When my family moved from Oceanside to Tucson in 1991 the Diamondbacks were years away from existing and for a displaced Padres fan I was 8 hours away from professional baseball. Except for the Tucson Toros, at the time the affiliates of the Houston Astros. They played their games at Hi Corbett Field (famously used in the beginning of “Major League”), which is centrally located in Tucson. The games were cheap, they were fun, and they became a big part of growing up in Tucson. Little League nights, hoping someone would hit the bull in right field (that’s right Durham, you guys aren’t the only one) and wondering if the kid would beat Tuffy in the race to home plate. (Fun Fact: Matt Vasgersian was a Toro broadcaster in 1996.)
Minor League baseball played its final game in Tucson last night. Its final game ever? Mike Feder, the GM of the Tucson Padres and previously of the Tucson Toros, hopes not. In an interview with the Arizona Daily Star, he said:
“I’ve tried to avoid saying this is the end. I would rather say it’s the end of this chapter.” – Mike Feder
But for now, it’s difficult to imagine minor-league baseball working in Tucson in the near future. But why? From 1991-1996 the Toros drew over 300,000 fans a year. This year? The Tucson Padres are dead last (16 out of 16) in the PCL. I had the chance to speak with two people who may have some insight into that problem as well as some thoughts on the brief history of the Tucson Padres.
The aforementioned Mike Feder was kind enough to give me a few minutes last week as he prepared for the final 9 home games in Tucson minor-league baseball. For Feder, it was time to lean into it.
“People around here didn’t even know we were leaving. I decided to not to hide it. Why hide it?” – Mike Feder
Mike Feder is professional baseball in Tucson. He oversaw what cannot be argued as the most successful stretch (’91-’96 with the Toros) in Tucson minor-league history. The team prior to 1991 was not drawing huge crowds. What drew them in 1991?
“What does everyone in Tucson care about the most? Arizona basketball. And who was our CF that year? Kenny Lofton.” – Mike Feder
Kenny Lofton had previously been a member of the Arizona Final Four team in 1988 and their Sweet Sixteen team in 1989. As the Toros CF he was an All-Star, leading the league in hits and the team to their first championship. And the fans responded.
By 1998 the Toros became the Tucson Sidewinders, affiliates of the new MLB team an hour and a half north. But, more important to the success of minor-league baseball in Tucson, they moved to a new park, leaving Hi Corbett Field. The new park, Tucson Electric Park (now known as Kino Veterans Memorial), was built in a more remote, isolated part of town and built to accommodate two MLB spring training teams plus a PCL team. By 2009, no MLB teams or PCL team existed in Tucson.
Enter the Portland Beavers. When Portland was awarded an MLS team in 2009 they needed a location to place the stadium. The home of the Beavers proved to be the most logical option and, seeing no suitable Portland location to move the Beavers, the team was put up for sale and purchased by Jeff Moorad. The plan? Move the team to Escondido. They just needed a place to temporarily put the team while waiting for a new stadium to be approved and built.
“I knew it was temporary from the beginning. We were supposed to be just in and out. The stadium already existed, we just had to take care of the field. You have to remember, this stadium was built for Spring Training. We probably have the best locker room and facilities in the PCL.” – Mike Feder
“The (California) Supreme Court surprised everyone.” – Mike Feder
With the Escondido project dead, Jeff Moorad put the team up for sale. But the process took time, and in the meantime, the Tucson Padres, designed to be a one-year band-aid found themselves entering seasons 2 and 3. But fans? They failed to materialize.
Tim Hagerty, the Tucson Padres broadcaster:
“I’m not sure the Tucson Padres have developed the city-wide buzz other Triple-A teams have. Minor league teams depend on families who come out a few times a year. I’m not sure Tucson baseball captured that demographic.” – Tim Hagerty
But why? In a town devoid of sports entertainment during the summer months, with a history of supporting minor-league baseball, didn’t they come out for the Tucson Padres? The answer is found in the old real estate adage: Location. Location. Location. To Tucsonans, Kino was simply too far out of the way and inconvenient to get to.
“Before you could accidentally show up at Hi Corbett Field (it’s near a shopping mall and across the street from the major park in Tucson as well as the Zoo).” Says Mike Feder, though he continues, “It’s a perception is reality thing. (From my home) it takes me less time to get to Kino than it would Hi Corbett. But the perception is that it’s further away.” – Mike Feder
That’s not to say the team lacked in loyal fans.
“There is a group of loyal fans that follow the team closely and attend home games regularly. They’re passionate and a dedicated radio audience. Unfortunately, it’s not a massive group.” – Tim Hagerty
And it wasn’t for a lack of trying to bring the fans in. From the AZ Daily Star story linked above:
“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.”
As some examples? Facebook Wednesday in which fans got free box seats simply for being a fan of the Tucson Padres. They brought back old Toros uniforms, including these bad boys:
The San Diego Chicken made multiple appearances. Bear Down Fridays. Bobbleheads. Car giveaways. They tried and did it all.
“I wouldn’t have been that bold had we been a permanent club.” – Mike Feder
And perhaps that was as much to blame for the lack of fan interest as anything. The city knew the team was temporary. That was never a secret.
“The biggest challenge of Tucson’s temporary status was a small front office staff. Successful Triple-A teams have 30 or more staff members blanketing the community promoting the team and selling tickets. The Tucson Padres had a 10-person front office and couldn’t match that.” – Tim Hagerty
“No question our temporary status hurt us.” – Mike Feder
You’ll read an interesting quote from Mike Feder in that Daily Star article. To paraphrase, he basically said that had he known the team would be there more than one year, he would have pushed for a different team name. I asked him about this as I wasn’t sure quite what he meant. After all, it’s not unheard of for the MLB club and the minor league club to share the same name. So what was the issue with the Padres name in Tucson?
“Having a MLB club so close pulls fan away. And most baseball fans here are Diamondbacks fans. I had fans come up to me and say they wouldn’t come to giveaway night because they didn’t want something that said Padres on it.” – Mike Feder
Location. Temporary status. Team name. The stars simply didn’t align for the Tucson Padres. That doesn’t mean they aren’t without their history, brief though it may be. Tim Hagerty, who just finished his 10th season in minor-league broadcasting, has the unique distinction of being a franchise’s only broadcaster. Who was his favorite player to cover in three years in Tucson?
“The best stories to me are unexpected first-time Major League call-ups for longtime players. Journeymen like Chris Robinson and Eddy Rodriguez, who put on Major League uniforms after bouncing around the minors a long time.” – Tim Hagerty
And about the ballpark playing so conversely to San Diego (this was an issue brought up specifically with Rizzo, though it always seemed like a problem to me)?
“There’s no question Tucson is a hitters’ park, but I think that is sometimes overstated by fans in San Diego. As we speak, the Tucson Padres are last in the PCL in homers. Anthony Rizzo hit as many Triple-A home runs on the road as he did at home in 2011. It’s a hitters’ park for sure, but not as drastically so as Albuquerque, Colorado Springs and a few others.” – Tim Hagerty
Next season the Tucson Padres will become the El Paso (Yet to be named). The stadium doesn’t exist, though construction has begun. Kino Veterans Memorial will exist but will be sans a tenant. And minor-league baseball will leave Tucson for the second time in the past 10 years. As someone who spent a sizable portion of his childhood and teen years attending PCL games in Tucson, I’m saddened to see it go. I haven’t lived in Tucson in awhile so perhaps the interest has waned. But I lament the loss of minor-league baseball in Tucson. In the end, I think it’s simply tough to watch a piece of your childhood fade into thin air.
AAA baseball can survive in Tucson but not in its current location.” – Mike Feder
Tim Hagerty is less optimistic.
“I’m not sure a Pacific Coast League owner would be willing to give Tucson another try.” – Tim Hagerty
I for one hope that’s not true.
What’s next for Mike Feder? Yesterday likely marks the end of a 35-year career in sports. Over the last 9 days Feder has had the opportunity to say goodbye and to say thank you to the staff and fans. Mike Feder remains very involved in the community, including charity work and bringing the Vamos a Tucson Mexican Baseball Fiesta.
Mike Feder has 35 years of sports experience including work with the New Orleans Saints and the Austin Wranglers of the Arena Football League. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Tucson Police Foundation. His wife, Pattie Feder, threw out the the last first pitch last night.
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