Sticky Summer Nights

with the face of the Tucson Saguaros

Brian Smith
Kathie and Ken “Sticky” Weir at Kino Sports Complex, Tucson.

The woman in the red and white sundress behind Sticky falls to the concrete, and a disturbing voltage surges through her limbs. Legs kick, body twitches. The two dozen sweat-soaked baseball fans in the same concessions line—tired dads, tubby teens, blue hairs, and jumpy children with festive stripes painted on their faces—are stunned into do-nothingness.

It's the Fourth of July, the sun's still out and it's stupid-hot. People are drinking too much beer, and so bad things happen. The paramedics are onto the suffering woman in seconds, pushing people out of the way. Sticky, who's dressed in a thick, padded green nylon saguaro cactus costume, winces in sympathy for the woman but moves into action, diffusing the grim with a hype-man's chutzpah and a strange high-pitched laugh. He bumps knuckles with those who recognize him. He half pirouettes for a scrum of tiny kids, saying over his shoulder, "I'm a giant pickle from behind." Then he turns and faces them, arms held up in U formation, and shouts, "and a cactus from the front!" Kids hop in place and laugh. He leans over to apologize to a woman in a wheelchair for shouting too loud while ruffling the hair of a wholly captivated tow-headed boy. Few notice the seizure victim being gently lifted to a stretcher, and wheeled to safety.

The bespectacled, soft-as-dough Sticky is Ken Weir, volunteer mascot for the indie pro baseball outfit The Tucson Saguaros. This evening is the team's biggest home game of their three-month season, and they're kicking ass on the Monterey Lumberjacks. The crowd represents a cross-section of Tucsonans—multiple ethnicities, colors and shapes—and numbers in the thousands, many here for the post-game fireworks. On other home-game nights the crowd numbers in the hundreds, or less.

Sticky moves through Kino Sport Complex with celebrity verve, adored by everyone—from the popcorn lady to the uniformed security folk, from concession attendants to the hardcore Saguaros fans, to the sugar-fueled kids barely old enough to grasp the idea of baseball. (Theirs is fussy infatuation; they beg obliging parents for pictures at Sticky's side, or trot selfishly behind him around the ballpark like he's got the magic flute, frustrated parents in tow.)

How strange and addictive it must feel to be greeted by grins everywhere you step. The adrenaline rush, Sticky says, makes it worthwhile, and therefore the heat doesn't get him, even in his summer-suffocating nylon costume. He donates many hours weekly to the Saguaros, beyond live game action, so no one can say he doesn't suffer for the team.

The Kino is his stage. It's pure theater, of course. That and a love for hometown baseball.

The well-organized Saguaros play in the Pecos League, an indie alliance launched in 2011. Last year was the Saguaro's first season. It's not associated with major or minor baseball teams, yet pro scouts occasionally attend Tucson games, and some players have moved up to bigger teams. The league features a dozen startup pro outfits sporting killer names like The White Sands Pubfish, The Bakersfield Train Robbers, The Roswell Invaders, mostly from dust-up Western towns. Last year The Tucson Saguaros won the league championship and had a record of 51-14.

It's a hard-knock life for the young players, who show unyielding hunger for baseball, for any potential to move up, however slim the chances. Players are paid little and pay their own expenses to games, with help from a booster's club. When teams travel, players often stay with "host families" who put them up and feed them. Part of Sticky's unpaid work is seeking such kind folks to host the visiting teams.

Kathie is Sticky's wife and they've been married 33 years. She's front-office, oversees the Saguaros ticket and merch sales. She's a smart, self-deprecating Texan, and the team's sole paid employee—part-time, ten bucks an hour. ("I put in a lot more hours than what I get paid for.") The 58-year-old says "dude" often and it's never off-putting, mainly because she colors conversations with proud talk of her two children and three grandchildren.

Sticky mostly grew up in Utah, the oldest of seven in a Mormon family. He and Kathie donate dozens of hours weekly to a local LDS church, where Sticky's the first counselor to the bishop in a congregation boasting hundreds of families. He works full time too, and recently began a new clerical administration gig at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. He had the same job at the VA hospital here, and before that spent nearly two-dozen years in the U.S. Air Force, which had the family living in Germany, Alaska and then Alamogordo, New Mexico. Kathie will talk about the frightening cold and back-break challenges of raising children in America's last frontier, days when the sun rose for an hour at best, school recesses at 38-below in the dark.

The Weirs moved to Tucson four years ago and started last year with The Saguaros.

Several days after the July Fourth game, we're at the historic Bisbee Warren Ballpark, the oldest operational ballpark in America, a lovely, half-decrepit wood and concrete structure built in 1909 for miners and their families. (The Saguaros call Kino home, but play Sundays here, and this game against The California City Whiptails is their last Sunday of the 2017 season.) We're informed no concessions are available at Warren, and to head across the street to the convenience store ("but be careful bringing in beer").

The announcer's steady radio voice on the tinny PA: "Leading off in the sixth, it's Josh Freeman!" Scattered hands clap.

We also hear Sticky: "Go, Josh!" Then he rattles off his raffle-ticket spiel, "One dollar, or six for three. You get a $70 jersey, a hat, or a baseball. Three chances to win."

Kathie's arranging jerseys for sale on the rickety merch table just off to the side of the stands. More than a study of baseball fandom, this is family, and the Weirs seem inexhaustible, intent to cultivate an aura of goodness around The Saguaros. Your parents on a good day.

Kathie shakes her head, making sense of her husband:

"Ken is the host-family finder in Tucson, he's the team mascot, he's the guy who picks up players at the airport, he gets griped at, he makes everyone laugh ..." She adds, "And we're not coffee drinkers, we're Mormon."

There's usually a dark side, Kathie agrees, to any happy-all-the-time persona, one loud in laughter. Her husband doesn't have a dark side though. Even she's surprised at that, and grateful.

She knows depression. Her flight-attendant brother was supposed to be on a United flight lost on 9/11. "He had survivor's guilt and went into deep depression, which lasted years."

She looks to her husband over in the stands, in the saguaro getup, his face poking out from its sea-green enclosure—this ageless mix of the Jolly Green Giant and Michelin Man—offering up his song and dance, hustling raffle tickets to every last one of the fans in attendance.

"He doesn't get depressed," she says. "Not ever. But he gets tired; he winds down hard."

Out of costume Sticky could be dad-guy in flip-flops with a sunburned forehead, flipping chicken breasts on some suburban backyard barbeque. Kathie adds, "Oh, just add the letter D to his last name."

Sticky converses in Spanish, which he learned while living in Columbia for two years on his Mormon mission. He went at 19, and never lost the language. "It's a right-of-passage," Sticky says of the Mormon tradition. The irony isn't lost on him that the ubiquitous Saguaros logo resembles a crucifix and thorns.

He nods, "Yes it does."

Mormonism is like their baseball, in a sense.

"Do I believe?" Kathie says, "Is this something I want to do? Yes, I want to do this because I want to do this. Our son no longer comes to church, and it doesn't matter. It's OK. We love him whether he comes to church or not. It's personal," she adds, saying "it's like anything, you have to figure it out for yourself."

She adds, "We never stop. I just love the people part of this." She pauses, "But we don't know about next year."

"Who knows if we'll be a team next season," Sticky says later. "But I couldn't leave this if I wanted to."

A Saguaro player appears at the merch table, hunting down his cracked bat, which he's looking to sign and give to a fan. Kathie hasn't seen it. When he steps away, she says, "It's a shame these boys have to buy their own bats."

James "Cowboy" Gilbert sits up at the top of the rafters, is gentle and talkative in a cowboy hat, pearl-snap western shirt, bushy mustache, leathery skin, glasses. He has a frank, unapologetic way when he converses that recalls an older era, some romantic time, when civility wasn't dated. He occupies the same seats in Bisbee and Tucson, and hasn't missed an in-state Saguaros game this season. He's likely The Saguaro's number one fan, even went to spring training to meet the guys.

One night after a game at Kino, Cowboy took me out to the parking lot to show off his in-progress restoration of a '52 Chevy, and he talked of it with the desperate sunniness of a lonely guy. His wife promotes the Freedom Celebration Tucson car show each July 4, filled with hundreds of street rods and classic cars, and best in shows. She accompanies him to one Saguaros game a week. He's a mostly retired mason and carpenter, and he's built things all over Tucson, hospitals and homes, schools and ranches.

His Saguaro team fandom is giant, took hold when he began attending games last year. He knows Sticky and Kathie, and he's part of the family now. The Saguaros even invited him to throw out the first pitch the other night at Kino.

"Oh, man, I was nervous," he says. "I one-hopped it to home plate. The team came out of the dugout to congratulate me. I tell ya, what a highlight in a man's life. If only my father were alive to have seen me throw out that first pitch."

His eyes scan the mostly empty seats at Warren, and he adds, "I'm having a ball. This is my year."

Because of the Saguaros?

A slow deliberate nod. "Oh, yeah."

Jinks is here. Gray hair, chesty laugh, hunched over some. If he looks like a long-retired mail delivery man it's because he is. Worked years for the Bisbee postal service. A Bisbee original whose dad worked in the mines.

Cowboy met Jinks at Saguaro's games here this season, and already they inhabit each other's spaces with the kind of trust earned from long-time friendship.

"We just got to talkin'," Cowboy says, "got to chasin' balls."

"Now we've been trading balls." Jinks adds.

Jinks pulls out a pair of photo albums and hands them over to me. Filled with pics of Bisbee rugby players and a local baseball team dressed in old style uniforms, the albums betray a deep respect for sporting tradition and Bisbee.

The game ends as Sunday evening's coming down. The Saguaros whipped the Whiptails 8 to 4. The several dozen fans move slowly from the stands in that sluggish and hollow post-game way, like they've been cast uncomfortably back to themselves, headed for some Monday reality. As they gather around cars parked on the street, we hear Sticky's percussive laugh again, far away on the other side of the fence, echoing out to the empty field.

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