Toros! Toros! Toros! Baseball in Tucson lives on

via tucsontoros.com.ismmedia.com

Even with the departure of the Sidewinders from Tucson, the Diamondbacks are not the only professional baseball outfit in the state of Arizona. The former owner of the Sidewinders, Jay Zucker, opted to keep involved with the game, and brought a franchise of the Golden Baseball League to Tucson. The Toros play at Hi Corbett Field, the current spring training home (albeit not for much longer) of the Colorado Rockies, and have done well in their inaugural season, leadin their division. The team also recently signed former Diamondback and 2002 All-Star, Junior Spivey.

At the suggestion of emilylovesthedbacks, and with 'Skins providing valuable logistical support, a get-together down in Tucson was arranged, and so Mrs. SnakePit and I headed down the I-10 to check out the newest addition to our local pro sports franchises. Details after the jump.

Our road-trip hit a pot-hole before we left, the rear-left window of the SnakePitMobile having jammed itself in the down position - not what you want in an Arizona summer. It turned out a box had fallen onto the switch in the back, jamming it on, and tripping a breaker. Fortunately, after some prodding by Chris, we managed to reset it, and hit the road, pausing only for iced coffee and a breakfast croissant at Jack in the Box. It looks nothing like the picture on the menu, yet still tasted pretty good, I have to say.

The advantage of leaving at 10:30 on Sunday was a clear run down to Tucson. As they have apparently been doing for at least the past decade, there are road-works on it, yet they didn't have too much impact due to the light traffic, and so we rolled into Tucson just after noon. The aim was to link up at Risky Business, a downtown sports bar, to watch the game, and so we went "right down Broadway," doing our best Mark Grace impressions as we rolled along the street of the same name.

'Skins had got there first, but after a week of sorry losses, we hadn't even bothered to turn the radio on for the first couple of innings, so were startled surprised shocked and amazed to see the Diamondbacks holding a 6-0 lead when we went into the place. I was delighted to discover both Pilsener Urquell and Stella Artois on the beer menu; I went for the former and plate of potato skins, while designated driver Mrs. SnakePit had a Coke and the calimari, and we settled down to watch the remainder of the game.

It was very much like a Gameday Thread, with less typing. Well, at least from me: 'Skins had his netbook, and katers showed up with her Sidekick, but I just couldn't get my fat fingers comfortable on the teeny netbook keyboard, and there wasn't really a lot of toom on the table for our behemoth of a laptop. So, I generally restricted myself to sardonic verbal comments, as the six-run lead got whittled away by the Astros. Still, the ending was good enough, with our team finally ending their long losing streak and getting a few hits with runners in scoring position.

After the game, Mrs. SnakePit and I headed off to the hotel, dropped our stuff off and chilled for a couple of hours, before reconvening at Hi Corbett. it's the first time I'd been there, and I didn't realize how long it had been active It was originally built in 1937, for the Class D Tucson Lizard, so pre-dates the post-war arrival of Spring Training in Arizona. It therefore has a great deal more history associated with it than Tucson Electric Park, which only opened in 1998. One of the cool things inside, is a 'Wall of Fame', listing all the members if Cooperstown who have played at the park - basically, just about everyone. Any list that starts with Hank Aaron is going to be worthy of note.

We linked up with 'Skins, katers, Zephon and emilylovesthedbacks, who were already there and paid the ten bucks which got us the best seats in the house - right behind the Toros on-deck circle, and also immediately behind the players' wives and their families [including Mrs. Spivey and their cute kids] To my delight, we were there on Dollar Dog Night, something of which I took full advantage, and the beers were more reasonably priced than Chase, with a bomber retailing for $7.50. They also had soft-serve ice-cream, made while you watched - if a sluggish process, it was one worth the wait.

A stern warning was broadcast over the PA that foul language would not be tolerated, though ironically, this was immediately followed by the playing of an unedited version of Sublime's What I Got, complete with its not quite so all-ages couplet, "But I got a dalmatian and I can still get high/I can play the guitar like a motherf_cking riot." Oops. Generally, however, the aim was clearly for a family-friendly atmosphere, with the PA announcer making heavy use of sound effects to accompany the game proceedings. While not something I'd want to see the Diamondbacks adopt, it kinda tied in with the minor-league feel.

That said, I was surprised how many players I'd heard of, especially on the visiting Orange County Flyers. Their line-up included Damian Jackson, best known for knocking Johnny Damon out in a 2003 ALDS collision, Scott Spiezio and Robert Fick, a player I had on my fantasy team a couple of seasons back. [Nice article in the Arizona Daily Star on Spiezio and his battles with substance abuse] Beside Spivey, the best-known name on the Toros roster was Dustin Yount, who was a couple of years above SnakePit Jr at Chaparral, and the son of Hall of Famer and former Dbacks first base coach Robin.

The GBL is reportedly thought of as being about Double-A level, and the difference between the play here and the majors was fairly obvious, most clearly in the field. Each side ended the night with a trio of errors, and there were a couple of other plays which probably would have been made by those in the big show. The starter for Tucson, Pete Hartmann, a 38-year old veteran who played in the minors from 1993-2004 without getting to the show, took the loss, giving up eleven hits and eight earned runs in five innings, most of the damage coming in a five-run second.

The Toros tried to claw their way into things, Spivey scoring the team's first run in the fourth, and they came back to make it 5-3 thanks to a two-run double from right-fielder Curt Miaso [whose other half was also immediately in front of us]. However, another five-run inning for Orange County in the sixth, ended this as a meaningful contest, and the Flyers ran out 11-5 winners, getting 18 hits off the home team's pitching. Though the Toros'  Andre Marshall, a former Phillies prospect, did hit the night's only home-run in the eighth.

It was a thoroughly entertaining time, and a good warm-up for SnakePitFest next week, as we warmed up our pithy comments. Perhaps a bit too pithy, as it seemed 'Skins ended up needing to explain to one of the wives that when we said we hadn't seen Junior Spivey score a run since 2004, that it was simply because we hadn't seem him play since 2004... Certainly, if you wanted to heckle or encourage a player, you could do so, in the sure and certain knowledge that they could hear every word.

However, you've really got to support all the players, especially veterans clearly not playing for the money, with monthly salaries generally between $1.000-3,000. They're there because they love the game and can't bear to give it up, even if the chances of being called back, even to a minor-league affiliate may be slim. But  who can say? For over 100 players have been sold to major-league teams since the GBL began in 2005, including Tim Wilhelmsen, Rene Garcia and Andrew Romo, Toros pitchers signed by the Brewers, White Sox and Giants respectively, earlier this season. Seth Etherton, a D-backs prospect currently in Triple-A, was also a GBL player in 2008.

The Toros currently lead their division in the second-half, and look set to make the playoffs in their first year, a solid success for the new franchise. Sunday's attendance of 1,413 was actually pretty small for the team, which has been averaging almost four thousand per game; it looks like the team will be rewarded with the GBL All-Star game, either next year or in 2011. I hope the Toros continue to do well - if I was in Tucson, I'd certainly be a regular attendee. The loss of the Sidewinders and the looming departure of spring training will hopefully not mark the end of pro baseball in the town.

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