Behind In The Count

It's been a disappointing season at Tucson Electric Park, especially for taxpayers.

Consider Jay Zucker the weatherman. Consider Pima County, already disappointed by the worst spring training season since its Tucson Electric Park opened in 1998, nervous.

A radio and television pitchman who made his fortune by selling off his Spanish-language television station two years ago, Zucker is in his second year as the owner of the Tucson Sidewinders, the AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. His almost neurotic relationship with the weather is understandable. He is like the eager host of a backyard barbecue who wants everything to work out just right. And in his case, he hosts 72 such soirées with room for 11,000 each time. After losing more than $200,000 last year, Zucker, despite a favorable lease with the county that requires minimal payment, needs a reversal.

"Weather is the only kiss of death in baseball," Zucker said.

In this roller-coaster season, Zucker has seen his opening weekend marred by rain, his first Fireworks Friday show canceled, a fight with the county over field maintenance, and a move to charter a helicopter to hover over parts of the field in a desperate effort to dry parts of a soggy field to prevent two straight cancellations in April.

Several days after that wet opening weekend, cold temperatures--below 50--helped constrict attendance to just 303 for the April 10 game in which the Sidewinders beat Tacoma 6-2.

"It is a long season, and April and May are the write-off period," Zucker says.

That period seemed to draw nearer to a close last weekend. The military-theme attraction on Friday brought in more than 8,000 people despite brief and light rain. But the following night, which featured Tucson Toros uniforms, Toros announcer Bill Roemer and other nostalgic bows to the Sidewinders' AAA predecessors in a Turn Back the Clock Night, drew just 3,500 people--a disappointment given the pleasant weather and the '70s-style Boogie Nights concert that followed. Plenty of tickets, from $3.50 general admission student and military tickets to $8 box seats, were available.

Greg and Tanya Underwood paid $9 for two general admission tickets and enjoyed the game on a blanket on the third base line berm.

"We like the grass. This is more what baseball is about," Greg Underwood said.

The Underwoods saw several Major League spring training games, but were seeing the Sidewinders for the first time this season. While an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Tanya Underwood was familiar with the Toros and 50-cent beer nights at Hi Corbett Field.

As several children rolled down the grass beside them, the Underwoods said the Sidewinders provided a lure to get out of the house. But they said it was a hunt. Schedules are hard to find and promotion is lacking, they said.

Inside, Zucker has added the Kids Korner along the outfield concourse. There are three jumping castles, a speed-pitching machine, basketball hoops and a kiddie train pulled by a lawn tractor that on Saturday was driven by a sullen teen-age boy. The features are free during games Mondays through Thursdays and $1 each on Friday, Saturday or Sunday games. Zucker also added a day-care center that is staffed by Choice Care Nannies.

For adults, Zucker put in the Snake Pit, which Zucker advertises as "Southern Arizona's largest outdoor sports bar." Must not take much for the distinction. On the west, or left field, side it is simply a tent with a few tables and sofa in front of a large-screen television. At pregame, there were four people at the Snake Pit. In the fourth inning, there were four, including one man watching ESPN and two men who were lured by an attractive bar girl.

"I don't know what more I can give Tucson," Zucker says of his added attractions, which be believes should satisfy even those who don't live and breathe baseball.

It is a numbers game. And Zucker's numbers need to increase, observers say, not so much to satisfy the county but to keep him from dumping the franchise.

ZUCKER'S PREDECESSOR, Martin Stone, won approval of a lease in 1997 that he said set break-even points at season attendance of 250,000. For the county, payments based on attendance triggers beginning as low as 200,000 are meaningless. The Sidewinders have failed to bring in more than 195,000 in each of the three previous seasons--two under Stone and one under Zucker. Basic rent is $30,000 if attendance stays below 200,000, which means a per-game average of 2,777. Field maintenance alone cost $35,000 last season. The county gets nothing off concessions if attendance is below 250,000.

Parking, which is free under Zucker's rule, is another matter, although readers of Corky Simpson's column in the Tucson Citizen would think the county is making out like a bandit. Previewing the Toros theme on May 8, Simpson wrote, "Jay pays the county $180,000 a year to be able to offer free parking."

"I wish," says County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. Under Zucker's scheme, the county gets less than $6,000.

Valet parking has been scrapped. Shuttle vans, and even buses, are on hand for big nights to give fans a ride from their cars to the gate.

Zucker, the Sidewinders' classy manager Tom Spencer, and the players have had to deal with an obdurate landlord when it comes to field maintenance. And just like the issue of power-wash cleaning of the stadium got muddled last year (it is the county's responsibility), field maintenance was volleyed. The issue came to a head after heavy rains on opening weekend. The April 5 opening-night game was played in a steady rain, but crews thought the storm would abate and left the field uncovered after the game. The storm continued through the night, and the following game was canceled. The field was still too wet the next day. So Zucker hired a helicopter to fan the grass and the infield. Holes also were punched in the dirt, filled with gasoline and lit on fire as a drying technique.

All the while, the team and the county argued over grounds responsibility. The lease states the county "shall maintain the stadium playing field during the (Sidewinders') Pacific Coast League season. Playing field maintenance shall be in a manner consistent with the standards of comparable AAA baseball facilities." Pre-game preparation also puts responsibility on the county. But the Sidewinders "may use the county groundskeeper or crew during Sidewinders home games," according to the lease, "with prior approval of the county and at the Sidewinders' sole expense."

Concerned for the safety of players, the Diamondbacks front office got involved. Joe Garagiola, Jr., vice president and general manager of the Diamondbacks, called Huckelberry to complain. Instead, he caught an earful on how the county, already in debt nearly $6 million on the stadium and spring training complex, was not happy with the affiliate, the Sidewinders, and the financial drain the team gives the county. Garagiola, a lawyer by training, didn't press the matter.

His boss, Diamonbacks President Rich Dozer, and White Sox officials are being called for new discussions with Huckelberry, who was not happy with the drop in attendance during the spring training season the Diamondbacks shared with the White Sox for the third year. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, are struggling to find answers to attendance problems, including franchise lows recorded this year at their home at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.

The teams' financial reports, due May 1, have not been filed with the county. But county reports show that the total ticket count for both teams was 132,152, a 4.1 percent drop from the previous year's total of 137,774. It also is an 8.5 percent drop from the high, in 1999, of 149,883. Diamondbacks tickets were up 3,515 to 78,316, but Sox tickets were down more than 9,000 to 53,836. The Colorado Rockies, in their eighth season at the city's Hi Corbett Field, drew 65,269. Total attendance was stagnant in the Cactus League this spring.

Parking revenue for the teams and the county was up slightly--the county collected $24,838. Concession revenue was up 1 percent to $846,833 from last year. But concession revenue was down 9.4 percent from the high of $934,865 in 1999.

And most disturbing to Huckelberry was the single Diamondbacks-Sox charity game that was played on a Monday and brought in 40-percent less than last year.

"As you recall," Huckelberry said in a May 14 letter to Dozer, "I previously expressed my concern over the selection of this year's charity game to you."

Huckelberry called the White Sox' drop in attendance "most surprising" and said he wanted to talk to team executives about reversing the trend with more promotion.

"As I recall, I saw very little advertising this season regarding Major League Baseball spring training," Huckelberry said. "Are there any plans to attempt to reverse this trend?"

Pima County taxpayers still owe $47 million in construction and financing costs for Tucson Electric Park and the adjacent training facilities. Annual payments are $2.5 million for three years, but increase to $3.8 million in 2004 and will reach a high of $4.1 million in 10 years.

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