Admit it, the first time you heard the nickname for one of minor league baseball’s newest teams—the El Paso Chihuahuas, Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres—you thought of Paris Hilton. Or possibly Taco Bell.
This is one of the reasons the announcement of the new nickname in El Paso before the season was met on social media with comments like, “Really?? Chihuahuas??” and “Worst. Name. Ever. Yo quiero name change,” and “Oh well. As long as the beers are cheap.”
Tim Hagerty, the team’s manager of broadcasting and media relations, admitted, “Your average sports fan in El Paso may have been a little bit shocked.”
Even he wasn’t sure at first: “I have to admit I was a little bit startled,” he said.
But that negative tide turned quickly, sometimes even with individual fans. “We’re tracking the Facebook comments,” Hagerty said, “and there’s this one gentleman that, the day the team name was announced, wrote a paragraph and there were a couple swear words in it. He was furious. And that same exact guy, same exact profile picture and everything, 10 days later he wrote us a message saying, ‘Hey, are the fitted caps in yet?’”
The nickname is based on the team’s proximity to the Chihuahuan Desert, as well as the fact that chihuahuas, according to general manager Brad Taylor, “represent fun and are fiercely loyal.” The branding firm Brandiose, who designed the logo, toured El Paso, interviewed people, and found the locals to be feisty, with something of a chip on their shoulder.
“For that reason,” Hagerty said, “they made the dog a little bit damaged. There’s a rip in the top of the ear, and the same with the baseball, it’s a torn-up baseball…. A chihuahua might be the smallest dog on the block, but he’s not intimidated by anybody.”
Hagerty can speak with some authority about minor league baseball nicknames. He is the author of a book about minor league team names, and has been with this franchise since they were the Portland Beavers and more recently the Tucson Padres. He understood the initial reaction to the nickname, but the thing that turned fans around was the design of the logo itself.
“It really shows you how impressive these graphic artists are because when I heard the name Chihuahuas, I didn’t even know what to picture,” he said. “I had no idea what that was going to look like. But then, when they showed me these logos, I liked it 50 times better…. Even in those couple days where reaction was mixed after the team name announcement, I did not hear or see a single thing that criticized the logos.”
The team’s alternate logos feature the chihuahua swinging a gnarled bone like a baseball bat (though from a baseball perspective, his form leaves a little to be desired), a torn baseball and crossbones, and one that feels a little incongruous next to the others, a clean, stylized EP for El Paso.
Of course, the identity lends itself to small-dog-related promotions and frivolity at the ballpark. For instance, fans park in the “barking lot,” they call the upper deck the “woof top,” and fans can buy nachos in a souvenir plastic dog bowl. (I have one that my cat uses. Feels a little like sacrilege.)
Before the season started, Tim Hagerty would not rule out the possibility that Paris Hilton would be the team’s mascot. He said simply that the mascot would be announced in early 2014 and to “stay tuned.” The mascot turned out to be Chico the Chihuahua, half adorable and half terrifying, so kind of like Paris Hilton after all.
The nickname and logos do what every minor league team is trying to do now—appeal to children. (“They’re fascinated by it,” Hagerty said.) That said, Chico’s bloodshot eyes, torn ears, evil grin, and ill-fitting studded collar hint at a backstory not every three-year-old fan is going to want to fully embrace.
The uniforms that the Chihuahuas unveiled before the season (above) were surprisingly traditional—even classic—so it was something of a shock when they just recently unveiled these “Bark at the Park” jerseys (at right), which feature an actual photograph of a dog, and will be auctioned off after an August 3 game to benefit the Humane Society of El Paso.
Early negativity in response to an unusual nickname in minor league baseball is predictable. What’s been atypical about the Chihuahuas is how quickly fans have come around. Their cap featuring a Chico head logo was voted best in the minors, narrowly edging out the Richmond Flying Squirrels in an online “Clash of the Cap” contest conducted by Minor League Baseball earlier this season.
Even before the team set foot on the field in their brand-new downtown ballpark, the Chihuahuas had sold logo gear from their website to people in more than 40 U.S. states and six countries. Within six months after the team announcement, that number had grown to include all 50 states and nine countries.
“We’re finding that people smile when they talk about it,” Hagerty said. “When people have memories at our ballpark, they wouldn’t picture anything else.”
El Paso has a reputation as being a rough and tumble border town, so it’s an understatement to say that the team subverted expectations by choosing a somewhat delicate, if not annoying, animal to represent it. And with that decision, the Chihuahuas have become the poster child for the era of the wacky minor league baseball nicknames. After initial misgivings, the team found success in embracing the outrageous and focusing on family-friendly fun. And serving food to people in dog bowls.