Meet Sam Hansen, the marketing mind who transformed Fresno Grizzlies into Tacos

To understand Sam Hansen, the unassuming, idea-generating, scruffy-bearded, Nike-wearing Fresno Grizzlies resident marketing whiz, you have to know about Billy Ripken.

Not necessarily Ripken the baseball player. More Ripken the baseball card.

Arranged throughout Hansen’s office, with its window that looks out onto Chukchansi Park from behind home plate, is an eclectic collection of memorabilia, collectibles, knickknacks, keepsakes and curios. He has metal lunch boxes and Campbell’s soup can Thermoses; busts of presidents and composers; unopened soda bottles and windup chattering teeth on tiny feet; a King Tut mask adorned with a WWE wrestling belt; a gag gift called a Blankeez (“The Blanket That Covers Up To 8 People!”); a Mickey Mouse cap with one mouse ear missing and “Van Gogh” stitched on the back; a pet fish inhabiting a small tank that’s actually a vintage blender.

“It’s a metaphor,” the 38-year-old says from behind rectangular eyeglasses held together on one side by a safety pin.

“I call him Noah, for North Of Herndon. It’s for people who think they know everything about the ocean because they know everything about their little fishbowl.”

But the item Hansen plucks off the shelf to show a visitor is a 1989 Fleer baseball card, encased in a protective stand, of a .247 career hitter who’s now an MLB Network analyst.

It’s not that Hansen is a fan of Ripken as much as he’s a fan of the humor in what’s written in plain sight on the bottom of the barrel of Ripken’s bat, an obscenity that has made the card a novelty and collector’s item: F--- FACE.

“When I started collecting cards as a kid, I just thought that was hilarious,” Hansen says. “I was more interested in Billy Ripken than I was in a lot of other players because of the card’s relevance to pop culture.

“If that makes sense.”

From this fertile mind sprouts the ideas that have made the Grizzlies one of the trendiest, most visible franchises throughout Minor League Baseball: the Fresno Tacos and Thursday’s sixth annual Taco Truck Throwdown, which last season drew a stadium-record crowd of 16,916; theme nights celebrating cult movies and TV shows like “¡Three Amigos!”, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Good Burger”; and zany food concoctions such as the Frankenslice.

The idea to turn furry mascot Parker into an ordained minister and perform actual weddings? Yup, that was Hansen’s too.

It isn’t me tossing out those compliments. They come from industry publications like Baseball America and insiders such as ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell, who recently called Hansen “the best marketer in baseball” in a tweet that reached 1.48 million followers.

“I think he’s the best marketer in baseball, too,” Grizzlies general manager Derek Franks says. “Sam’s got this thing where he always seems to be ahead of the curve. There have been a few times where he’s been ahead of the curve and we haven’t acted (snaps fingers) on it and all of a sudden everyone else does and we end up being on time or late. ...

“Sometimes he’s so far ahead that I can’t quite see it yet (laughs). I’ve had to learn to really trust him.”

“He’s Willy Wonka. To me, that’s who Sam is,” says Yahoo Sports baseball blogger and Taco Truck Throwdown co-founder Mike Osegueda. “He’s a super, super smart and creative guy who marches to his own beat.”

At no time has Hansen been more ahead than he was with tacos. In 2011, after taking note of a series of Fresno Bee stories about taco trucks, Hansen asked author Mike Osegueda to use his contacts to help set up a contest pitting trucks from different Valley cities against one another.

The first Taco Truck Throwdown attracted seven trucks. This year, 35 will be parked around the stadium (the goal is to consume 40,000 tacos) with a few spilling outside onto H Street. The dream of both co-organizers is to grow the event into a Gilroy Garlic Festival-styled weekend.

“I knew it would be big because tacos were getting big,” Hansen says. “Bacon had its run. Then pizza. There’s always trending food. I have a list of trending foods on my wall right there.”

Sure enough, Hansen points to a yellow Post-It with ube-purple yam, acai bowls, Spam, poke and poutine written on it.

“I just pay attention to what people are talking about,” he says.

The reason tacos and the Tacos sub-brand have resonated – the Grizzlies are on track to set a merchandise sales record for the third straight year, according to Franks – is because they’re part of our culture.

Which is what any savvy marketer does: hold up a mirror to his audience and let them see a reflection of themselves.

“What really made me want to do a taco truck event was how passionate people are about taco trucks here and the geographical relevance,” Hansen says. “When you start thinking about lunchero trucks providing food to migrants during the bracero era, there’s a good chance you could prove taco trucks were invented in Central California.”

Hansen is not a native Fresnan. He grew up in Vallejo before moving here to attend college, then ran lifestyle stores FTK in Fresno and Visalia that made urban streetware products influenced by hip-hop and skateboarding, and sold limited-edition sneakers.

A graphic designer since childhood, Hansen created a Grizzlies cap that six years ago led to a merchandising job with the Triple-A club. In 2014 he took over the team store, designing apparel with a more distinct Fresno flavor, before being promoted to Director of Marketing at the start of last season.

Hansen and Franks agree the affiliation switch from the San Francisco Giants to Houston Astros, while hurting the Grizzlies at the ticket window, pushed them to take more chances with promotions.

At the same time the switch finally allowed the Grizzlies to market themselves as Fresno’s team – instead of being the Triple-A affiliate of Giants first and foremost.

“When the Giants left, it was sink or swim,” Hansen says. “We weren’t running the risk of offending our base fans who wanted to make everything about the Giants. We had the freedom. Losing the Giants made us find ourselves. That’s honest.”

Despite the national acclaim and attention, Hansen insists he isn’t angling for his next job.

“This is Triple-A baseball – you’re supposed to use it as a steppingstone to get to the bigs,” he says. “But guys like Derek, (events and entertainment manager) Ray (Ortiz), myself, we’re lifers. As cliché as this sounds, I don’t do it for the income. I do it for the outcome. ...

“If another team asked me to leave Fresno, I would not go. Because my whole purpose being at the Grizzlies is to build an urban core for Fresno.”

On the wall behind Hansen’s desk hang four clocks labeled “Fresno,” “Visalia,” “Madera” and “Hanford.” They’re all set to the same time.

“Even though I try to pay attention to global trends,” he says, “my focus is right here.”