New Orleans Zephyrs
The New Orleans Zephyrs was a distinct team identity that existed for 24 seasons of baseball in two minor leagues, the American Association and Pacific Coast League. In that time, they served as Triple-A affiliate of four MLB teams–the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros, New York Mets, and Florida/Miami Marlins.
The team came into being when the Denver Zephyrs of the now-defunct American Association were displaced by the National League’s Colorado Rockies following the 1992 season, and moved to New Orleans, playing in a new ballpark in the suburb of Metairie. Despite playing in a new location, New Orleans retained the Zephyrs moniker, which was an allusion to a steel passenger train that once traveled regular routes from Denver to Chicago. Coincidentally, the iconic Zephyr roller coaster was a focal point of the Ponchatrain Beach Amusement Park in New Orleans, which closed in 1983. Perhaps this coincidence was one of the reasons that the Zephyrs name persisted for so long.
Despite moving well over 1,000 miles southeast, the transition from Denver to New Orleans seems remarkably seamless all these years later. In addition to keeping the nickname, they retained the same visual aesthetic, with the only alteration being the changed place name. The team colors were forest green and navy blue, and they used two caps: one with a green crown and navy logo/bill, and the other with the colors reversed. The primary logo featured a baseball with its seams in the shape of the letter Z. Not only did they use the same branding as the Denver team, they kept their affiliation with the Milwaukee Brewers–a partnership that lasted through the 1996 season and featured such players as Jeff Cirillo, Dave Nilsson, Mark Loretta, Mike Matheny, and José Valentín.
In 1997, the Zephyrs signed on with their Gulf of Mexico neighbor, the Houston Astros. This affiliation would last through the 2004 season, and there were some notable changes the Zephyrs went through in this time. After the 1997 season, the American Association folded, and the Zephyrs were absorbed by the Pacific Coast League. New Orleans became one of the least Pacific Coast locations in the league’s storied history, and the Zephyrs suddenly had to travel to play games in places like Tacoma and Edmonton. Another more whimsical change around this time was the addition of Boudreaux, a nutria mascot complete with zoologically-correct orange teeth. Boudreaux would eventually get a girlfriend named Clotile, which as best I can tell is a Louisianan word for a fun-loving party girl.
On the diamond, this era saw talent that would go on to play a big part in Houston’s 2005 NL pennant campaign, including Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. Other future All-Stars to come through New Orleans in these years include Brad Lidge, Melvin Mora, and Carlos Guillén.
In 2005, the Zephyrs linked up with the nascent Washington Nationals and the two were together for two years. This was a few years before the big Nats prospects (Strasburg, Harper, etc.) came through, and there’s not much to say about these seasons on the baseball end. Things weren’t quite so boring on the visual end, though. Around this time, the team began wearing caps with a cartoon version of Boudreaux chomping through the letter Z.
Another two-year affiliation stint came in 2007 when an agreement with the Mets was inked. Carlos Gómez came through, as did future perfect-gamer Philip Humber. Daniel Murphy had a brief visit to the Big Easy in the year of his MLB debut. Hilariously, José Valentín once again suited up for the Zephs for 10 games in ’08, albeit at a much different point in his career.
The (then) Florida Marlins and Zephyrs worked out a deal before the 2009 season, and this would be the last chapter in the story of the Zephyrs identity. In 2010 the team underwent a major redesign of their uniforms and logos. Gone was green and in was silver. The letter Z cap logo was thickened and vertically compressed. Several alternate emblems were created, including a fleur de lis with the center staff forming a baseball bat shape. One of these emblems featured the new fleur de lis with the new Z threaded through the bat. The name of the logo? Why, the Fleur de Z, of course.
The new uniforms made liberal use of New Orleans’s NOLA nickname, and in 2015, there were headlines when Marlins prospect Austin Nola was promoted to Triple-A, and found that his name was on the front of his jersey for a change. These new uniforms and logos formed the visual aesthetic that would mark the final years of the Zephyrs.
Beyond Nola, NOLA added a bunch of good players to its alum list during the Marlins years. Some notable Zephyrs from this time were Gaby Sánchez, Brad Hand, Jake Marisnick, and JT Realmuto. Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich all essentially jumped straight up from Double-A Jacksonville. This could have been due to Floridian proximity, but it bears mentioning that the ballpark in Metairie wasn’t exactly a cutting edge player development facility after twenty plus years.
The Zephyrs were perennially in the lower tier of Triple-A attendance, and the franchise sought novel ways to boost team vitality. Following a lengthy rename-the-team contest, the team changed their nickname to the New Orleans Baby Cakes. But even the buzzworthy Baby Cakes couldn’t last long at the Triple-A level. After the 2019 season, they moved to Wichita, Kansas and became the Wichita Wind Surge. Meanwhile, the Zephyrs blow around in the dusty annals of minor league history.