By Andy Backstrom
Cedar Rapids is just 4.0% Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s a small but passionate community, particularly when it comes to the Kernels.
“It’s not a tremendous amount or the size of the population, but they love baseball,” Kernels general manager Scott Wilson said. “Those folks live for it.”
In an effort to make Veterans Memorial Stadium a more inclusive environment, the Kernels joined Minor League Baseball’s Copa de la Diversión program last year. It debuted in 2017 and celebrates Hispanic communities across the league, with participating teams embracing specialty logos, uniforms and identities each season.
2020 was supposed to be a breakthrough year for the program. Ninety-two teams were slated to take part in Copa before COVID-19 canceled the season. That said, even though there are only 76 Copa teams in 2021, it’s actually a higher percentage of participating organizations than the previous year because of the league’s realignment. There are more Copa games scheduled too.
“I think sports has always had a unique ability to bring diverse communities together, in particular baseball,” said Kurt Hunzeker, vice president of minor league business operations for MLB. “It’s not, ‘Hey, we’re just saying we’re community-centric, because that’s kind of the buzz.’ That’s been in our DNA. That’s been our heritage for generations.”
Hunzeker said, after the pandemic, it’s especially important for Minor League Baseball to make ballparks more welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Having been involved in Copa’s inception, he explained that the idea started in 2015 when Hunzeker’s team started to dive into minor league attendance trends. Pulling data from Nielsen Scarborough and ESPN Sports Poll, they found that Minor League Baseball had the third-largest volume of self-designated Latino fans in professional sports. The NBA and MLS were the only leagues ahead, Hunzeker said.
What he noticed, however, was the fandom wasn’t translating to attendance numbers. So the next phase of research investigated why this phenomenon was occurring. What it boiled down to was inclusivity at the ballpark, or the lack thereof.
“They didn’t feel welcome,” Hunzeker said. “The food wasn’t representative of what they ate. The music wasn’t representative of what they listened to. The baseball was there. … But there was just something missing.”
Enter Copa. What started with four teams has blossomed into a program that includes close to two-thirds of Minor League Baseball.
Wilson said the Kernels had been putting their name in for Copa a few years before they were approved ahead of the 2020 season. They adopted the identity of Cinco Estaciones. It fittingly translates to “five seasons” in Spanish. After all, Cedar Rapids is the City of Five Seasons. The logo is the Tree of Five Seasons, which sits above the bill of the cap.
The team was set to play three games in its snake green and navy specialty uniforms last year. Of course, the pandemic intervened. It just made the wait all the more fulfilling for the Kernels players, seven of whom are of Hispanic heritage, according to Wilson.
“They immediately grabbed the jerseys and said, ‘When do we wear this?’” Wilson recounted. “I said, ‘Wednesday.’ And they said, ‘This week?’ And I said, ‘Every Wednesday.’ … And they were excited as heck about it. They love it.”
The Kernels trotted out the vibrant kit for the first time on May 5, Cinco de Mayo. Wilson said it was actually a coincidence, given that the team planned to take on the Cinco Estaciones identity every Wednesday of the season. Just as the program is voluntary, each participating team has the liberty to choose its own Copa day, a decision often influenced by the market and community.
Ryne Edwards, a Cedar Rapids native who has been coming to Kernels games since his grandfather introduced him to the team when he was a child, appreciated the meaning of the new look.
“I like that they do different things and that they try to bring awareness to different situations and causes that you generally don’t see with a lot of local teams around the area,” Edwards said.
The Copa jerseys were on full display at the end of a 7-6 walk-off victory against the Peoria Chiefs, as the Kernels players collected in center field following Gabe Snyder’s game-ending double. It was a good start to a program that could also yield off-the-field benefits for the Kernels organization.
During the 2018 and 2019 minor league seasons, Copa games drew 20% more fans than non-Copa games, according to Hunzeker.
“It’s just a great opportunity to show the melting pot that is baseball and what it means for that Copa program,” Wilson said.
Andy Backstrom is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @andybackstrom.