Greg Hansen: City's baseball epitaph: bad luck, few fans

2013-07-09T00:00:00Z 2013-11-06T12:56:04Z Greg Hansen: City's baseball epitaph: bad luck, few fansGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Almost nobody in this town has ever driven to the ballpark lured strictly by the stature and personality of a Pacific Coast League ballplayer.

OK, sure, there were exceptions: the overnight rehab starts of J.R. Richard, Randy Johnson and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.

In 44 seasons of PCL baseball, a Toro/Sidewinder/Padre has never led the league in home runs. What are the odds of that? Ron Kittle hit 50 home runs in Edmonton a lifetime ago and it transformed the franchise, selling tickets there for the next three years.

In 1984, Palo Verde and UA product Jack Howell hit .373. leading the league, pure smoke, but, alas, he played for Edmonton, too.

In 1998, Pueblo and UA standout George Arias smacked 36 home runs - six more than the Tucson franchise record - but he did so as a Las Vegas Star.

The man who moved the needle more than any ballplayer in four decades of PCL baseball here was a UA basketball star, Kenny Lofton, who stole 40 bases for Tucson's first-ever PCL champion, in 1991.

But Lofton probably wasn't even the best player on that team. Jose Tolentino had a 31-game hitting streak that year, and shortstop Dave Rohde, an Arizona alumnus, hit .372.

If forced to give an opinion on the single greatest achievement in 44 years of Tucson PCL baseball, I might say, at the top, had nothing to do with games won or runs batted in. It was when the Toros drew 317,347 in '91, the first time it passed 300,000.

It was Lofton and lightning.

Here's my point: Since the Toros began play in the 1969 PCL, they've had to draw fans the hard way. And "hard way" doesn't begin to define the struggle of the ranking general managers in franchise history: Merle Miller, Jack Donovan, Mike Feder and Paul Moskau.

Do you realize the Tucson Padres are in first place? Today.

When the T-Pads exit for El Paso in September, the only certainty is that they will have finished last in PCL attendance again. It has been bad luck as much as it has been a bad mix of demographics.

The T-Pads drew more than 10,000 to Kino Stadium for last week's Fourth of July game, but Donovan, now the club's senior adviser, says: "If you asked most people walking out the door that night the score, they couldn't tell you. And if you asked them who the visiting team was, most of them wouldn't know."

Donovan was the Toros' GM as far back as 1978, and some day he should write a primer on minor-league baseball for posterity, because it would be must-read material for everyone in the game. In 1989, he was the GM and part-owner of the independent Salt Lake Trappers, which won a record 29 consecutive games.

"It wasn't until we hit No. 20 that it resonated in the community," he remembers. "All of the sudden the media picked up on it and it really took off. But how often are you going to win 29 games in a row?"

The Padres are down to the final 26 home games in the franchise's history, and this community wouldn't know if the team's star player was Billy Sample, James Mouton or Andy Green.

Those men probably posted the best seasons in 44 years of Tucson PCL baseball. But they were neither home run hitters nor star-blessed franchise players.

You could sum up the history and community interest in this franchise by following the careers of Sample, Mouton and Green.

Sample scored 141 runs in his breakout season, '78, when he was surely the Pacific Coast League MVP, although for whatever reason the PCL didn't select an MVP from 1975-79. Green was terrific in '05, hitting .343 with, incredibly, 125 runs and 74 extra-base hits. He, like Mouton in '93, was the league's MVP.

All became marginal big-leaguers. They didn't draw a mosquito to the ballpark here.

In another town at another time, the August return to Kino Stadium of former Tucson High and Arizona All-American catcher Ron Hassey, manager of the PCL's New Orleans Zephyrs, might be a media event with a crowd of 5,000 or more eager to salute his career, his state championship at Tucson High and his NCAA title at UA.

But that's not going to happen.

"There's no fan identification here," says Donovan. "If we do a good job of marketing, if the food is good and we're not dismal like we've been the last couple of seasons, people might come out in August."

When PCL baseball arrived in Tucson in 1969, after 12 seasons without any type of pro baseball in town, acceptance was strangely mild. Only 105,207 attended, barely 1,300 per game.

It was a sign of things to come. We didn't get a break, either.

Whereas the PCL Phoenix Giants were granted Willie McCovey for two seasons and the Tacoma Rainiers deployed 19-year-old Alex Rodriguez in the lineup for most of one summer, the only Hall of Fame-type player to spend most of the season in Tucson was Craig Biggio in 1988.

The Toros drew 107,914 that season, last in the PCL and the third lowest total in 44 years.

In the end, as a baseball community, we won't know what we had until we don't have it any longer.

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