When it launched fully in 2018, Minor League Baseball’s Copa de la Diversión initiative was based on a mission of community service, inclusiveness and engagement with Latinx fans across the MiLB landscape. In some markets, that’s been a critical thread in franchise identities for decades.
In the Southwest, teams have long represented their areas' Hispanic heritage with Spanish-language or otherwise representative brands. Even before it was a big league city, San Diego fans cheered for the Padres of the Pacific Coast League, a circuit that also played host to the Tucson Toros. For nearly two decades, the Arizona Fall League has fielded Saguaros and Javelinas.
On the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas’ extreme western reach, the city of El Paso has long been a similar Minor League outpost. Today, the city is home to the Padres’ PCL affiliate, the Chihuahuas. From 1974-2004, it was the domain of the Diablos.
“This is the first Copa community,” Chihuahuas senior vice president and general manager Brad Taylor said. “This is a town that’s roughly 82-85 percent Hispanic heritage, and that’s what it should’ve been. [The Diablos name] was representative of this place. It was appropriate at that time and it still works.”
Playing in the Double-A Texas League throughout their affiliated existence, the Diablos were a unique team in one of the most unique settings in Minor League Baseball. Their city loved them. For three decades, the franchise produced scores of Major Leaguers for the Angels, Brewers and D-backs, won three league championships and enjoyed one of the game’s most passionate relationships with a fan base in a time when that wasn’t common in the Minors. As MiLB.com’s Benjamin Hill wrote in 2019, "'Enemy' was painted atop the visitors' dugout and fans were given Kleenex to wave 'bye-bye' to departing pitchers; the Famous Chicken became a regular visitor; 10-cent hot dogs and 25-cent beer nights were common."
The Diablos embodied their era. A stylized pitchfork and brash red-and-yellow color scheme dominated the team’s first generation, and in 1999, when the team became a D-backs affiliate, they adopted their new parent club’s colors, incorporating purple, teal and an of-the-times musclebound pepper ("Chile D") as the centerpiece of their logo. All along, the club was at the forefront of Minor League inspiration.
"We’re the borderlands, man," Taylor said. "The Diablos fit. It was popular, and they were on the front edge of doing promotions and other fun stuff in Minor League Baseball. What is now the Innovators Summit started as the El Paso Seminar. [Diablos owner Jim Paul] literally had people come to El Paso, and it started with a few teams, like, four to six. Then it got so big that he sold it to Minor League Baseball. There’s an important history for the Diablos and Minor League Baseball here.”
After 30 years, the Diablos era came to an end when the team moved to Springfield, Missouri, to become the Cardinals in 2005.
“That name went away when Jim Paul sold the Diablos like in 2004, and [the team] was no longer affiliated,” Taylor said, describing the city’s transition to independent ball. “[Diablos] was no longer under the control of Minor League Baseball. It became an independent league team name, and it changed. Everybody’s revered memories of that team were probably prior to 2004 when Jim Paul and the Diablos were an affiliated Double-A team here in El Paso, and they had a great affinity, obviously, locally for what they were doing and the fun it brought this town. It’s a cool story that we brought it back around.”
Less than a decade after the Diablos’ departure, MiLB returned to El Paso in the form of the Chihuahuas in 2014. Immediately, Taylor went to work figuring out how to reclaim the storied name.
"I got hired in 2013, and the Diablos were actually finishing their last independent season," he said. "We were coming onto the forefront in 2014 with a brand new downtown ballpark. I made a call to Minor League Baseball and just said, ‘Hey, it’s important to us that that Diablos name comes back home to Minor League Baseball.’ They said, ‘Well, it’s obviously still in use with the independent league team, but if it goes out of use for three years,’ -- which it did because they folded -- ‘you can look to see if the [trademarks] expire.’
"I put a note on my calendar in 2013 to check in 2016, and that’s when we revived it.”
Ahead of the 2017 season, the Chihuahuas announced their Diablos Days promo, the team dressing as their forebearers every Wednesday home game. Fans went nuts for the new (old) look.
“It was far past anything I could have imagined, which told me they really appreciated their history but they still really loved the new, because the Chihuahuas brand and mark never suffered,” Taylor said. “We still sold the hell out of that stuff, and then we added the Diablos on top of that. I walk around every day and see people wearing their red and white Diablos hats in town or a Chihuahuas hat. I just think it’s cool that that’s how they choose to represent El Paso. There are a couple of things that are important to them and it’s related to baseball, which makes it even more special.”
The Chihuahuas and their fans have a relationship that transcended the Minors’ near-decade absence from their city. El Paso has placed in the top five in Pacific Coast League attendance every season of the Chihuahuas’ existence. Now, teams don’t sell their former identities in the event they go away. MiLB retains rights, a move sparked by the Diablos' resurrection.
“I think it’s cool for all these markets to be able to hang on to their heritage, and when we want to do these nights that are throwback nights or historical heritage nights, they’re there,” Taylor said. “In this town, it really resonates. I mean, I coach youth league baseball, and there are Diablos teams still. It’s really cool to see that.
“That’s one thing I love about El Paso: they’ll thank you and let you know that they appreciate things that recognize their history. For me, it’s twofold. We have people on our staff who grew up in El Paso going to Diablos games, and when we brought that back, it brought back their childhood. They remember going to those games with their parents or their grandparents, and then, conversely, we have fans that say, ‘It is so cool for me to connect with my son now or my granddaughter now, to take them to a Diablos game like someone took me to a Diablos game.’ It brings them back. And we live it on-field. We were able to get some of the old Diablos capes that they used, or they had things, like they would wave hankies when [an opposing] pitcher was taken out of a game, other fun chants like ‘We want a hit.’
"How simple is that? It kind of originated here, and, organically, in the middle of a Chihuahuas game in the middle of a fifth inning on a Tuesday, our fans are knowledgeable enough to know, ‘OK, there’s guys on second and third and we’ve got one out; it’s important to get these guys in.’ The ‘We want a hit’ chant starts out of nowhere. We don’t generate it. The fans generate it, which tells me there’s still a cultural connection to that era that was before them. That, to me, is really what makes El Paso an unbelievably great Minor League Baseball market, because these fans are passionate, and they’re knowledgeable.”
Chihuahuas fans may be a new generation, but their dedication is rooted in a previous chapter of the city’s sports history, something Taylor and his club are proud to honor.
“What’s old is new again,” he said. “Look at all the [MLB] teams rocking the powder blues. I grew up in the ‘70s loving the Cardinals, the Expos, the Brewers all rocking that blue uniform and the Astros’ striped tops and the Expos’ tri-colored, pinwheel hats. That stuff is all cool again, and that’s why the Diablos still does so well. It’s just always cool. That’s the picture you never look at in your family albums and go, ‘Yeah, that’s outdated. I looked stupid then.’ You look at the Diablos hat and jersey and think, ‘That’s so cool.’
“We have people that, still on Diablos days, they wear giveaway hats from the ’80s or still have towels or hankies or pennants. It’s so cool when they share that stuff with us. We get to see it, experience that stuff, and hopefully someday somebody will be doing the same thing with the Chihuahuas stuff.”
The Chihuahuas have been one of MiLB’s greatest success stories of the last decade, and their success is due to not only their die-hard fan base but also an innovative front office. Before Copa was unveiled, the team did “Los Chihuahuas” nights. Upon Copa’s founding, they joined in with something new.
“We wanted a new identity, which is how we came up with the Margaritas, which represented more of the social fun that our town is known for,” Taylor explained. “The story is the margarita was invented right here in our region, and it celebrates the fact that one of the things El Paso is known for is being social and familial and gatherings and food and fun are important. We thought that was a fun way to have that brand. For us to be able to toy around with the Chihuahuas, the Diablos and the Margaritas, and it all works, that’s pretty cool for us.”
Like most things the Chihuahuas have tried in their seven years of existence, it's worked.
“I just think one of the things that Copa is trying to accomplish is recognizing all the things that make that culture so cool, the fun colors, different food and beverage opportunities, but El Paso’s been doing that for a long time,” Taylor said. “That’s what we are, and we’re proud to be able to carry that forward and enjoy it with our fans and our community. That’s frankly what makes this place so special, and I think that’s why it’s worked so well here.”
Tyler Maun is a reporter for MiLB.com and co-host of “The Show Before The Show” podcast. You can find him on Twitter @tylermaun.