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Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders highlight alter ego this week

The Vejigantes, a nickname used by Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, are part of Minor League Baseball's Copa de la Diversión initiative.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders
The Vejigantes, a nickname used by Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, are part of Minor League Baseball's Copa de la Diversión initiative.

On Thursday – and for a final time this season – the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders will put on bright blue uniforms to celebrate the diversity of northeastern Pennsylvania’s Hispanic and Latino population.

Since 2019, the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees has played a few games each year as their alter ego, the Vejigantes, a character from Latin American folklore often seen at Carnival and other religious celebrations in Puerto Rico.

The RailRiders’ Vejigantes logo depicts a colorful mask with horns worn by revelers in Loíza and Ponce, Puerto Rico. Baseball fans can witness the team’s transformation when the Vejigantes face off against the Syracuse Mets at PNC Field on Aug. 10.

It’s part of a Minor League Baseball initiative called Copa de la Diversión or “Fun Cup,” in which teams adopt alternate identities tied to Latin American and Caribbean culture during home games. Copa officially kicked off in 2018.

“So many players come from Latin American countries and there’s so much culture and influence in baseball,” said Adam Marco, broadcaster and communications director for the RailRiders. He added that Hispanic players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. are also honored during Copa game days.

The team is among dozens of clubs that have taken on other personas, with eight new teams joining Copa de la Diversión in the 2023 season.

“Copa’s a great example of how it grew from 4 to 33 to 70 plus teams – I think there are over 90 now,” Marco said. “Some teams have one identity, some teams have gone as far as picking up a second identity.”

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, is one of them. They have played games as the Coquís, a common name for a frog native to Puerto Rico. And this year, the IronPigs added yet another mascot – Mamajuana, a Dominican beverage considered an early distilled spirit in the Americas.

Willie Diaz is a RailRiders and Yankees fan who played minor league baseball in eastern Puerto Rico for nearly 20 years. A New York native who now lives in Scranton, he bought a Vejigantes hat because the nickname resonated with him.

A celebration with plenty of vejigantes just took place in Loíza at the end of July, Diaz said. The Festival de Santiago Apóstol – or Saint James, the Apostle – features the horned characters facing off against Spanish knights.

“Most of the people that were going through the festivities were dressed up in costumes with that mask,” he said.

Vejigante is a blended word or portmanteau of vejiga (“bladder”) and gigante (“giant”). People dressed as vejigantes traditionally carried inflated, dried cow bladders to hit other partygoers, according to the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.