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Hardscrabble pro baseball team Tucson Saguaros play for love of the game

To play baseball in the age of the millennial, is to truly love baseball. That's true of its players, managers and all the people that make up a "team." It's most evident, like all sports, at its edges.

Since the summer of last year, Tucson happens to fall on one of those edges, with the (semi) pro start-up the Tucson Saguaros making their home here for the summer.

Kevin Baron, the team's third baseman, knows that love. The Baltimore native knows playing in a league like this is his second chance. He just had no idea it would come in Tucson.

To hear him tell it, around the new year, a friend from back home was in the neighborhood.

"He mentioned they were looking for guys, looking for players," Baron says. After being informed of his friends signing and contract details, he reached out to the Saguaros' manager at the time.

For two weeks, Baron thought nothing of the conversations. Then he got an email. "I looked in my inbox and there was the welcome, the contract and everything," he says. After bartending and working odd jobs, he was ready to get back on the field.

"I left for Tucson on May 10," he continues. "I hadn't played in two years, so I treated this whole season like a chance to just prove I still had something left."

The same could be said for Tucson.

Saguaro Baseball: Big League Digs, Hometown Kicks

Kino Sports Complex used to be Tucson's home for baseball. In the spring, big leaguers like Colorado Rockies and The Diamondbacks took up residence, rounding into shape before marathon seasons. After the big boys left town, the Sidewinders would move in, holding court through the end of the summer.

Soon the majors decided Phoenix was just fine for spring training, thank you. Then the Sidewinders moved to Reno (and changed their name to the Aces) and—other than a three-year stint with the AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres—Kino had no more summer baseball. The addition of youth soccer fields and a stadium for semi-pro FC Tucson over the years helped keep the facility's pulse pumping.

But last year, baseball returned in the form of The Saguaros. As one of 12 members in the independent, Houston-based Pecos League, the team operates outside of the Major League system.

Ken Weir, the Saguaro's volunteer personnel director, explains that while the product on the field looks big-league, the lifestyle of the players is decidedly more Spartan. Weir estimates players make less than "$400 a month."

That low-budget approach goes for the tools of the trade, too. "They bring their own equipment, they pay for their own food on road-trips," Weir says.

Baron confirms player pay was considerably less than $400 a month. "We get paid $57 a week," he says. "On road-trips, we're allotted $5 a day for food."

Weir, who also serves as host-family coordinator and the team mascot, credits the Tucson Saguaro Booster Club for helping financially. "They really help set our team apart from everyone else in the league," he says.

Booster club President Kristie Harrel heaps the praise back on Weir and his wife, Kathie. "I don't know how they do all they do," Harrel says. "I just wish I had half of the energy that they have."

Harrel explains how the club came to be last year. "There were seven of us who volunteered after we heard the boys were having trouble finding food on the road," she says. "It was all unofficial."

To better help this year, the group decided to form a non-profit and make the club legitimate. That meant picking-up their fundraising game. Now, the Tucson Saguaro Booster Club holds 50/50 raffles at all home games and auctions off signed, game-used Saguaro memorabilia.

All that leg-work has paid off in dividends for the players, Harrel says. For example, on their most recent road trip, funds raised by the booster club went towards a 6-by-12 U-Haul truck. That addition allowed players to store their equipment in one vehicle, saving them money for fuel.

Plus, there are the culinary benefits. In the past, players had to scrounge change for trips to Taco Bell. Now, Harrel says, "they all got $100 gift cards to Domino's, Denny's, McDonald's, and Applebee's," along with literally "cases of leftovers."

Even with the hassle of a shoe-string budget, Baron says he wouldn't want to live any other way. "It might be the lowest of the low, but that's all out of your control. I just focus on being in the right place, hoping it's the right time."

Success Finds a Home, Holiday Audience

Despite their lack of Major League affiliation, The Saguaros' first season in town was a success: the team won the Pecos League Championship. This season, the team is leading the league in wins and is first in the Pacific Division. Their final homestand is this weekend, July 27-29. The playoffs—the Saguaros have already earned a berth—start Wednesday, Aug. 2, at Kino, according to Weir.

Baron feels the trip out to the Old Pueblo has been worth it. "I came in with no expectation, just to treat each game like my last, because as this level it honestly could be," he says. "And I've made the All-Star team, I'm hitting. This is the best season I've ever had."

During the July 4th holiday, the Saguaros game with the California Amberjacks was a sold-out affair, thanks in part to a holiday fireworks display. To the casual, first-time fan, it seemed like pro baseball had never left.

A father-and-son duo, Anthony and Thomas Jones, wait in line to enter the stadium. "We're just hoping for a good game, some good gameplay," dad Anthony says. "I played a year of baseball when I was up in Sierra Vista, so I'm a fan," Thomas adds.

Being a Tucson native, Anthony pines for the salad days of Tucson baseball: The Toros Years. "I used to come here—well not here, to Hi Corbett—as a kid to watch the Toros play," he says. "We used to bring in the Padres, we used to bring in the Astros. I was here when they filmed a couple films here. It was awesome."

Baron feels the support of the booster club, the host-families and the fans. "Tucson is kind of like Baltimore," he says. "Everybody kind of knows everyone in Baltimore. Tucson has some aspects of a city, but it's got some small town, everybody-knows-each-other qualities." ■

More by Eddie Celaya

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