GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Jesmer Perez looked out onto Coolray Field with his grandmother, excited for what could be one day. The 10-year-old baseball fan first discovered the game when he was two years old. He regularly cheers on the Gwinnett Stripers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.
“I started playing when I was three and play first base and catcher," Perez said. "Baseball is my favorite sport."
For six games during the season, the Stripers transform and play as the Xolos de Gwinnett as part of a push by minor league baseball to increase awareness of Hispanic heritage and culture. The name and logo are derived from the national dog of Mexico, the Xoloitzcuintli.
Stripers general manager Erin McCormick said dozens of teams take on a new persona for La Copa de la Diversión. Winning the event takes winning games, mastering the ballpark experience and engaging with the Hispanic community. So far, the Mariachis de Nuevo México, Wepas de Worcester and Soñadores de Hillsboro have won La Copa.
“The Xolos really lean into the athleticism, the loyalty and intelligence, and it very much carries over to a ballplayer as well," McCormick said. "I see this merchandise out in the community, people wear it to games that aren’t designated Xolos de Gwinnett games. I think it just gets people talking. There is a change in your fanbase at the ballpark, and that you’re seeing a different group of people come out, but they know they can have fun and be welcomed.”
Gwinnett County's Hispanic population is nearly 200,000 people. With baseball being one of the most popular sports in Latin America, minor league baseball is hoping to increase awareness of the culture, embrace and reach more Latinos when it comes to baseball and provide a unique voice that can diversify the game and business of baseball.
"The fans love it," Stripers outfielder Magneuris Sierra said in Spanish. "They come with the jacket and the logo. I feel like it’s an opportunity, that someone comes from their country to give it their best here. This is an impact for all the Latinos. You come from your country to a new country, one that has a new culture. One tries to adapt."
So far, the Stripers are 5-0 this season when they have played as Los Xolos. Their final game to don the bright blue, red and gold will be Sept. 23 against the Durham Bulls.
"For those kids to grow up watching guys on the field that look like them, speak like them, and embrace their own culture too here in America," McCormick said. "I think it’s important they have those role models as positive experiences.”
Perez is watching closely, as he hopes to one day count himself among the privileged baseball players of Latin American heritage.
“Los Xolos represent us Latinos, and it makes me happy that they’re actually representing us," Perez said. "It’s a lot more exciting. I get more hyped up, and I always get excited to see the Xolos play. It reminds me of those memories I used to have (in Venezuela). But now that I’m living here, I get to watch the Xolos play."
Perez said seeing ballplayers that look like him means his dreams aren't far away.
"But if I keep putting in the work and keep training with my dad in the garage or keep going to practice, I might be able to play for the Xolos or the Stripers or the Braves. Maybe one day.”