It is the aspiration of all Minor League teams to imbue each ballgame with a party atmosphere, but very few are able to say that they have staged a bona fide fiesta.
But that's literally what the Tucson Padres did last week, as from Oct. 4-7 the team hosted the second annual Vamos a Tucson Baseball Fiesta at Kino Stadium. The four-day extravaganza brought the flavor of the Mexican Pacific League north of the border, as it featured four teams from that prestigious fall and winter circuit (Naranjeros de Hermosillo, Yaquis de Obregon, Venados de Mazatlan and Tomateros de Culiacan) in addition to two teams comprised of instructional league prospects from the Dodgers and Giants organizations. The resulting competition -- featuring a pair of nine-inning doubleheaders each day -- produced a baseball atmosphere that is rarely, if ever, experienced at domestic Minor League ballparks.
Even after the event, Tucson Padres general manager Mike Feder sounded like he was still trying to process the sensory overload that had occurred at Kino Stadium over the four days.
"Oh, man, it was so much fun," he said. "Between games, there was a live band and then after the doubleheader there'd be a live band that would play for an hour. Hundreds of people stayed and danced."
Music also was a constant during the games, to an extent that might confuse U.S.-based fans.
"The rules were different," said Feder, a veteran Minor League executive who also served as general manager of the defunct Tucson Sidewinders. "At an American game, once a guy's in the batter's box you better turn off the music or else you're getting a dirty look from the umpires. Here, the music was going all the way until the pitcher was letting go of the ball."
The "fiesta" atmosphere also included the choreographed antics of three wildly popular Mexican Pacific League mascots, spirited trash-talking between fans of rival teams, dugout roof dancers and concession items such as tacos de cabeza (head tacos) that went far beyond the uninspired nacho platters that pass for Mexican food in most parks.
However, there is much more to the Vamos a Tucson Baseball Fiesta than head tacos amid an intensely musical baseball environment. It is also a way for the T-Padres to engage with their Hispanic population while encouraging cross-border tourism, and it may end up providing the template for a new baseball reality within a market whose long-term Minor League future is very much in doubt.
The idea for the Vamos a Tucson Baseball Fiesta came from Francisco Gamez, the Tucson Padres' director of Hispanic marketing. Gamez is as well acquainted with the Mexican Pacific League as one could be -- he's a native of Hermosillo, home of the Naranjeros. He went on to a lengthy pitching career, the bulk of which was spent in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, and part of his professional routine was to compete in the Mexican Pacific League once his season in the U.S. had concluded. The league operates from October through December (with the winner advancing to the Caribbean World Series) and the timing of Tucson's Baseball Fiesta is not coincidental: It gives the teams involved the chance to play within a competitive gameday environment before traveling back to Mexico to start the season.
Gamez said he got the idea for the tournament after realizing the passion that Tucson's large Mexican community had for Mexican Pacific League teams, particularly the clubs that operate in the state of Sonora (which shares part of its border with Arizona). Last year's inaugural tournament featured four teams and lasted three days, while this year's expanded to six teams and four days. And, even more beneficially, both the Yaquis and Venados used Kino Stadium as their preseason training home for the two weeks prior to the tournament.
The end result is what Gamez characterizes as a "win-win situation" for all involved: The Tucson Padres stage a moneymaking event at what would be a dead time of year, the Mexican Pacific League raises its U.S. profile, players compete in a festive and appreciative atmosphere, Tucson hotels and restaurants receive an added bump from all of the players and fans flocking to the area, American scouts evaluate some of Mexico's top talent (as well as American reclamation projects such as Marlon Byrd) and, of course, Mexican fans see their favorite teams and players in a new environment.
The Tucson Padres promoted the Baseball Fiesta largely through Tucson's Hispanic media outlets, and El Imparcial newspaper was one of the event's primary sponsors. Accordingly, Tucson's Hispanic population made up the bulk of the approximately 5,000 fans who attended each day.
However, Gamez noted that "in the beginning, the idea was that [the Baseball Fiesta] was for people who lived here, but we learned that more and more people were coming to see the teams from Mexico, places like Hermosillo and Culiacan. And that's nice because they stay at the hotels and go out to dinner and all that."
This is no mere side benefit. "Vamos a Tucson" literally means "Go to Tucson," and that is exactly the message the city is trying to convey. The event is staged as a partnership with the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau (MTCVB), which maintains three offices in Mexico and works year-round to bring Mexican tourists (and their disposable income) to Tucson.
J. Felipe Garcia, the MTVCB's vice president of community affairs and Mexican marketing, said his organization is always looking to market new events and destinations that will bring tourists to Tucson and cause them to "stay longer and spend more money. And in that regard, we look at baseball as a key instrument.
"A lot of people, when they think of Mexico they think of soccer, and in the rural areas this can be true. But in some places, baseball is king, especially in Sonora. ... So when [Mexican Pacific League teams] wanted to come here to train, we jumped at the opportunity to partner with them and did a lot of advertising south of the border. Baseball is America's pastime, but it's now a world sport and Mexico is definitely one of the countries where it's growing."
To be continued
The long-term potential of the Baseball Fiesta is a bright spot on Tucson's baseball landscape, which has long been in a state of flux. The Tucson Padres began play in 2011 after Padres owner Jeff Moorad bought the Portland Beavers with the intent of moving them to Escondido, Calif., once a new stadium was built. Funding for the facility fell through and the Padres have remained in Tucson as a stopgap solution while Moorad's ownership group sought a new buyer.
That buyer turned out to be the El Paso-based MountainStar Sports Group. And while the deal has not yet received all the necessary approvals, MountainStar announced at a Thursday press conference that it expects to move the Padres to El Paso for the 2014 season.
This uncertainty, coupled with Kino Stadium's lack of Spring Training tenants (the White Sox departed in 2008 and the Diamondbacks in 2010) means that events like the Vamos a Tucson Baseball Fiesta are more important than ever.
"No matter what happens with the Padres, we can still host the [Mexican Pacific League] training and the Baseball Fiesta in October," Gamez said. "That is something for the community, that they can have no matter what."
And, on a more universal level, the Vamos a Tucson Baseball Festival illustrates the passion that Hispanic communities have for their favorite baseball teams. Minor League teams operating in areas with large Hispanic populations should find ways to tap into this passion in a more meaningful way.
"In the old days, I thought that doing a Hispanic-themed promotion meant Cinco de Mayo Night. You'd have tacos and Tecate specials and maybe hire a mariachi band," Feder said. "I don't think that way anymore."