Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona. for some California grass....
I wasn't born in Tucson. At the risk of losing some street cred among these parts, I was actually born in Los Angeles. I moved to Tucson around age 2 when my dad got a job at an architecture firm that last I checked no longer exists. (The building still does, it's on that weird corner of Pima and Wilmot.) I have resided here ever since. Tucson has always been trapped in that limbo-zone between a major city and a small town. A good descriptor of Tucson that I heard from someone I know (I can't remember who, if you're reading this, annoy me on facebook about it) is that it's a "Small town, but everything is just spread out." It's always had that weird semi-folsky small town vibe that's easy to see if you were to pick up a local news publication, but a not-insignificant number of people live there.
Part of that can be attributed to the fact that the University of Arizona is such a huge part of the city in many aspects. One of those is sports. Ask anyone around here and they'll tell you that the biggest sporting thing in town is U of A Basketball, which has cultivated a rabid following by not having a sub .500 season since Walter Mondale was a presidential candidate. U of A sports has sort of transcended school pride to civic pride. Going by my Facebook wall during the winter, I , who attended and graduated from there, am not as big a fan as a whole lot of people I know who have yet to, at the time of writing, ever enroll there.
The only other major sport, on a local level, in Tucson is AAA Baseball. There has been a PCL team in Tucson on and off since 1969. The third iteration, the Tucson Padres, will be packing up and heading east to El Paso at the conclusion of their third trudging and near nihilistic-season in Tucson. I've gone to a handful of Padres games over the three seasons, almost exclusively when the Aces were in town, and it only serves as a reminder of how far it has fallen in my lifetime.
A small bit of background history. The Tucson Toros came into existence in 1969. Throughout their entire history they played at Hi Corbett Field. According to Wikipedia (all caveats apply) the name "Toros" was submitted for a contest by the now Sheriff of Pima County, whose Granddaughter was a classmate of mine at the Pima Community College Theatre Department (See, small town.) The Toros were the AAA affiliate for the White Sox, Athletics, Rangers, Astros, and Brewers through their history. The Astros era is where my personal experience begins.
My parents used to take me to Toros games somewhat regularly in the 90s. It helped cultivate my love of baseball some. People who started watching baseball within the last two years might be surprised, but at one time the Houston Astros were a decidedly above-average franchise, and throughout my window of Toros-dom, they were usually competitive. Some players who played for the Toros in the Astros era include Kenny Lofton, Craig Biggio, Billy Wagner, and Luis Gonzalez. Of course, none of them was ever a PCL MVP on the Toros. This guy was, though. A good lesson in minor league stats and how they translate to the majors.
If you've never been to a minor league baseball game, you should at some point. The atmosphere is way different than that of an MLB game. With Toros and the subsequent future franchises they seemed to embrace the weird kitsch of it all. The Padres in particular had kids playing musical chairs, kids throwing bottles into recycle bin races, and a promotion where if Brad Boxberger got a strikeout, all hamburgers at concession stands became half-priced for the rest of the game.
Also of note: The following sentence appears on the Tucson Toros Wikipedia entry:
"Huey Lewis once wrote and performed a theme song for the Tucson Toros (circa 1993)."
Finding and hearing this song has become my raison d'etre.
TWO BALLPARKS, AND A NEW NAME JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT
In 1998, Tucson Electric Park (now Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium) opened up. It was placed on land in southern Tucson that by God the county was gonna use for something. It was the first Spring Training home of the Diamondbacks, as well as the Spring home of the White Sox. With the Rockies training at Hi-Corbett, Tucson had three spring training teams, which seemed pretty novel at the time. Up to this point, everything was all well and good, except it really wasn't when it came to the AAA front.
When the Diamondbacks came into existence in 1998, they needed a AAA team. Tucson seemed like a good spot for it, short drive up the freeway and all. Through a complicated series of ownership purchases, the Phoenix Firebirds (redundant with the advent of the Diamondbacks) became the Tucson team and the old Toros effectively became the Fresno Grizzlies. New owner Martin Stone did not think that was enough. In addition to moving from Hi Corbett to TEP (more on that in a second), he also thought that re-branding the team to the "Sidewinders" was a good idea, to create some sort of synergy between the Major and Minor league teams, like every other team does (If I have to explain how "Zephyrs" and "Marlins" or "Bees" and "Angels" are connected, you need to get out more.)
At that point, 29 years of history just seemed to die right there. I know it sounds melodramatic, but it really did feel like that at the time. I feel like the meetings where this occurred used such words like "synergy" "buzz" "parameter" etc. Basically your social media expert talk before the advent of social media. The unnecessary re-branding was the first of a one-two punch that killed AAA Baseball in Tucson slowly.
The other was the stadium. Not the physical stadium shaped object itself, mind you. TEP/Kino is by all accounts a nicer stadium with nicer amenities and is just a nicer place to sit and watch a game compared to Hi Corbett. As the crow flies, it's only about four miles from Hi Corbett, so you figure that everything would still be hunky-dory, right? Well, no.
First off, the location itself. If you live in Tucson there is a very chance that you live north of TEP/Kino and not near enough to Interstate-10 to use it on a going-around-town basis. Throughout most of the city limits, the roads are in a nice grid that are fairly easy to navigate. If you get too far north or too far south, things get a little funky. If you can't take the freeway, there are essentially two major roads to get into TEP, and if there is an event there that garners any sort of large attendance, getting in and out can make the Dodger Stadium parking lot look like the autobahn.
The second major thing was the fact that the following things are currently nearby present-day Kino stadium:
- A few baseball fields for little leagues and stuff.
- An In N' Out Burger
- A Burger King
- A Chevron Gas Station
- A Hospital
I recall some murmurs of hope that the construction of the stadium would revitalize the area and businesses would flock to the area. That didn't quite happen. Not that TEP/Kino is a useless venue for anything. I saw Social Distortion there in 2004 and it has been the site of numerous radio music festivals over the years. Of course, the fact that very loud music can be blared from there is a sign of how little is around the venue.
Again, as old and sort of unremarkable Hi Corbett is compared to TEP, it was put in the perfect location. Centrally located, near a large park, a shopping mall, way more restaurants and most importantly, my apartment.
Fans and the city responded to the re-branding and new stadium very poorly. The Sidewinders struggled to bring in attendance throughout their existence despite many bending-over-backwards attempts to bring in fans. Eventually, they were sold to the group that moved them to Reno to become the present-day Aces.
Pretty soon, the White Sox left Spring Training in Tucson for the shinier pastures of the Valley, and not too long after that, the Diamondbacks and Rockies did as well. I, personally, had mixed feelings about that. The Diamondbacks generally drew decently compared to other Cactus League teams, but as more teams moved to the valley, and then bitched about their decade old stadiums, it suddenly became clear that Tucson would be the red-headed stepchild as far as Spring Training went. And as with all baseball deals involving TEP and Pima County, the county shot itself in the foot many times and helped steer clubs away from the Old Pueblo. I get it that from that perspective.
However, if someone says "We didn't like driving from Tucson to Phoenix, it was long." Then that person should be punched in the face, hard. OH NO, YOU HAVE TO DRIVE AN HOUR AND A HALF ON THE FREEWAY TO GET SOMEWHERE? HOW DO THOSE GUYS WHO TRAIN IN FLORIDA WHO USUALLY HAVE TO GO LONGER DISTANCES EVER MANAGE? OH GOD A RELATIVELY SHORT BUS RIDE IS JUST THE WORST.
Cry me a goddamn river.
(Sorry, had to get that particular gripe off my chest.)
Kino's relative success as a Spring Training venue (despite the gulag of driving that those poor poor teams had to go through) makes me wonder if it should have been left as that, rather than a year-round AAA venue. I mean, it's unlikely that a AAA team in Surprise Stadium would work out well.
Independence and Purgatory
When the Sidewinders left, the Tucson Toros returned in the form of an independent Golden Baseball League franchise. They played at Hi Corbett Field for two seasons, and in both seasons set single-game GBL attendance records. They also lead the GBL in total attendance both of their seasons. I went to a handful of new Toros games, and they were always fun, and seemed lively, and were full of threats to persons who tried to start the wave.
Tucson Electric Power's naming agreement ended, and TEP became Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium.
However, before the 2011 season, the Portland Beavers found themselves without a home after MLS came to town. Jeff Moorad (remember him, D'Backs fans?) bought the team and moved them to Tucson on what they thought was a temporary basis while a park in Escondido, California would be under construction. As such, it was apparent from the get-go that the Padres were a temporary thing, and they were greeted with a collective "meh" from people in the city. The Escondido plan fell through, and the Padres were around for two more seasons.
The Independent Toros bowed out gracefully, not wanting to create competition for the new AAA team. In their place, the Arizona Wildcats baseball team moved away from campus and started playing at Hi Corbett. In one fell swoop of a different stadium (one that was allowed to serve alcohol.) the Wildcats have had two of their best years in average attendance to date, and in 2012 hosted a Regional and Super Regional for the first time in 20 years, and were the 2012 College World Series champions. (BEAR DOWN!)
There was still the unsaid knowledge that there was no long-term future for the Padres, and that some other city would grab them and move them at first opportunity. Said city was El Paso, where the Padres AAA franchise will start playing in 2014. Was there an actual glimmer of hope, and were the people of Tucson too pessimistic to see it? It's certainly possible, but all the previous history with both AAA and Spring Training might have made the populace once-bitten and twice shy. As such, every year the Padres have been dead last in the PCL in attendance by a large margin. The fact that they were just generically the "Tucson Padres" also added to the feeling of just being a way station for somebody else.
I can honestly say that the only time I ever went to Padres games was when they were playing the Aces. It never felt weird to me to openly root for the visiting team. I am, after all, an Arizona Diamondbacks fan first, and I dislike a lot of things about the San Diego Padres. So in that sense the Padres never really felt like "my" team in the way that the old Toros did. And after tonight, they won't be any longer in any sense.
Pointing Fingers Wildly
So what's to blame for this long spiral into nothingness? Is it the higher-ups in the county and the team deciding to put a new stadium in a location that people wouldn't want to drive to? Is it the fans themselves, for being too stubborn to drive a little more to support a local team? There's probably a little truth to both of those.
I mentioned with the two teams that occupied Hi Corbett in the post-Sidewinders era having set attendance records for either the team or the league. I didn't compare their average per-game attendance to that of the Padres, because I wanted to save that for the end. In 2013, the average attendance for the Hi Corbett Wildcats and the Kino Padres is as follows:
(Numbers as of Tuesday)
Now you might be saying "Difference of 12 fans, big whoop." But the fact that it's even close between a college team and a professional team should give you pause. That average for a college team is among the top 25 in the nation, that average for a AAA team, always dead last.
Is this because Tucson has further embraced being a town that supports college teams? Is it because Hi Corbett is just a way better location for a stadium? Is below 3,000 the maximum threshold for any Baseball? It's hard to say. Should another AAA team wander through, it probably will be located at Kino and the cycle may repeat again.
I've heard many say that Tucson is unable or unwilling to support Baseball. However, there was continually a PCL team from 1969 to 2008. That means something was being done right for most of those years. Sure, times and outside forces change, but that's still almost 40 years. So obviously something had to happen to change all that, and the obvious linchpin was the new stadium and the re-branding. How to spread the blame from there is up to interpretation.
I have no other frame of reference, but I still believe Tucson is a nice place to live. You get to live in a not too big city with a lot of quirky local customs. There are a handful of nature preserves and national parks within reasonable driving distance. It's generally less-hot than a lot of other places in Arizona (which isn't saying much, but still.) There's a nice monsoon season in the summer that provides some relief to the aforementioned weather. There are some things about it that aren't great (The constant little brother syndrome to Phoenix, much like the one Phoenix has with Los Angeles, is irritating.) But overall it's not a terrible place.
The professional baseball conundrum is another odd thing about the city. Many sportswriters with more years of experience have spilled a lot more ink and internet bandwidth on the subject than I ever could in this article. The actual issues probably go way deeper than the way I've outlined them here, and smarter people than me have failed to figure them out.
Kino is still around, the county will keep trying to make it work for something. It still hosts rock festivals,MLS exhibitions, and Junior College Football and usually one Spring Training game a year, held to support the Christina Taylor-Green Memorial Foundation. Could tonight's game be the last time any sort of AAA Baseball is hosted there? I don't know the answer to that. When the Sidewinders left I was sure that was that, but someone always finds a way.
Some specific in all this that I haven't mentioned until now, but is an integral part to this story, is Mike Feder. Feder was hired by the Toros in 1989 as General Manager and oversaw their peak championship years and brought a lot of promotions and other things that helped attendance in the 90s. During the second season of the Sidewinders, he was fired from the position to much public outcry and he took a job with the New Orleans Saints. When the Padres came to town, Feder returned to his General Manager position.
During a Snakepit gathering last year to see Trevor Bauer pitch, we all stood outside in Kino's parking lot and talked for a bit, after awhile Feder came up to us and talked for a long time about Bauer, the Padres minor league system, and Baseball in general. A General Manager of a professional baseball team taking his time to talk with opposing fans after a game speaks to me as to how much a labor of love AAA Baseball has been for Feder, and if a PCL team ever returns for a long period of time, he will be involved.
For now though, when the lights go out tonight at Kino, that will be it. The Padres will move themselves east. AAA baseball in Tucson will have died again. Will the city get a third chance? Will it deserve one? Ultimately, whether you think that the fans were too stubborn and shortsighted to support the Kino-based teams, or you think that the county was shortsighted in trying to make the undesirable location happen is ultimately irrelevant
As for myself, I have more or less let go of any bitterness or bad feelings over AAA and Spring Training leaving town (except the driving excuse, just be honest and say "We think Tucson is smelly.") Quite a few people I know aren't as serene about it, but that's their prerogative.
If a team should come back on at least a stated-permanent basis, I'll definitely go out to games and support it. I am not holding my breath or waiting for this to happen. It may well be that the last decade has beaten the market for AAA baseball in Tucson to the ground with a shovel and that this is the last hurrah.
I realize that in the course of this I left a lot of open questions and not a lot of answers. If I, or anybody, had the answers to all of this, then there wouldn't be a need to write this article, as pro baseball of some sort would be thriving right now. As it is, it is not, and questions are all that can be asked.