The last thing the Fresno Grizzlies wanted to do on Memorial Day was highly offend a member of Congress. But the team’s ill-advised tribute to the holiday did just that in a video that equated New York Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to dictators in North Korea and Cuba.
Team president Derek Franks spent the rest of the week apologizing and explaining an employee had erred in pulling down a video from YouTube. It was a newer version of one the team had used before, wherein President Ronald Reagan speaks movingly about American freedom. When his voice intones about the “enemies of freedom,” Ocasio-Cortez’s photo was shown, in between images of North Korea strongman Kim Jung Un and Cuba’s longtime dictator Fidel Castro.
Turned out the video that the team had been used before had been updated with the images, giving it a distinctly political slant. The Grizzly staffer who pulled the video watched its first two minutes. The offending images occurred after the 3-minute mark.
Franks said the employee was reprimanded, but not fired, and that the person’s identity would not be disclosed. That did not satisfy the hordes on Twitter who saw evil intent behind the video and called for someone, anyone, to be terminated. So did a Washington Post columnist, writing to the Washington Nationals, the major league club for whom the Grizzlies are the Triple A affiliate.
Franks promised the team was taking steps to create a new protocol to ensure such a mistake is never made again. And that is what this controversy is about: a mistake. To read more into it is simply wrong.
But mistakes, like errors on a baseball field, have consequences. In this case, two of the Grizzlies’ sponsors — Sun-Maid Growers and Heineken International, which owns the Mexican company that makes Dos Equis and Tecate beers — said they were cutting ties with the team. Other sponsors — including The Bee, which has been a backer for more than 20 years — were still determining what steps, if any, they might take.
Heineken said in its statement that the video did not reflect its core values. That is overused corporate speak that really means the firm simply wants to avoid controversy.
Whose values did the video really offend? The Grizzlies’ own. The team began in 1998, and over the years has consistently honored American principles, its military members, and, by extension, its elected officials. To think otherwise is to deny the truth of team history.
Besides, the Grizzlies are in the entertainment business. Their part of the fabric of Fresno life is to provide a wholesome, safe, fun experience for baseball fans in the summer months. Turning minor league baseball games into something political is not in the playbook.
Some questions have arisen about whether the video was a racial swipe at Ocasio-Cortez’s Hispanic background. But the Grizzlies have done much to celebrate the San Joaquin Valley’s Hispanic past and present. The team’s marketing genius created the Fresno Tacos — the identity the team assumes every Tuesday at home games, which are known as Taco Tuesdays as taco trucks park along the walkways around Chukchansi Stadium.
This year another alternate identity is being adopted —the Fresno Lowriders, in homage to that aspect of Latino culture. The Grizzlies Hispanic outreach efforts led to the introduction of Copa de Diversión (Fun Cup) by Minor League Baseball this season where clubs at all levels hold season-long events designed to embrace the Hispanic/Latino culture and values. Judging from the healthy number of Hispanic fans who attend home games, the Grizzlies have definitely connected to that part of the fan nation.
Going forward, the Grizzlies need to earn back a stadium-sized helping of trust. For one thing, they should use their special position in the community to speak out against hate speech. One idea: Have Grizzly players visit Fresno schools so players can impart lessons to local schoolchildren.
The team could also invite Ocasio-Cortez to an expenses-paid trip to see a game — like the 4th of July. She could throw out the first pitch, and take Grizzly gear back to her Washington, D.C. office. The gesture would be nice.
The team should be more transparent by explaining just how the new vetting process will work. It could be as simple as team management watching every single video all the way through before playing anything on the center field video board.
A truism in baseball is that tomorrow is another game. A local fan stopped by the Grizzly ticket office Thursday evening to get a group of tickets for kids from his child’s elementary school. The aroma of barbecue wafted out of the stadium. Fans were buying hats and shirts in the team store. The thermometer reached the high 80s. It was a warm spring night, soon to be summer.
For the Grizzlies, it was much the same, and yet it was not, all at the same time.