Baseball in Tucson: Going, Going, Gone

Baseball in Tucson: Going, Going, Gone

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PHOTOS BY KELLY PRESNELL / ARIZONA DAILY STAR The Diamondbacks' John Hester steps on first base after making the final out of the final spring training game at Tucson Electric Park, a 4-2 D-backs loss to the Texas Rangers.

The first of more than 1,200 spring training games was played March 8, 1947. J. Knox Corbett III sat in the box seats with two ranking baseball titans. One owned the Yankees, another the Indians. He didn't know who they were.

Corbett was captivated by the big-league uniforms and by the larger-than-life men wearing them. Bob Feller here. Johnny Mize there.

"Do you realize that I was sitting in the same box seats with Del Webb, who owned the Yankees, and Bill Veeck, who owned the Indians?" Corbett says now, chuckling at the memory. "That didn't make any difference to me; I was there to see the baseball players."

It was the first spring training game ever played in Tucson. Hi Corbett, chairman of the Tucson Baseball Commission, wanted his grandson to be at the historic first game. But now, 63 years later, J. Knox Corbett III, is uncertain if he'll attend the last one.

"I've always had the baseball bug, but I don't know," he says. "Maybe I'll go see the last few innings. It's just sad. I think my grandfather would be deeply, deeply saddened."

Today is the Last Game. The baseball carnival is leaving town.

TEP is now effectively shuttered. The White Sox left in 2008. The Diamondbacks left Tuesday, and only 5,184 cared enough to attend. It is the most ruinous doubleheader in Tucson baseball history: TEP closes one day, Hi Corbett Field the next.

I thought back to the chilly February night in 1998 when 11, 298 squeezed into every seat at the glittering new spring training palace, TEP. The first pitch was delivered by 92-year-old Roy Drachman, the ranking giant of Tucson's business (and baseball) community, the last surviving link to those who brought spring training to Tucson in 1947.

"Let's hope we can go another 50 years," Drachman said that night. "We have built the best facility of its kind."

Drachman died in 2002. Big-league baseball dies today.

We can blame the demise of spring training baseball on a lot of people and a lot of things, but what's the point? It's too late to undo the damage and build the downtown complex that would have helped to change the identity of this motionless city.

It's more realistic to say that baseball changed and we didn't. No one in City Hall had the vision, or moxie, as Hi Corbett did in 1955, to establish a "Keep Cleveland in Tucson Project" thereby giving Tucson its only link to the big-leagues until Lute Olson came along.

The last person who could have saved spring training in Tucson was Jerry Colangelo, the czar of Phoenix sports, who was forced out of office in 2004. Once the Diamondbacks dumped Colangelo, Tucson lost its most powerful advocate.

The business people who run the White Sox, Rockies and Diamondbacks have no allegiance to anything but the bottom line. Colangelo, who worked on credit, was an idealistic, old-school baseball guy who liked the idea of training in a remote location, thereby whetting the appetite of his hometown fans for the regular season. That's the way it had been done for 100 years.

So much for tradition.

Once Colangelo was gone, Tucson got old real fast. The excuses were preposterous, but they were spoken with such great repetition that they became gospel.

It's too windy in Tucson.

Those periodic two-hour luxury coach rides to Phoenix, with Wi-Fi access and DVD capability, were too exhausting.

Tucson's night club action is too tame.

And you can lose your competitive edge by playing a few extra innings against the Rockies and their minor-leaguers.

None of that is true.

The real reason that Tucson lost spring training baseball is because TEP aged like a Hollywood starlet who spent too much time in the sun. And because no one in Pima County with casino money thought of building a better ballpark before the people in Phoenix did.

As recently as 1998, ex-White Sox assistant general manager Dan Evans said of TEP: "I would challenge anybody in our game to have a better facility. It has all the amenities of a big-league park and a cozy atmosphere."

On Tuesday, speaking to mlb.com, the D'backs' first manager, Buck Showalter, referred to the exit of spring training from TEP as "a waste."

"When that place opened," he said, "it was the Taj Mahal."

It is no longer the Taj anything. Five or 10 big-league clubs training in the greater Phoenix area moved into bigger and better facilities since Roy Drachman threw out that first pitch.

In 1988, the White Sox cajoled the people of Sarasota, Fla., to spend $8 million to re-do their spring training ballpark. The Tampa Tribune referred to it as "the Cadillac of spring training facilities."

Ten years later, Tucson built a better ballpark, and the White Sox vacated that Cadillac for a new and shiny model on Ajo Way.

It's the oldest dodge in baseball: If you build it, they will come.

Or go.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

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