Tucson's relationship with professional sports can best be described as ... dysfunctional.
In the 20 years I've lived around these parts, there are few things I've seen Southern Arizonans take for granted more than our many forays into pro sports. Whether it be spring training or minor league baseball, low-level ice hockey or anything else that's tried to plant roots in this region, our community as a whole has basically taken the same stance:
That's cool, sure. But it's no UA.
Tucson's recent emergence as a hub for professional soccer training is already showing signs of fatigue, with waning attendance numbers for the last two Desert Diamond Cup tournaments and accompanying Major League Soccer exhibition matches.
But nowhere has Tucson's pro-sports apathy been more prevalent than with minor league baseball.
There has been some version of minors ball around here since 1915, though its heyday didn't begin until 1969, when the Tucson Toros became part of the Pacific Coast League. The Toros muddled along for 28 years until being renamed the Sidewinders in 1997, and they stuck it out here for 11 more years before eventually closing up shop and moving to Reno after Jay Zucker sold the team in 2008.
Attendance numbers were never good for the Toros/Sidewinders, but even after the team became affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks the fan interest just wasn't there. Sure, go ahead and blame the "bad location" of a stadium that's far easier to reach than Hi Corbett Field from nearly every part of Tucson but the foothills, but then remember that you're part of the problem.
We had two years of super-low-level independent baseball in 2009 and 2010 (with a team named the Toros playing at Hi Corbett again) but that was nothing more than a stopgap measure. Then, through a strange series of events, we got another team in 2011.
The Tucson Padres weren't meant to be a permanent fixture here, with the plan all along to have that club end up somewhere else once its owners settled on a place that would build it a stadium. Escondido, Calif., was the first choice, but then it became El Paso.
The T-Pads set up temporary camp at Kino Stadium from 2011 to 2013, and were pretty much treated like shit. And yet, when they ultimately pulled up stakes and became the El Paso Chihuahuas, the reaction was the typical blend of insouciance and contempt for something that would leave "us."
So when the team announced in February that construction delays at El Paso's new downtown (what a novel concept!) stadium would require the Chihuahuas to play their first four home games in Tucson, I was intrigued by the idea of this escaped convict having to spend a few more days in jail.
Then, when I saw that El Paso would be facing the Reno Aces, I came as close to doing an actual ROFL or LMAO.
For four days, Kino Stadium would host a minor league baseball series featuring the current versions of the last two teams that desperately tried to forge a connection with us, only to be so mistreated and crapped on that they ultimately left us for someplace far more appreciative.
The games last Friday through Monday were like baseball version of attending a lesbian wedding between your two ex-girlfriends, both of whom look far happier than they ever were with you.
Even stranger, it meant that former Sidewinders and current Reno Aces radio guy Ryan Radtke would be calling the "final" game in Tucson for the third time.
"This is just so surreal," he said before Friday's game, recalling how he'd called the final Sidewinders contest before the team moved to Reno in 2008, then was back in Tucson last August when the Aces were the T-Pads' final opponent at Kino Stadium. "We just did this."
I went to the Friday-night game, drawn by the allure of seeing some good Triple-A baseball while sipping $2 beers, and also to see just what kind of a crowd would show up on the same night the UA was hosting defending College World Series champ UCLA, and on the same weekend as the UA football spring game, Spring Fling and the air show.
Had this really been nuptials, the wedding coordinator would have been fired for picking such a conflict-filled weekend.
Yet, even with all those other options, 3,972 people came out Friday to see the Diamondbacks' top minor-leaguers (on the Reno team) face the best future standouts for the San Diego Padres (El Paso). That's 41 percent more than the T-Pads' 2013 average of 2,818 but still almost 700 below what any other team in the Pacific Coast League averaged last year.
Another 3,200 showed up for Saturday's game.
Maybe it was for the sheer novelty of it, but those crowds were far more than I expected. And far more than tireless local baseball promoter Mike Feder had planned for, which resulted in long lines because not enough concessions stands were open.
Here's the thing, though. Those fans weren't all locals. Judging by the amount of Chihuahuas gear being worn on Friday—and it didn't look like I-just-bought-this-in-the-gift-shop stuff—there had to be close to 1,000 people who made the six-hour drive up Interstate 10 to see what in effect was El Paso's "home opener."
That's dedication. And that's also why El Paso is so deserving of this team, and why we weren't. And never will be again.
I'm willing to bet that, since Phoenix lost its Triple-A team when the D'backs were formed in 1998, fewer than 1,000 people have hit the road to watch a minor league baseball game involving a Tucson team.
Even in the best years, Tucson would be lucky to draw 300,000 people over the course of a 72-game home schedule. There are almost 1 million people in Pima County, so think about how pathetic that kind of support was.
So while it was nice to see some cursory support for last weekend's games, don't expect another minor league baseball team in Tucson. Maybe in some other sport—believe it or not, the Phoenix (soon to be Arizona) Coyotes would prefer to have their top minor league hockey affiliate here—but certainly not baseball.