comfortable...to know that they at least understand something.”

“What Robert is doing, I believe is excellent because he’s connecting the community to the game. So that gives it more interest, it’s more fun,” Fernandez said.

“It’s not just an American [game], but also a game that’s enjoyed on the islands...everywhere. Latin America. Besides soccer, baseball is probably one of the sports that gets played the most,” she added.

Rodriguez agreed.

“[Baseball] is a lot of people’s pastime. A lot of people,” she said. 

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