Rattle And Hum

Get Out To The Ballpark To See The Tucson Sidewinders.

THERE IS AN old saying which goes, "When it comes to owning a baseball team, the only way to make a small fortune is to start with a large fortune." Please don't tell that to Jay Zucker, the new owner of the Tucson Sidewinders of the Pacific Coast League. Zucker started with what most would consider a medium fortune and is betting most of it on the long shot that he and his Sidekicks can resuscitate AAA baseball in Tucson and return it to its place as an Old Pueblo summer tradition, along with shirts stuck to the car seats, dust devils being welcomed as breezes, and watermelon-flavored eegees.

Last year was clearly the Summer of our Discontent when it came to the Tucson Sidewinders. Exiled to a beautiful ballpark in a part of town no one really wants to drive down to, the successors to our beloved Tucson Toros played so-so baseball in front of not-even-so-so crowds. They got off to a bad start, had crappy weather, struggled mightily on the field and even more so at the gate, and then were dealt an apparent death blow when owner Martin Stone fired the World's Greatest General Manager, Mike Feder, and tried to run the club himself.

I've searched all through the off-season for the proper analogy to explain why this particular personnel move didn't work. The best I could come up with is that it was like a pimp trying to keep all his customers happy by himself. He certainly knows the business, but he's not the best person for the job.

I remember driving into town from Sierra Vista with my kids one night last summer. When we drove by the ballpark, I said, "Boy, it's deserted. I wonder when the Sidewinders get back into town."

My son Alexander said, "Dad, they're coming up in the bottom of the third."

After the incredibly lousy season, Stone put the team up for sale. A local guy, Sahuaro High School grad Jay Zucker, bought the franchise, and the first thing the new owner did was to re-hire Mike Feder, who is, as we all know, the World's Greatest General Manager.

(Feder spent last summer watching his son play baseball and then with his parents, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. If you're going to get fired, that's the year to do it.)

Another early, gutsy move by Zucker was to turn down a lucrative offer from a group which wanted to move the franchise to Oregon. Zucker could've made a quick mil or three and nobody would've blamed him. But he chose to stand and fight, believing that if they build the franchise right, we will come.

Feder, Zucker, and co-general manager Jack Donovan realize that only a handful of people are going to show up just for the baseball. And even fewer for the chance to see someone who may or may not be a major-league star somewhere down the road. Frankly, you're not going to see a whole lot of stars at the games. You might see Matt Williams if he spends a couple days in town rehabbing his broken foot before heading back up the road to Phoenix. But baseball stars are not the appeal of a minor-league franchise. Fun is.

Mike Feder wants you back, and like Charlie Daniels' Devil, he's willin' to make a deal. Besides FREE PARKING EVERY NIGHT!! (which turned out to be a huge point of contention last year), the Good Old Days are returning from hiatus, and unlike Diana Ross, they're actually going to be welcomed by the public.

The ballpark is still way down there by Kino Hospital, but it's really beautiful. They've put a kiddies playground out beyond the outfield fence with jumping castles and lots of other amenities designed to ease kids into the experience of spending four hours at the ballpark.

I used to take my kids to the ballpark and tell them to play in the empty bleachers, pretending that it was a really easy maze.

What about the weather?

"Now that I'm back," laughs Feder, "we won't have any bad weather. I'll see to it."

According to Zucker, the Sidewinders won't be playing 72 home games. There will be 72 baseball "events" at Tucson Electric Park this summer. Zucker is putting a ton of money into the franchise and the odds aren't in his favor. He has to overcome location, location, location, a Primal Shrug from locals, ever-increasing competition for the entertainment dollar, and the still-lingering effects from the bad feelings major-league baseball engendered from the public more than five years ago.

Zucker's upbeat and he thinks he has the team in place to make it a go. Plus, there will be players on the field.

This is the most important season in Tucson's minor-league history. It's not exactly a make-or-break year, but you can bet whichever trend gets started this season will see its way through to a finality, one way or another.

The Sidewinders open their home season tomorrow night. Saturday will be their first big promotion of the season, Pokemon Night. Feder timed this perfectly because the still-feverish Pokemon craze will implode on or about June 1 to make way for this summer's big deal -- the X-Men.

Don't be surprised if Feder even throws together an X-Men Night before the summer is over. Alas, if this were last year, a special promotion involving X-Men might involve hiring Christine Jorgenson, John Bobick and Renee Richards.