That Championship Season

No other sporting event has ever felt like that win.

My nephews Andrew and Taylor are nuts about baseball. They play little league, they watch games on the tube, they talk about Ichiro and Bonds and Jeter. They've finally gotten old enough to play whiffleball with their uncles around the pool. (As an aging veteran on the whiffleball circuit, I expect by next season I'll be lucky to get a cheap base hit off of 'em.)

This summer, they discovered Running with the Toros, a 21-minute retrospective of the Toros' '91 championship series. They watched the tape over and over, until they knew the lineup better than their dad. They can speak with authority about the ninth inning of that final game, when the teams were knotted up 3-3.

"Trent Hubbard scored the winning run," Andrew told us this summer when Bill and I were arguing over who had crossed the plate to win the game. "He was pinch-running for Dave Baker and he was on second because Kenny Lofton had got on first because of an error and then Joe Mikulik drove him in."

Taylor recently wondered where his dad was the night of the championship game. "I was home taking care of you guys," Bill laughed.

Taylor, who was all of 4 years old back when the Toros won the championship, was puzzled. "Why didn't you take me?" he asked.

Can't say I'm surprised they're so captivated. It was a legendary end to a legendary season.

What a crew of sluggers and aces. Kenny Lofton. Curt Schilling. Trinidad Hubbard (who, back then, went by Trent). Scott Servais. José Tolentino. Terry Clark. Gary Cooper. Dave Rohde. Mike Simms. Andujar Cedeño. Carlo Columbino. Some went on to success in the show, while others quietly faded away. That's baseball for you.

The Weekly had a season-ticket deal with the Toros, but I was drawn into the ballpark's orbit mostly because my brother ran a hotel that hosted visiting players, as well as a handful of Toros who didn't rent apartments or houses.

You hear a lot of stories about ballplayers when you're that close to them. You get to read juicy umpire reports that are faxed from the front desk. You hear about how this guy lent his rental car to a girlfriend he never saw again, and how that guy missed his flight to the big leagues because he got too drunk celebrating his promotion. And then there are the stories you can't tell in a family newspaper--or even in this one.

I got to know Toros GM Mike Feder, who did a brilliant thing when he came to town. Feder got a piece of the action for concession sales, which had been run by the city--and because Parks and Rec didn't have much incentive to make a profit, prices were high and quality was low. Feder dropped the prices and improved the food, figuring that people would spend more if they thought it was a bargain. And then he practically gave away tickets and ran constant promotions. It worked--attendance skyrocketed, from 107,914 fans in 1988 to 317,347 in '91. Even if the official numbers were a little inflated, the atmosphere at the ballpark proved Feder's motto: "The Fun is Back."

And the team turned it on for the post-season, finding ways to win in dramatic fashion, as when Eric Anthony won the first round of the playoffs with a come-from-behind homer in the ninth inning of the final game against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

It was touch-and-go in the championship round that followed. When the Toros returned to town down two games in a five-game series against the Calgary Cannons, we knew our backs were against the wall. But, as those hapless Mets fans say, ya gotta believe.

So we turned out, as the Toros won the first game, then the second. And then, finally, in the bottom of the ninth, thanks to some sloppy play by the Calgary Cannons, they triumphed with a spectacular play at the plate, as Joe Mikulik drove in Trent Hubbard with a bloop single on a two-strike count.

No other sporting event--not the UA basketball team's spectacular NCAA triumph in '97, not the Mets' escape from the grave in Game Six in '86, not the Yanks' manhandling of Atlanta in '99--has ever felt like that win. It was the storybook ending come to life.

Even the Toros' subsequent championship two years later, as great as it was, didn't carry the same thrill. (That year, I ended up bartending the Toros after-hours party, although I'd prefer not to go into details.)

After the '91 championship, I was hooked. I even followed the Toros to Las Vegas for a road series in '93, when the team was making another championship run. During that trip, I ran into some team members in a downtown casino called the Horseshoe. I found myself sitting at the bar with Patty Feder, who worked as hard as her husband in keeping the front office running smoothly. When the subject of the '91 championship came up, Patti got a far-away look in her eyes. "That was the greatest game ever," she remembered. "The greatest ever."

THINGS ARE A LOT DIFFERENT NOW. The PCL is a bigger league, making it harder to land a playoff berth. The Toros are now the Sidewinders and are owned by Jay Zucker, who is doing is his best to make the team a success. The parent club is now the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 'Winders play at the county's new Tucson Electric Park--a nice enough field, but it's not the ballpark I've been sneaking into since the sixth grade.

One of our favorite old stunts at Hi Corbett was reaching into the dugout and snatching caps off ballplayers' heads, then running like hell for the exit. That gambit came to an end the year my brother-in-law grabbed a hat off Toby Harrah's head at a spring training game on St. Patrick's Day. Harrah chased him halfway to El Con before he got ahold of him and chewed his ass: "You're either drunk, Irish or stupid!" His response: "I'm all three."

But I digress. Out at the new ballpark, Tuffy the Toro survived a few years, but succumbed to snakebite eventually. Mike Feder is gone as well, now working for the New Orleans Saints.

I've gotten a little too old to easily adapt. I still catch myself asking friends if they want to head out to Hi Corbett to catch the Toros. But at least the Sidewinders still have buck-beer night on Thursdays and free tickets on Mondays. Zucker has added other promotions, including a spectacular fireworks following every Friday home game.

Even so, my gang doesn't get out to the ballpark as much as we used to. Maybe it's the location--it was always so convenient to stop by Bob Dobb's on the way home from the stadium in the old days--or maybe it's all the changes. I imagine the fact that I get 22 baseball games a day pumped into my house via satellite has something to do with it.

I'm glad Zucker stepped up to keep the team in Tucson. I hope he does well with it. Summers are tough enough in this town; we don't need to lose one of the few worthwhile recreational opportunities.

But Zucker will have a hard time topping the season of '91. As Patty Feder said to me long ago back in the Horseshoe, "There'll never be another championship like that again."

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