2017 Freitas Awards: Fresno Grizzlies

The most successful minor league promotion over the last few years unquestionably belongs to the Fresno Tacos, er, Grizzlies. What started in 2015 as novel idea—wearing taco-themed jerseys to coincide with their annual Taco Truck Rodeo—has blossomed into a merchandise empire complete with its own website apart from the traditional team store.

“It’s funny what ideas you can come up at 1 a.m. after an eight-game homestand when everybody’s delirious,” Grizzlies GM Derek Franks said. “You can come up with some interesting stuff, and we’re really happy that it’s worked out and caught fire. It’s been really great for our business, and obviously it’s caught on and other teams are doing it.”

Franks is right. Other teams have taken to the food-themed one-off nights. Plenty of them, in fact.

Just this year, the Rochester Red Wings became the Plates (a Northeastern food staple), the Sacramento River Cats became the Tomatoes, the Albuquerque Isotopes became the Green Chile Cheeseburgers, Charlotte Knights became the Pitmasters, the Aberdeen IronBirds became the Steamed Crabs, the Syracuse Chiefs became the Salt Potatoes and the Reading Fightin’ Phils became the Whoopie Pies.

And that’s not even counting the Jacksonville Suns’ and New Orleans Zephyrs’ respective conversions to the Jumbo Shrimp and Baby Cakes, which started in 2017.

The tacos theme has its roots in Fresno’s annual taco truck throwdown, which brings scads of the area’s vendors out to Chukchansi Park to sell their wares to hungry fans. That event started in 2011, but it really kicked into overdrive after the fourth year.

“You start asking yourself ‘What do you do next? What do we do that’s new?’” Franks said. “We’re just adding trucks and expanding further into the ballpark.”

So, on the night of the fourth Taco Truck Throwdown, after a sellout crowd had left Chukchansi and the staff had begun recuperating, an idea struck during a conversation among Franks, promotions director Sam Hansen and media manager Ryan Young.

“Ryan said, ‘The weirdest thing about it, though, is we have the biggest crowd of the year but it’s strange to see nobody watching the game,’” Franks said. “Sam said ‘We should do a theme jersey next year, at least give them something to look at,’ because it was just another Grizzlies game. … It looked like two-thirds of the crowd was just eating tacos, drinking beer and goofing off.”

The next year, the Fresno Tacos were born. And with the name came the merchandise. Fans can choose from 11 styles of Tacos hats, as well as an array of shirts, jerseys, pennants, shot glasses and other Taco-branded gear.

There’s so much Tacos gear, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that the team is actually the Fresno Grizzlies. And while sales of Tacos merchandise hasn’t quite eclipsed Grizzlies merchandise, it’s not as far-fetched as one might think.

“We’re not quite there yet, but in 2015 when we launched it, it was pretty close,” Franks said. “It was really, really close. That year might have been about dead-even, and we’re not quite there. We still sell a bit more Grizzlies than Tacos two years, three years down the road, but it’s made a huge impact on our business. It’s amazing.”

Thanks to Franks, Hansen, Young and the Grizzlies, tacos and baseball are forever connected in Fresno.

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