Tucson is now the largest city in the United States without a professional baseball team.
Since the Tucson Padres packed their bats and bags and balls and relocated to El Paso over the winter, Tucson no longer regularly hosts professional baseball games.
“Tucson has its challenges supporting a franchise,” said Jack Donovan, the former general manager of the Tucson Toros, and an adviser to the Padres. “Our roots are very thin when it comes to people saying ‘This is our team.’ We have a unique situation, where our fan base is fractured.”
That isn’t to say Tucsonans don’t love their baseball. But it seems partly to be an issue of packing up the car and heading to the south side of town, especially when night games go on till 10 p.m. or later. That is a tough sell to a family with young children, or for someone who wakes up before the sun rises.
There is also the political side to it all. There is a strong emotional tie to Hi Corbett Field, where the Tucson Toros and Sidewinders played for decades. Many of Tucson’s older fans were unhappy when it was announced the Sidewinders (and eventually the Padres) would be playing at Kino Veteran’s Memorial Stadium, according to Donovan. And for the politicians who wanted to bring baseball to downtown Tucson, some scoffed when it was determined the games would be played at Kino.
On Monday, April 14, the final minor league game – the first in a long time – was played at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson as the Reno Aces and El Paso Chihuahuas took the field. The Chihuahuas are last year’s Padres, believe it or not. In 2012, Mountain Star Sports Group, which is El Paso based, purchased the Padres. The city of El Paso approved the construction of a brand new baseball facility located downtown for $61 million and agreed to change the team’s name.
Construction on the ballpark was originally set to finish before this year’s opening day, but unforeseen delays prompted the Triple-A club to play nearly the entire first month of the season on the road. To cater to the thousands in Tucson who have watched minor league baseball for decades, the Chihuahuas agreed to play a four-game series with the Aces this past weekend at Kino Stadium.
Minor league teams filtered in and out of Tucson throughout the past century, but it was the Toros arriving in 1969 that brought on the city’s love affair with the future big leaguers. The Toros, which then changed names to become the Sidewinders in 1998, stayed in town until 2008, when they were purchased and relocated to Reno, Nev. The Padres came in 2011 after spending nearly a decade in Portland, Ore. And as quickly as they arrived, they were gone to El Paso after just three seasons.
So when Aces first baseman Mike Jacobs struck out in the top of the ninth on Monday night to secure a 5-3 El Paso victory, his final swing may have been the last in a Tucson minor league game for a long time.
“There is a big void,” said Mike Feder, former general manager of the Tucson Padres. “If you go back to 1969, you have Triple-A baseball here in every year excluding two, in 2009 and 2010.” Despite Triple-A baseball being in Tucson for the better part of 45 years, attendance numbers had taken a turn for the worst over the last three seasons.
“We didn’t draw enough people. We didn’t have enough sponsorship,” Feder said. “The last three years, we were looked at as a temporary team.”
Tucson is used to losing baseball to neighboring areas. Before the 2011 season, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies held spring training at Hi Corbett Field. With all other Cactus League games being played in the greater Phoenix area, the two-hour trip south was inconvenient for the clubs that hosted spring training in Glendale, Tempe and Surprise. Major League Baseball, the Diamondbacks and Rockies decided it made the most sense to relocate the two clubs to the Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.
“With the Rockies and Diamondbacks being the last two teams in Tucson, purely the travel element was an extreme challenge for them and the rest of the Cactus League to try and have everyone together through spring training,” said Aaron Studebaker, the director of sales and marketing at Salt River Fields. Studebaker said the D-backs and Rockies averaged nearly 10,000 fans at their games this past spring. In Tucson, the average attendance was around 3,000.
“I don’t think the location of the ballpark ever helps us,” Feder said. “It’s just not a location that people like. There’s nothing to eat, there’s nothing to drink.”
The dip in attendance coincides with a recent article from the New York Times, which took a look at Major League Baseball stadiums and found an alarming trend of seating being completely barren. Even the Mecca of baseball, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, was at half-capacity on a Tuesday night, according to the Times article. Teams like the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays struggle to bring in more than 15,000 people most nights despite being sandwiched between multiple metropolises.
According to a report done last June by FOX Sports, attendance across the league was down two percent from 2012. Some of the teams in the league’s biggest markets, including the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, averaged more than 5,000 fewer fans a night in 2013 than they did in 2012.
Blame it on bad weather, poor performances from the team, or a lack of interest, but baseball remains one of the country’s most beloved sports. It just won’t be in Tucson for the foreseeable future if a stadium that cost nearly $40 million to build in 1998 is left vacant most nights.
“It’s absurd,” Donovan said. “We have to change our whole mentality towards it.”