Behind in the Count

The Sidewinders are off to a great start, but can they draw enough fans to survive?

Jay Zucker's Sidewinders are off to a charmed start: They went undefeated in their season-opening series that began with the world's presumed longest first pitch and included a record-busting 25-run explosion two days later.

There are plenty of reasons to be happy and hopeful about the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, beginning with Zucker, the former Spanish-language television maven and baseball neophyte who has tried unsuccessfully to reverse the Sidewinders' history of financial losses. Zucker has a popular and talented manager, Al Pedrique, and compelling players like Chris Capuano, the lefty who is restarting his career after doctors rebuilt his elbow.

There are yet more reasons for the Sidewinders to be happy and hopeful--including the 870,700 Pima County taxpayers left holding the bill for the county's 10-year-old plunge into the baseball business.

Despite big-name tenants at the Kino Sports Park baseball complex--that includes the stadium whose naming rights were sold far too cheaply to Tucson Electric Power--and three separate tourist taxes, the county has been unable to cover operating expenses and debt payments.

Taxpayers were never asked if they wanted to play this game. County negotiators gave away streams of revenues like advertising, but accepted costs like sign maintenance. Taxpayers now face $5.79 million in combined operating deficits since Tucson Electric Park opened in 1998. They also owe more than $40 million in bond payments, which increase from $2.5 million to $3.8 million in the next fiscal year.

County budget officials say that 52 percent increase is certain to puff up the annual deficit, because lease revenues--as well as income from taxes on car rentals (one-time $3.50 charge), on hotel rooms (1 percent), and on RV spaces (50 cents a night)--won't be enough.

Attendance dropped for the Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox, the county's spring training tenants. That meant less in food and drink, concessions for which the county receives a share. The county gets nothing on hard concessions--shirts, caps, balls and souvenirs. While the Diamondbacks had the third-best attendance of 12 Cactus League teams at 101,768, according to Cactus League figures, the White Sox ranked ninth with 72,863.

(The Colorado Rockies drew 65,310 this season at the city's Hi Corbett Field. County taxpayers also spiffed up Hi Corbett to lure the Rockies to replace the Cleveland Indians in 1993.)

Zucker can hardly be faulted for the county subsidy. He simply followed the generous giveaways included in an inherited lease the county skewed to please millionaire speculator Martin Stone in 1997. Zucker bought the Sidewinders for a reported $8 million. His annual losses have been between $200,000 and $300,000.

He has bolstered his administrative staff and added new marketing tools with Mariachi Mondays, featuring the abundant local mariachi groups, Toros night on Tuesdays (a nod to the Sidewinders' popular predecessors) and beefed-up radio coverage.

While some sneered, Zucker, ever the pitchman, pulled off an impressive opening day stunt, a 4.3-mile, 200-person first-pitch that began at Hi Corbett Field with a toss from Hi Corbett's nephew, former Democratic Mayor Jim Corbett (1967-71), and ended with a strike thrown by Pima County's most popular politician, Democratic Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. During this time of war, it was a fun focal point for the community.

But TEP was less than half full, with 5,307 that evening. Only 3,434 attended the Sidewinders' 6-5 win over Edmonton the next night. And only 2,592 showed up when the Sidewinders rattled Edmonton for 27 hits and 25 runs on Saturday. The Sidewinders completed the sweep with another 6-5 margin before just 3,367 on Sunday.

And before the first pitch, disagreement arose again within the Sidewinders' contentious relationship with the county.

Still angered by Zucker and his lawyer, James Sakrison, for whittling year-old bills to half, or $12,697, the county stepped up resistance on grounds keeping. The lease places field preparation on the county, but it does not specify timing. County crews prepare the field and go home before the teams take batting practice. Zucker then hired his own crews who used county equipment.

The county charged him equipment rental. Zucker balked. The county locked up the equipment.

Supervisor Ray Carroll, a Republican, provided the swing vote in 1997 to put the minor league at TEP for some 70 games from April through August. He also rails against subsidies. But he has done nothing--and says he will do nothing--to reverse the county's baseball leases.

Instead, Carroll says, the county and its "Stadium District bureaucracy" need to learn how to work with tenants, not be obstructionist, and to learn how to attract more revenue through concerts, soccer and boxing.

"Stadium District bureaucracy does not always understand what just getting out of the way does to help," Carroll said. "I know firsthand."

Zucker toyed with the idea of moving Tucson's minor league team back to Hi Corbett until he could not get a deal as forgiving as the county's and is, in Carroll's estimation, in a make-or-break year.

"I hope they can make it."

They will need to do better. The Sidewinders attracted 268,807 last season, better than only Colorado Springs and Calgary--cold weather starters--among teams in the Pacific Coast League. But even that was an improvement from the last-place attendance the year before.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly