Hansen: Pacific Coast League baseball: Last stand for local minor-league baseball

2013-08-21T00:00:00Z Hansen: Pacific Coast League baseball: Last stand for local minor-league baseballGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 21, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In 1969, a man from the Rockefeller fortune paid $6,000 to buy Tucson's entry into the Pacific Coast League. We should've known then it wasn't going to last forever.

Desperate to draw 100,000 fans on that maiden voyage, Tucson Toros owner Roy Jackson pledged that the 100,000th fan at Hi Corbett Field would get an expenses-paid trip for two to the World Series.

Forty-four years ago tonight, Aug. 21, 1969, exactly 904 fans paid to watch the Toros. A local man named Harry Mellor won a trip to watch the Miracle Mets beat the Orioles in the '69 World Series. It might as well have been 94 fans.

Jackson's old Eastern League franchise in York, Penn., outdrew the Toros that season and then ceased operations forever.

Undeterred, the Toros offered a "Fan Appreciation Night" two days later. It would be a dream matchup, Wildcats vs. Sun Devils, in which former Arizona pitcher Rich Hinton, who set a school record with 14 victories three months earlier, was to oppose former ASU All-American lefty Larry Gura of the Phoenix Giants.

How could minor-league baseball in Tucson get better than that on a Saturday night?

Attendance: 1,726.

You might say fan appreciation of Pacific Coast League baseball never did gain much steam in Tucson.

Beginning tonight, the Toros/Sidewinders/Padres are down to the final nine games in Tucson history. This is the Last Home Stand. We didn't swing and miss, but are going to strike out.

"I've tried to avoid saying this is the end," said Padres GM Mike Feder, the most enduring figure in Tucson pro baseball history. "I would rather say it's the end of this chapter."

As we speak, some rich guys in El Paso are coordinating the construction of a $61 million downtown stadium, of which the Tucson Padres will occupy next spring. The Texans, who paid an unfathomable $20 million for our baseball orphans, are trying to decide whether to name the team Aardvarks, Buckaroos, Sun Dogs or something similarly forgettable.

Tucson Padres? Yuck.

The one term I can no longer abide is "Tucson Padres." It will always carry the connotation of baseball's failure here. Even those on the club have endearingly referred to themselves as Toros much of this season.

"If I had known three years ago this would be more than a one-year thing, I would have never called them the Padres," said Feder. "I don't think it ever caught on."

You can't say Tucson has been treated unfairly. Eight millionaires, roughly one every five years, came, saw and were conquered by our lack of interest in summer baseball. Jackson, Bill Estes, Bill Yuill, Rick Holtzman, Martin Stone, Jay Zucker, Herbert Simon and a conglomerate from San Diego/El Paso all sold (for a profit) and never looked back.

"We tried absolutely everything over the years," said Jack Donovan, the club's senior advisor, a promotional guru who has worked for the Toros/Sidewinders/Padres in various capacities over a 35-year period. "We turned over all the rocks."

Jackson said publicly he lost $80,000 in his first Tucson season, 1969, but it's not like Tucson PCL baseball goes to its grave without ever having flourished.

From 1991-96, under Feder's command, the Toros drew in excess of 300,000 for six consecutive seasons.

1991: 317,347.

1992: 300,134.

1993: 307,791.

1994: 309,623.

1995: 301,963.

1996: 307,082.

Then, inconceivably, after politicians spent a taxpayer's fortune to build a baseball facility on Ajo Way rather than make it the centerpiece of downtown revitalization, it all came apart.

Only in the inaugural season at Kino Stadium, 1998, with the newness of the Diamondbacks and their Class AAA affiliate Sidewinders as a hook, did the franchise draw 300,000 (and it was barely that at 300,460.)

It only drew 271,698 when Tucsonan Chip Hale managed the team to the 2006 PCL and Class AAA championships, probably the most successful team in modern PCL history.

If that's not an indictment of the location of the ballpark, what is?

There's no ambiance on Ajo Way and no sizzle. The Sidewinders were betrayed not just by an awful political decision in 1993, but also by the perception that Kino Stadium is too far away and, perhaps, in harm's way after sundown.

The spacious parking lot? So what?

The generous concourse space? It didn't matter much.

Nine games remain. Tucson is last, 16th of 16, in PCL attendance.

"I'm sure people will come up to me next summer when there's no baseball here and say 'we got ripped off' but that's not true," said Feder. "We had our chance. We did it to ourselves."

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or hansen@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @ghansen711

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