Tucson Baseball: City hopes to lure Triple-A, spring teams

2013-07-16T00:00:00Z Tucson Baseball: City hopes to lure Triple-A, spring teamsDanny Passovoy Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tucson's slow-but-steady economic recovery is plain to see.

From the development of the modern streetcar to the growth of downtown, the city is trying to enhance its popularity as a travel and business destination.

However, one gaping hole in Tucson's historic infrastructure remains under heavy construction: baseball.

Tucson lost its three spring training tenants - the Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox - to the Phoenix area amid promises of new, sparkling facilities.

The Triple-A Tucson Padres sit in first place, but are set to move to El Paso as soon as soon as next season. The Arizona Wildcats breathed life into historic Hi Corbett Field by relocating there two years ago. But soon, Pac-12 baseball will be the best Tucson can do.

During the baseball-deprived All-Star break, we ask: Is professional baseball leaving Tucson for good?

"The only way of getting baseball is to have a Triple-A team move back to Tucson," explained Mike Feder, the Tucson Padres' general manager. "The closest Double-A league is the Texas League, and in the Texas League, the farthest city west is Midland, Texas. Then you look at Class-A, and the closest league is the California League, which is 100 percent bus. It doesn't make sense geographically to come this far.

"That's why it is so important that we finish strong this year. We can't just limp to the finish line. We want to continue to show people that Tucson is a viable community.

"Five years from now, I believe a Triple-A team will be back in Tucson," Feder said.

Spring training, however, is a different issue.

A rite of spring

Arizona became a staple for spring training among the Major League Baseball community following the decision of Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians and Horace Stoneham's New York Giants to leave Florida in 1947 for greener pastures in Tucson and Phoenix, respectively.

Veeck, who owned a ranch in Tucson at the time, brought the Indians to Hi Corbett, where they stayed until 1992. Tucson fans witnessed some of the game's greatest players, such as Willie Mays, Ted Williams and a young Mickey Mantle (in 1951).

The Indians announced their plans to leave Tucson in 1990, so the city tried to lure other teams to the area. After a failed courtship of the Baltimore Orioles, Tucson cut a deal with the expansion Colorado Rockies.

In 1998, Tucson Electric Park - now Kino Stadium - was built and became the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who moved to Phoenix that year, and the Chicago White Sox. The three Major League clubs generated approximately $31 million combined into the local economy per year, according to a study conducted by Cactus League Attendee Tracking Survey in 2007.

But then, in a flash, it was all gone.

The White Sox announced plans to leave for Camelback Ranch in 2008, and the Rockies and Diamondbacks swiftly followed. The two National League teams moved to the Salt River complex outside of Scottsdale in 2011.

So what happened? How did such a prominent baseball town lose its entire attraction this quickly?

"The problem was once the White Sox left and the Rockies made it publicly known that they were looking to go up to the Valley as well, we just couldn't stay there alone," said Derrick Hall, president of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"It became a numbers game. Teams don't travel down a lot of their star players, and as far as minor league games, you're playing the same teams on the back fields, and that's not really good for anybody. For it to work, you really need to have at least three teams down there."

Once the White Sox left, the Rockies and Diamondbacks realized how teams felt to be a part of the Grapefruit League. Florida's teams travel long distances compared to those in Arizona.

Cactus League teams "don't have to drive very far at all to find another spring training team to compete against," said Mike Holmes, consultant to the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority.

"Within an hour, they can hit a number of different teams, play in a number of different stadiums, and it's just easy," he said. "When you compare that to the two-hour drive you have to make to Tucson, it's a bit hard - not impossible, but it does make it more difficult."

The closest three spring training facilities to the Kino Sports Complex, which would be the home for a new spring training team, are Tempe Diablo Stadium (111 miles), Phoenix Municipal Stadium (115 miles) and Scottsdale Stadium (121 miles). The average travel per away game would be about 257 miles round trip.

Reasons to hope

Experts say Tucson can get back in the spring training game, but the city will need to lure multiple teams to avoid travel headaches.

In fact, the Diamondbacks would have stayed, Hall said, had they found suitable partners in Tucson.

"Before we left, we tried, along with the Rockies, to find other teams that would be willing to come out to Tucson, and it just wasn't the right time with teams and their leases," Hall said.

"I'm hopeful that as teams continue to migrate from the Grapefruit League to the Cactus League, that Tucson will be the best alternative."

The Triple-A Tucson Padres moved into Kino Stadium after the big-league clubs left, but faced their own problems. Notably, the club didn't want to be seen as a short-term replacement for baseball.

The Portland Beavers relocated to Tucson in 2011.

It was supposed to be a temporary move: At the time, city government in Escondido, Calif., planned to build a permanent home for the team. But the plan failed, and the Padres stayed.

"It never helped us that we were temporary," Feder said. "When we came back here the first year, we tried to do something good, and it was always my hope to make it work, so that somebody wanted to be here full-time.

"We've had three good years now, helped a lot of people, put on some good events, and provided entertainment for many families, but we never got to the level that we needed it to get to entice another team in the PCL to move to Tucson."

"In my opinion, it was up to me, my staff and the community to make it work, and unfortunately we didn't do it."

New digs a solution?

The Triple-A Padres, like the Tucson Sidewinders before them, have been burned by Kino Stadium's south side location, Feder said.

"It's a very good facility, but people never really warmed up to it," he said. "You always hear, 'It's too far.'

"Well, the reality is that it's 5 to 10 minutes farther than Hi Corbett, but it's not in the middle of town. Our parking lot for the Fourth of July firework show was able to accommodate 10,000 plus people. At Hi Corbett, at 2,000-3,000 you have parking issues. The truth is that the location we're currently at, even though it's 10 minutes farther, you're going to be in your seat quicker because of the parking lot."

The city could lure a new Triple-A team with a new ballpark. Financing the park could potentially be solved if a measure written by the Pima County Sports and Tourism Authority takes effect.

The proposal, which will go up for vote in 2014, could be a major turning point in getting professional baseball back to Tucson. The bill would add a 0.35 percent tax to rental cars and special events; money spent at restaurants and bars would be taxed 0.25 percent, and hotels 0.45 percent.

The taxes would generate about $15 million in the first year, Holmes said, "and as trade increases and the economy increases, it could generate enough funds to be able to spend on anything the citizens say they want to do for youth and amateur sports or Major League Baseball spring training."

The money could be used to lure more youth teams to Tucson, improve the burgeoning soccer industry or, Holmes said, to pursue a new stadium.

By then, perhaps a recovered economy could help Tucson's sports crisis.

"It could refurbish Kino," Homes said. "It could change the north side of Kino completely over to soccer, promote Major League Soccer, or it could go another number of other ways."

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