When it comes to hosting professional sports teams and events, Tucson has recently suffered through a formidable losing streak.
In the last dozen years, South Arizona's largest city has said goodbye to college football's Copper Bowl, an annual LPGA tournament, a pair of Major League Spring Training tenants (the White Sox and Diamondbacks) and the Pacific Coast League's Tucson Sidewinders (who moved to Reno following the 2008 campaign).
Going against this dispiriting trend was the November announcement that Tucson, whose metropolitan area is home to more than a million residents, would once again be a Pacific Coast League metropolis, thanks to the relocation of the franchise formerly known as the Portland Beavers. This marks the continuation of a storied history in the league, which dates back to the establishment of the Tucson Toros in 1969.
The question now is this: Just how long will this latest chapter last?
Temp to perm?
The Beavers' move to Tucson occurred after San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad bought the club, with the intent to move it to Escondido, Calif. Funds for a new facility in Escondido, however, have yet to be approved, and recent budget cuts in the state of California have made the whole endeavor far from a guarantee.
"In a perfect scenario, Escondido will be ready to host a team in two years," explained Tucson Padres general manager Mike Feder, a veteran baseball executive. "But we only have a one-year deal [with the Padres], meaning that if we fall flat on our face they have a right to move the team. I'm not planning on that happening."
Indeed, Feder is a man who projects confidence at every turn.
"Our relationship with the Padres has been great, so I hope everything works out for them," he said. "But the nature of this business is that teams relocate. Albuquerque had a team, lost it and got it back. The same thing happened in Salt Lake. What we need to do is establish Tucson as a viable market, so that in the future, teams looking to relocate will consider us."
That's Tucson's professional baseball reality at the moment -- make the best of a temporary situation in the hopes that it will lead to something permanent. Feder is an ideal individual to helm such an effort, as his involvement with Tucson baseball has been extensive. He previously served as general manager of the Toros and Sidewinders (from 1989-2000), and after a stint working in New Orleans returned to Tucson and took a job as the executive director of Pima County Sports Tourism Authority.
"When I came back to Tucson, I wasn't thinking about running another Minor League team," he said. "I'm 58 years old, this is my home with baseball or without it. But when the opportunity came, it was something I was very excited about and wanted to be a part of."
Now Feder is immersing himself in a hyper-speed Minor League Baseball refresher course, getting up to date on the myriad industry developments that have taken place over the past decade.
"I'll still bring out the San Diego Chicken -- we used to have him here every year," he said. "But on the other side of the coin, we're going to get Mini-Kiss to perform, the band from the Dr. Pepper commercials.
"But I think one of the biggest changes is the media," he continued. "It used to be people read the morning paper and watched the evening news, but now people find their news in so many different ways. [MiLB.com] didn't even exist 10 years ago! The world has changed, and now we have to be aggressive with email newsletters, Facebook and Twitter. My goal is to get big numbers with these things, it could end up being one of the most important things we do."
One issue that fortunately did not present a problem was where the T-Pads would play, as Kino Stadium is the former home of the Sidewinders and hosted Major League Spring Training as recently as last season. As such, it is well maintained and already up to the standards required of a professional facility.
But somewhat paradoxically, the absence of Major League Spring Training could be seen as a boon for the T-Pads.
"For the other 29 Triple-A teams, their Opening Day was generally the first game in the city," said Feder. "But the last time Triple-A baseball was in Tucson, our Opening Day was the 31st game, because we'd already had two Major League teams play 15 games apiece. We weren't the kings of the city, but now things will be different."
Athletically accomplished, locally connected
Of course, Feder is far from a one-man operation. After being announced as the team's general manager, he set about assembling a unique front-office staff.
"You mean not every team has an Olympic gold medalist as well as one of the two people to ever play in the Little League, College and Major League World Series?" Feder quipped.
Those individuals would be director of community relations Crissy Ahmann-Perham and sports marketing specialist Ed Vosberg. The former is a swimming champion who won two gold medals and a silver at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and the latter pitched for nine teams over 10 Major League seasons. Both are long-time Tucson residents with prominent reputations in the community.
While Vosberg is currently at Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training teaching young pitching prospects the art of the pickoff, Ahmann-Perham was more than happy to talk about her latest venture into the world of sports. She jokes that she's a "rookie" whose prior baseball experience was "throwing out a first pitch once," but is learning the ropes as quickly as possible.
"I'm a Tucson girl myself and have fallen in love with this community, and now it's my job to help Tucson fall in love with baseball again," she said. "There's definitely a learning curve, but I've been hustling since day one and it's been going great. We're going to community events, schools and Little Leagues all around the city. ... And once the season starts, I'll be really active on the player personnel side of things, helping players find places to live and things like that.
"[Feder] says that working in baseball is like riding a bike," she continued. "Once you learn how to do it, there's nothing to worry about."
Re-establishing Minor League Baseball in Tucson won't be an easy task, and success won't come overnight. But Feder speaks for all involved when he touches on its importance to the community.
"For us in Tucson, we've lost a lot of things," he said. "So the question has become 'When are we going to get tired of losing?' We're asking the community to step up here. Something good has returned, and it has a chance to become permanent if we do our job well."