A Cartoon Rodent in a Serious Baseball Town: The Richmond Flying Squirrels

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The Richmond Flying Squirrels, double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, are among the most popular and distinct minor league baseball team identities out there, but the team name was not well received when it was first announced more than five years ago. In a city with a storied baseball history that dates back to 1884, a newfangled and unusual logo was not the norm. I spoke with Jon Laaser, the Squirrels’ director of broadcasting and media relations since the team’s inception, about the team’s name and mascot.

“[The reaction] was overtly negative here when we unveiled Flying Squirrels,” Laaser said. “But when you get past that shock value and you actually see how things are going to play out, and you see how the team looks in the uniforms and you see how it sounds when you’re broadcasting the game and, you know, what it looks like on a T-shirt, it’s easier to identify with.”

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The Flying Squirrels, who were previously the Connecticut Defenders, debuted in 2010, just a year after the triple-A Richmond Braves moved to Georgia to become the Gwinnett Braves. Baseball fans in the city were glad to have a team, but the Squirrels had some obstacles to overcome.

4545“We wanted to differentiate between some of the apathy that was associated with the Braves and some of the outdated thinking in terms of promotion,” Laaser said.

I had long believed that the name came from a name-the-team contest held by the city’s newspaper, The Richmond Times-Dispatch. (It says so on Wikipedia!) So I was shocked to learn that the team name in fact has its humble origins in a barber shop poster.

The true story of how the team name originated (“which we haven’t made all that public,” Laaser said, “but it’s probably far enough down the road now that it wouldn’t matter”) is that Chief Executive Manager Chuck Domino was at a barber shop and saw a poster on the wall with animals indigenous to Virginia. “He saw flying squirrels on there and it jumped out to him,” Laaser said. “He immediately said to our vice president Todd Parnell, ‘That’s what the name is going to be.'”

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This prompted a question I’ve long held about the Squirrels. Are there actually flying squirrels in Richmond? I lived there for a decade and I don’t recall ever seeing one. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans volans) “is present throughout Virginia except in the westernmost tip.” According to Laaser, “There are flying squirrels in Virginia, certainly not prevalent, not something you’d see all that much just walking down the street, but not totally out of left field.”

The Flying Squirrels are part of an obvious and awesome trend in minor league baseball the last 10 or 15 years towards wacky logos. (“There was wackiness in minor league baseball before we came along,” Laaser said.) But there’s a limit, according to Laaser, “You can’t just throw a name out there and say, ‘Yeah, it’s wacky, deal with it. There’s an intelligence that goes along with the way you brand it and market it.”

kQlb6TqJWith their sleek logo and kid-friendly mascot Nutzy, the Flying Squirrels were trying to create “something that the guy that owns the tattoo shop … something that the surly guy can wear on a hat and feel comfortable in the rough and tumble world that he lives in and something that kids can wear as well.”

Clearly, the Squirrels have done their job. They rank among the top 25 in minor league baseball merchandise sales in an increasingly competitive marketplace, according to MiLB.com. (This explains why I felt so compelled to buy a Squirrels T-shirt the last time I was in Richmond.)

I was glad to get a representative of the team on the phone because I wanted an official response to something that I’ve heard about this logo ever since it was first unveiled: Is it on purpose that the logo is shaped like the state of Virginia?

“We’d love to take credit for that and having the brilliant foresight for that to be the case,” Laaser said, “but in the interest of full disclosure, that was somewhat coincidental…. Someone pointed that out to us about a week after we unveiled the logos back in the fall of 2009 and we looked at it and said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned, they’re right.'”

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Now in their fifth year, ol’ Glaucomys volans volans has overcome the initial misgivings of fans. The future of the Flying Squirrels themselves may hinge on how things turn out with the team’s protracted discussions about plans to (finally, hopefully) build a stadium in downtown Richmond. However, the team’s logo and identity are firmly entrenched as one of the most popular in the minors.