Marek Warszawski

Yes, the Grizzlies screwed up. But that shouldn’t erase years of championing diversity

A baseball team, patriotism, Ocasio-Cortez and an apology: Here’s what happened

The Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team played a Memorial Day video on its scoreboard May 27, 2019, and later apologized for equating Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Kim Jung-un and Fidel Castro.
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The Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team played a Memorial Day video on its scoreboard May 27, 2019, and later apologized for equating Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Kim Jung-un and Fidel Castro.

Throughout their 22-year existence, the Fresno Grizzlies have provided baseball fans in the central San Joaquin Valley with inexpensive summertime entertainment while reflecting and celebrating the diverse community to which they belong.

What happened Monday flew in the face of that last part, and now the Triple-A baseball club is paying the price.

Except there’s no evidence whatsoever the Memorial Day tribute video that equated Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un and former Cuban president Fidel Castro was anything but an egregious mistake.

I can understand people being angry and offended. I can understand the need for the Grizzlies to implement protocols ensuring this doesn’t happen again. I can even understand, to a point, those who are demanding the mistake-making employee’s head on a platter.

But what’s the end game? How far does this need to go? Will a certain crowd not be satisfied until the Grizzlies lose all their corporate sponsors, in addition to their paying customers, causing them to go out of business?

Because that’s ridiculous – even for 2019.

Sticking up for Grizzlies president

Can I tell you with 100 percent assurance this was anything besides a royal screw-up? That the Grizzlies weren’t trying to make a political statement or looking for national attention?

No, I cannot. I wasn’t there when the employee plucked the video off YouTube, wasn’t looking over their shoulder when they say they didn’t screen it past the 2-minute mark, wasn’t present for the internal discussions after the story blew up.

What I can do, though, is vouch for the veracity and integrity of Grizzlies President Derek Franks, someone I’ve known and worked with for years.

I’ve interviewed Franks dozens of times, and not all of the stories and columns that resulted reflected the Grizzlies in a positive light. I’ve asked about dwindling attendance and money owed to the city for stadium rent. I’ve asked about a former owner who spent four years trying to sell the team and all but closed his checkbook to much-needed improvements.

Franks didn’t answer every question – some he declined to answer – but not once did I feel like I was getting anything but the truth. Even when the truth made him and the Grizzlies look bad.

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So when Franks says the mistake occurred because someone on his staff downloaded the wrong tribute video that no one bothered to watch in its entirety, I have no reason to doubt his word.

Because Franks, in more than a decade, has never given me reason to.

Nor, for that matter, have the Grizzlies done anything besides reflect and celebrate their diverse community. In fact, they’re the leading ambassadors.

Yes I’m talking about tacos. Or, to be precise, Tacos – the team’s Tuesday night alter ego.

From Tacos to Lowriders

Since 2011 the Grizzlies have hosted the Taco Truck Throwdown, which has done more to promote the Valley as the nation’s taco-eating capital than any other event.

“What really made me want to do a taco truck event was how passionate people are about taco trucks here and the geographical relevance,” Grizzlies marketing director Sam Hansen told me for a 2016 profile. “There’s a good chance you could prove taco trucks were invented in Central California.”

The Fresno Tacos idea proved so popular that it has essentially been adopted throughout Minor League Baseball. This year, every minor-league team got to design special caps for a “Copa de la Diversión” (Fun Cup) promotion intended to “authentically connect teams with their diverse communities.”

Fresno Lowrider Cap 1.jpg
The Fresno Grizzlies will wear special Lowriders De Fresno (Fresno Lowriders) caps and uniforms twice this summer as part of Minor League Baseball’s “Copa de la Diversión” (Fun Cup) promotion. Courtesy Fresno Grizzlies

What alter ego did the Grizzlies choose? Team officials picked the “Fresno Lowriders (Lowriders De Fresno).” The specially designed purple, black and white uniforms and caps will be worn June 15-16 and July 27-28.

“Too often in pop culture, Lowriders are incorrectly stereotyped as being affiliated with gangs, when actually, maintaining a lowrider car requires knowledge, hard work and dedication,” a team press release states.

“The vehicles are moving pieces of art: Many are decorated with imagery that tells stories of Mexican and Chicano history. As a part of Copa de la Diversión, the “Lowriders De Fresno” aim to help change any negative images of lowriding, by shining a light on the positivity of the art form, but also honor a community that is deeply rooted in Central California culture.”

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Do these sound like the words of an organization that would intentionally denigrate a popular Latina politician and risk offending a huge chunk of its fan base?

They absolutely, unequivocally do not.

‘Reeks of grandstanding’

Which brings me to Sun-Maid, the Fresno-based raisin company that was the first to announce it was severing all corporate ties with the Grizzlies.

While Sun-Maid is free to do what it wants with its sponsorship dollars, the statement reeks of grandstanding. Guess that means CEO and President Harry Overly, the Chicago transplant who has been a member of our community for all of two years, has never made a mistake at work.

Oh, that’s right. Overly is the same person who slashed the health benefits of about 500 Sun-Maid factory workers and used temporary employees to settle a strike.

Sounds like a swell guy.

I could end this column by imploring my readers to never again eat a Sun-Maid raisin, except that would be ridiculous.

Even though the Grizzlies apologized for their egregious mistake, much repair work remains. That’s fair. But the continued backlash against an organization that has done so much to champion our community’s diversity is not.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.