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Greetings from Southwest University Park
Minor League Baseball's newest stadium has a lot to offer El Pasoans
05/02/2014 11:30 AM ET
El Paso's new Southwest University Park, home of the Chihuahuas, is both controversial and beautiful. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)

Over the past 85 seasons, the city of El Paso has hosted Minor League teams named the Texans, Sun Kings, Dodgers and Diablos. But Monday marked the start of a brand-new era in El Paso baseball history, as the Chihuahuas are now in town.

The Chihuahuas, Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, have generated plenty of excitement and controversy during their short history. To truly tell the tale -- to really dig into its myriad nooks and crannies -- would require an immense output of initiative on my part and a vast attention span on yours. The former is hard to muster and the latter improbable (this is the internet, after all), so the following Cliff's Notes version of El Paso Chihuahuas history will have to suffice.

  • The Triple-A affiliate of the Padres, now in El Paso, began the 21st century as the Portland Beavers and played there through the 2010 campaign. The team then relocated to Tucson as a stopgap measure until funding could be obtained for a new stadium in Escondido, California, but when the money never materialized, the team was sold to an El Paso-based ownership group.
     
  • That ownership group, MountainStar Sports Group, officially received control of the team in September 2012 when El Paso city council voted to fund the construction of a new ballpark with public money. In order to make room for the new downtown ballpark, the city took the improbable step of blowing up its own city hall.
     
  • In October 2013, with construction on the new stadium proceeding at a rapid pace, El Paso's nascent Pacific Coast League franchise announced that it would be known as the "Chihuahuas." The name was perceived -- at least initially -- by many in the El Paso community as cartoonish and disrespectful; anti-Chihuahua petitions both real and virtual were widely circulated.
     
  • On April 28, 2014, after beginning the season with four "home" games back in Tucson, the Chihuahuas played their first-ever game in their new downtown El Paso home. The stadium is called Southwest University Park, located, yes, where El Paso City Hall had once stood. The Franklin Mountains tower beyond the outfield; turning in the other direction, one can see neighboring Juarez, Mexico.
     
  • On April 29, 2014, I arrived in El Paso to chronicle the Chihuahuas second-ever game. What follows is my chronological account of the evening.
All systems go

If one hadn't been aware of the Chihuahuas rather tumultuous history, signs of it would have been very hard to come by during Tuesday's ballgame against the Fresno Grizzlies. I arrived at the ballpark about 70 minutes before the gates opened and was amazed to see thousands of fans already waiting to get inside. They were lined up on all sides of the stadium -- on Santa Fe Street, on Durango Street, on Missouri Avenue -- and bunched up on the stairs of the front entrance. Many were decked out in Chihuahuas gear, meaning that they had been there the night before or (more likely) bought merchandise at some point during the offseason. Chihuahuas general manager Brad Taylor later told me that despite -- or perhaps because of -- the team name controversy, merchandise sales were "beyond my wildest dreams."

"It took everyone about two days to get over it," said Taylor, regarding anger over the Chihuahuas name. "People were mad, but at the same time they were laughing and smiling when they were mad. And the kids liked it! If your kids are happy, aren't you?"

"I don't want to say we'll be number one [in Minor League Baseball merchandise sales], but it's possible."

New location, same faces

When the front gate opened to let in the aggregated mass of fans, Mike Feder was there to greet them with a complimentary magnet schedule. Feder, a Minor League Baseball lifer, had served as the general manager of the Tucson Padres, working tirelessly to promote the team throughout the three lame-duck seasons of 2011-13 (Tucson's Kino Stadium, an isolated former Spring Training facility, was never considered a viable long-term home for the franchise).

Feder is now moonlighting with the Chihuahuas as a "senior advisor," doing everything from handling the team's travel to, yes, handing out magnet schedules. After the ballgame, he even hopped in a shuttle bus and drove a contingent of Fresno Grizzlies back to the team hotel.

Upstairs in the press box, one can find another prominent link to the team's recent past, as Tucson Padres broadcaster Tim Hagerty is now in the same role for the Chihuahuas. Hagerty, whose tones are as dulcet as they come, is essentially a stranger in his new home. Throughout the month of April, when the rest of the front office was acquainting itself with the ins and outs of Southwest University Park, Hagerty was on the road with the Chihuahuas. Though this afforded him the opportunity to see Jeff Francoeur pitch on three occasions, he hadn't yet had a chance to explore.

"My goal tomorrow is to do a lap of this place," he said. "I still don't know where anything is."

As I was talking to Hagerty, Fresno Grizzlies broadcaster Doug Greenwald walked in and asked a pressing question.

"Last night's game went 13 innings. Was that the longest in this ballpark's history?"

Opening Day, part two

As I was bantering with the broadcasters in the press box, I received an unexpected text from Chihuahuas promotions manager Tori Stein. Would I be interested in throwing out a ceremonial first pitch?

I spent much of last season suffering from a rare ceremonial first-pitch strain of Steve Blass disease (nearly throwing it over the catcher's head in West Michigan and bouncing it in Modesto) but, nonetheless, how could I say no? I hustled down to the concourse, met up with Stein and was ushered into a tunnel adjacent to the visiting dugout. The scene down there was one of barely controlled chaos -- the National Anthem singer, a five-man color guard and three fellow ceremonial first-pitch throwers were milling about as Chihuahuas staffers tried to coordinate it all via frantic walkie-talkie communication.

"Does anyone have eyes on Chico?" I heard Stein ask at one point, trying desperately to locate the whereabouts of the Chihuahuas mascot. Chico soon emerged (had he been napping in his kennel?) and I got in line behind one of my fellow throwers, El Paso district attorney Jamie Esparza.

"To be asked to do this on the second game, this is historic," said Esparza. "Are you kidding me? I'm so excited for this."

Esparza threw a perfect strike, and while my offering was a bit high it was still a solid attempt and I left the field with no small sense of relief.

The Chihuahuas had lost the night before (and, as it turns out, still haven't won a game in El Paso), but the enthusiasm of the fans was palpable. After a few laps around the stadium, I returned to the press box and watched fans do the wave, on both the field and upper levels, for the better part of the bottom of the third inning. This display was barely noticed by the press box denizens, whose deadpan banter continued unabated. I heard a few of the old-timers reminisce about "that time it snowed five inches on El Paso Diablos Opening Day," while someone else posit that "the only two people in America named Branch were on the field here last night." (For those keeping score at home, that would be Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III and Chihuahuas pitcher Branch Kloess.)

Getting the lay of the land

In the fifth inning, I ran into Taylor, who offered to give me the "nickel tour" of Southwest University Park. The last time I had seen Taylor was almost exactly one year ago, on a sleepy Monday night in Bowling Green. I had been in town to see the Hot Rods, and, unbeknownst to me, Taylor was on the cusp of accepting the general manager position in El Paso. Construction hadn't even begun on the stadium at that point, so it was surreal to both of us that this was reality (in this we weren't alone, I'm sure, as it was only in April of 2013 that City Hall was demolished to make room for the stadium).

Southwest University Park has a footprint of only five and a half acres, a Chihuahua-sized mark in a league of Great Danes. Yet the facility, with its cross-border views, 360-degree concourse and multi-tiered seating areas, seems much larger.

"Looking at the manifest, you might think this is a small facility, but wait until you walk it," said Taylor. "Everywhere you go, you're right on top of the action."

Taylor was most interested in showing me the Big Dog House, a four-story brick building located just beyond right field. A secondary team store is located on the first level, while on the second is the City Hall Grill. When it was first announced, this sleek, minimalist location drew criticism from ballpark opponents who felt that it was disrespectful (akin to naming a sports organization after a vanquished race of people, perhaps). Taylor's response is that "we had no intent to mock, simply to honor. We just want to pay tribute to what preceded us."

A less contentious example of honoring the past can be found one floor above at the Sun King Saloon, which is decorated with all manner of photos and memorabilia from El Paso's long and (sometimes) illustrious Minor League history. Many of the photos have been doctored to include the Chihuahuas, such as a photo of Sun Kings players in which they are seen grasping a cartoon dog collar (in the original picture, it had been a championship trophy.) One floor up is the Wooftop Deck, a seating area which includes a view of El Paso's iconic Star on the Mountain. Originally built as a Christmas decoration, this, at 459 feet tall, is proudly referred to as "the largest man-made illuminated star in the world."

"Our mission is to live the brand," said Taylor, as we were gazing upon the star. "That's why we have the Wooftop Deck, that's why we serve nachos in a dog bowl, that's why the people working the parking lots are called 'The Barking Crew.' It makes people smile, and that's what it's all about."

Did someone say "Nachos in a Dog Bowl"?

Apologies for burying the lede here, but I've been to more than 100 Minor League stadiums and the Chihuahuas might just have the best concessions I've ever seen (and tasted, when in accordance with the gluten-free diet I must follow as the result of a celiac disease diagnosis). I spent the latter third of the game on a whirlwind tour with Jeff Hanauer, general manager of Ovations food services, who gleefully sprinted from stand to stand to show off the culinary creations offered by his staff. A more thorough rundown of the many highlights will appear in an upcoming Ben's Biz Blog post (along with many more Chihuahuas photos), but a few of the highlights:

Leo's Mexican Food: Leo's is an El Paso institution (there are six Leo's locations in the area) and, as Hanauer says, "It's all about the meat" -- meat that is cooked for hours, brought to the ballpark and featured in minimalistic and supremely tasty offerings. The nachos, adorned with cheese and crispy-edged, succulent pork carnitas, were absolutely addictive.

Huevos Rancheros Burger: A variation on a Mexican breakfast staple, this is an Angus beef burger topped with cheese, green chile sauce and a fried egg.

Juarez Dogs: A Mexican street food classic, these are hot dogs wrapped with applewood-smoked bacon and topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce, cole slaw and chicharones (pork rinds, essentially). The line for the Juarez Dogs was several dozen deep throughout the ballgame; I'd recommend making a beeline as soon as the gates open.

Raspas: Quite simply the best dessert I've ever had at a Minor League ballpark. You could compare Raspas to a snow cone, but that would be like comparing Leo's to Taco Bell. Shaved ice is topped with one of six fruit flavors, and a variety of condiments can be added to provide an additional kick of sweet, sour and/or spicy flavor.

So, what?

Those who remain skeptical of the Chihuahuas have good reason to be, as the $64 million provided by the city can't be unspent and City Hall can't be rebuilt. The team is off to a very strong start, from an operational standpoint, but true success will be measured in dog years (so to speak). Going forward, the team needs to maintain the interest of the community while serving as a catalyst for a greater revitalization of downtown El Paso at large, and as a traveling writer in town for two days I'm certainly not qualified to say that will happen. Nonetheless, the Chihuahuas are a great all-ages downtown entertainment option for a city that seemed to be in need of one, and I am wholeheartedly rooting for them to succeed.

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Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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