Italian group protests minor league team's new 'Pizza Rats' nickname

Minor league teams need to do a lot of things to keep attendance up and get people to come to their games. The Staten Island Yankees, the Class-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, happen to be doing several of those on July 21: the team is temporarily rebranding as the Staten Island Pizza Rats, and celebrating Italian Heritage Night along with Star Wars Night. But a local Italian heritage group is unhappy with sharing Italian Heritage night with anyone — especially with the Pizza Rats — so they’ve decided to cancel the event.

A Sons of Italy chapter isn’t thrilled with the Pizza Rats

The Staten Island Advance reported on Friday that the Order Sons of Italy in America Fr. Vincent R. Capodanno Lodge #212, would be cancelling their planned Italian Heritage Night with the Staten Island Yankees. In a letter to the team, the chapter made it clear that the promotional rebranding to the Pizza Rats was a major reason.

S.I (Yankees) Management has decided to promote the Staten Island Yankees Team by temporarily renaming it “The Staten Island Pizza Rats”. Yes! I would not kid you about such a thing. If you are slapping your forehead and asking, “What are they thinking? You are not alone. In their infinite wisdom, they have decided to add “Rats” to “Pizza” ( Yes! Pizza.. One of the few positive things people automatically associate with Italians and Italy). To say the least, that’s a pizza topping that gives me a bad case of (agita).

They also believe that the Pizza Rat portrays a negative image of Staten Island. Beyond the association with the Pizza Rats, the chapter is also upset that it has to share Italian Heritage Night with Star Wars Night.

The Staten Island Yankees will rebrand as the Staten Island Pizza Rats for five games during the 2018 season. (pizzaratsbaseball.com)

Will Smith, president of the Staten Island Yankees, told the Advance that he understands why the Sons of Italy are doing this, even though he’s not on board.

“I’m upset that they are upset,” said Smith. “It was never done to be offensive to anyone or group. I understand, but I don’t agree.”

The Sons of Italy had only requested around 50 tickets for Italian Heritage Night, which isn’t enough for it to have a night to itself. Smith also said that he hopes they can find a date to reschedule the celebration, presumably when the team isn’t wearing their Pizza Rat uniforms.

What are Pizza Rats, anyway?

There are probably many pizza rats out there, but the Staten Island Yankees are celebrating one very special pizza rat that became famous back in 2015. A New York subway rider took a video of a rat heroically dragging a large piece of pizza down a set of stairs, and being pretty successful despite actually being smaller than the slice.

In 2016, the Staten Island Yankees were thinking about rebranding, and they let the fans decide what the team should be named. The Pizza Rats won in a landslide, and then all of a sudden the team stopped mentioning a permanent rebranding. (Or mentioning that the fan vote had happened at all.) Probably because while the Pizza Rats are a fun idea, it’s not the best thing to name your team forever. So more than two years later, the team announced that it would wear special Pizza Rat hats and jerseys for five games during the 2018 season.

Wait, how is this offensive?

That’s really the question. In its letter to the Staten Island Yankees, the Sons of Italy chapter says that simply adding “rat” to “pizza” tarnishes the image of Italians, since pizza is positively associated with Italians. But beyond those two words, it’s not totally clear why this should be seen as negative.

The Staten Island Yankees have chosen a number of pizza rat-centric logos for their temporary rebranding. (pizzaratsbaseball.com)

One of the logos is a rat carrying a piece of pizza while wearing an apron and a chef’s hat. It’s possible that the rat looks a little bit like Chef Boyardee, the Italian chef stereotype that tries to convince the world that Beefaroni has even a passing relationship with Italian food, but that feels like a stretch. The rat is just running, and on the other version of the logo, it’s just making an angry face.

And as far as the pizza, it’s just a rat snack and not meant to denigrate Italian Americans at all. In fact, it’s compliment. A slice of pizza, brought to New York by Italians, is seen as such a symbol of the city that a rat dragging it down some stairs is seen as an iconic New York symbol. The pizza and the rat, two icons of a great city, together at last! And considering how popular the promotion has been, many others agree. The first Pizza Rat night happened on Saturday, and the reviews — and merchandise sales — were overwhelmingly positive. 

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at lizroscher@yahoo.com or follow her on Twitter at @lizroscher.

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