Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mexican Baseball Road Trip: Tucson, Arizona

Well, today is the day I hop on a plane in Portland, Oregon and travel to Tucson, Arizona for this week's seventh edition of the Mexican Baseball Fiesta, in which four Mexican Pacific league teams plus a squad of Cincinnati Reds minor leaguers will play four doubleheaders in as many days at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium.  It's been quite a few years since BBM's last virtual Mexican Baseball Road Trip through all 24 MexPac and Mexican League cities (October 2009 through March 2010, to be exact...they're all archived on this site), but since Tucson constitutes a REAL road trip, it seems appropriate to add the Old Pueblo to the list, making it the first city in the USA profiled here.

Tucson, Arizona can be reached from Mexico by crossing the border at the Sonora city of Nogales, which has thousands of residents in both countries, and driving 60 miles north on Interstate 19 past the towns of Tubac and Green Valley along the way.  For what it's worth, I-19 is the only interstate highway in the USA marked by kilometer posts instead of mileposts.  Tucson itself sits on an alluvial plain in the Sonoran Desert and is surrounded by five minor mountain ranges.  The dry, hot climate brings the city an average of 11.56 inches of rain per year with daytime high temperatures ranging from the mid-60's in December and January to the high-90's and low-100's in June and July.  Low temperatures during winter are typically around 40 degrees while summertime lows rarely dip below 70.

What is now Tucson was first occupied by paleo-Indians as early as 12,000 B.C. and an archeological dig that turned up a village dating from 2,100 B.C.  Indigenous people later farmed the area near the Santa Cruz River for centuries, building extensive irrigation canal systems for corn and bean crops.  Ceramic pottery was developed between 600 and 1450 A.D. for cooking and storage.  Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino first visited the area in 1692 and later oversaw the construction of Mission Xavier del Bac in 1700.  Hugh O'Conor, an Irish-born officer in the Spanish Army, is considered the founder of Tucson after establishing a military fort there in 1775.  The Spaniards faced a number of attacks from Apaches over time until Mexico was granted independence from Spain in 1821, at which time Tucson (the name was gradually adopted over time) became a Sonoran city.  Tucson was a way station on an important route to California during the 1849 Gold Rush.

What is now the state of Arizona was acquired by the USA as part of its 1854 Gadsden Purchase treaty with Mexico and Tucson continued as a stage station into the early 1860's, when it actually became the western capital of the Confederate Arizona Territory between 1861 and 1862 during the Civil War until the rebels were driven out by the California Column.  Tucson later served as capital of the USA's Arizona Territory between 1867 and 1877, becoming the first Arizona city to incorporate during the latter year.  The University of Arizona was founded there in 1885 and by 1900, Tucson had a population of 7,531.  The city gradually grew over the decades (although there was a boom from a population of 45,454 in 1950 to 212,892 in 1960) and is now home to an estimated 530,706 residents, 41.6 percent of whom are of Hispanic heritage.  Tucson's growth has been outward more than upward, with relatively few high-rise buildings in comparison with other cities of similar size.

Tucson has become a tech hub over recent years, earning the nickname of the "Optics Valley."  Several major corporations have a presence in the city, including Raytheon, Texas Instruments, IBM, Intuit and Honeywell.  The University of Arizona, which now has over 43,000 students, has become a driving cultural and economic force in Tucson, and holds the nation's fourth-largest book festival with 450 authors and 80,000 attendees.  The Tucson Gem & Mineral Show is the largest such event in the United States while the Tucson Folk Festival, Fourth Avenue Street Fair, Tucson Rodeo and All SOuls Procession Weekend have also become popular events.

Baseball has had a long, if somewhat spotty, presence in Tucson.  The Old Pueblos team played in the Class D Rio Grande Association in 1915, building a 19-40 record until the league folded in July of that year.  While semipro and amateur baseball kept the sport going for years afterward, minor league baseball didn't return until 1928, when the Tucson Cowboys finished last in the Class D Arizona State League.  This started an on-again, off-again pattern of teams in Tucson, with the Depression shutting down the Arizona-Texas League for four years in the 1930's and World War II shutting the A-TL down for another five seasons in the early 1940's.  It was during this time that a 9,500-seat ballpark now known as Hi Corbett Field was erected in 1937.  Tucson won the league's pennant under Cowboys manager Pat Patterson in 1941, the last year the loop operated before going dark during wartime.  From 1947 until 1958, Tucson continued to field teams at the Class C and D levels in regional leagues, winning the Arizona-Texas League title in 1953 by 13 games with Don Jameson as skipper.

After the A-TL folded following the 1958 as part of the decline of minor league ball during that era, there was no pro ball in Tucson until 1969, although the city had been a spring training site for the Cleveland Indians since 1947, when Bill Veeck (who owned a ranch in the area) brought his newly-acquired team to Hi Corbett Field from Florida, reportedly to avoid the latter's Jim Crow laws of the time.  Indians players often rode horses on Veeck's property after games.   Still, it took the ascension of San Diego and Seattle to the major leagues for the Pacific Coast League to place a franchise in Tucson. The Toros (so designated in a "Name the Team" contest by future Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik) represented Tucson through the 1997 season, winning PCL titles in 1991 and 1993 as affiliates of the Houston Astros.  The team name was changed to Sidewinders between 1998 and 2008, winning a third PCL pennant for Tucson in 1996 as the Arizona Diamondbacks' AAA affiliate.  However, 2008 proved to be the final year for the Sidewinders in the PCL before the franchise moved to Reno the following year.  Another Toros team popped up in 2009 and spent two years in the independent Golden Baseball League before the PCL returned in 2011 when the Portland Beavers spent three seasons there as the renamed Tucson Padres before that franchise moved to El Paso in 2014.  The city has not had an affiliated minor league team since, although the Tucson Saguaros have spent the last two summers playing in the independent Pecos League, winning the 2016 pennant and finishing with the loop's best record in 2017 before losing to High Desert in the playoffs.

By then, Tucson's teams had moved from Hi Corbett Field to 8,000-seat Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, which was completed in 1998 and originally known as Tucson Electric Park, to accommodate the MLB Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox for spring training while the Colorado Rockies (who'd made Tucson their spring home in 1993 after the Indians left for Florida that year) continued using Hi Corbett Field four miles to the north, although all three organizations have since relocated to spring facilities in the Phoenix area.  The Chisox moved out after 2008 and both the Rockies and D-Backs pulled out after their 2010 camp had concluded.

Kino Stadium has a grass berm rimming the outfield that can hold another 3,000 to allow a total of 11,500 people (including standees) for ballgames.  The ballpark, which will host the Mexican Baseball Fiesta this week for the seventh year in a row, is symmetrical with distances of 340 feet to each foul line and 405 feet to straightaway center field.  Owned by Pima County, Kino Stadium was built for $38 million.   The facility has also been used as a training camp for the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer and matches in the annual Desert Diamond Cup, which is now a six-team MLS preseason tournament won last February by the Houston Dynamo.