I had to opportunity this weekend to take in the penultimate home game of the 2012 season at the Padres AAA affiliate, the Tucson Padres last Saturday night. We were making the 5 1/2 hour drive out to Tucson to visit a friend and being the resourceful Padres and minor league fan I am, I convinced my wife and our friend that it was a perfect night to go to a baseball game. The Padres were playing the Rockies AAA team, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. It ended up being a strange mix of spring training, meets minor league ball, meets hotboxing, and and in the end it was an interesting, different and somewhat disappointing experience despite the T-Pads holding on to win 3-1. More after the jump.
The Tucson Padres play their games just off I-10 at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium on the south side of Tucson. The park was built in 1998 as part of a larger spring training complex for the Chicago White Sox and the Arizona Diamondbacks, as well as to serve as the home for the AAA Tucson Sidewinders. This leads to Kino being like the spring training complexes in Phoenix it’s surrounded by multiple practice fields and other team facilities. Indeed the stadium itself has some traits in common with the big Pads own spring home in Peoria including a similar berm and slatted overhang. Kino could be mistaken for any one of those 90’s or newer spring complexes in Phoenix on first glance rather than a typical AAA stadium. This means the facilities themselves are fairly nice but it also leads into my first critique of the game day experience, the neighborhood, or lack thereof. There is little within reasonable walking distance of the park other than a sheriff’s department office, a medical center and a vocational high school. All of this in an area that my Tucson based friend describes as, less than savory. Which means when you go to a game at Kino, you’re there solely to go to the game.
Which is what I ended up doing after a quick drive around the complex to see if there was anywhere interesting to stop, which there wasn't. I was ushered up the shared drive with the hospital, right by the ER emergency entrance and helipad into the team's expansive parking lot. My wife, my friend and I all walked up and were able to purchase a $7 general admission ticket without any problems. A GA ticket gives you access to all the seats beyond 1st and 3rd base as well as the outfield berm seating. All fans appear to enter through a single gate on the right field side of the stadium.
Entering the park you find yourself in the right field "plaza" which is a nice little picnic plaza under several trees. You are also at the "top" of the stadium as it was built as a sunken diamond with the main concourse at parking lot level. The concourse does provide you with nice views of the field and goes all the way around the park making walking around to take in the game from multiple angles very easy. Additional to the main bowl there are also several suites and a small second deck flanking the press box above the concourse and a large metal bleacher on the left field concourse. While the stadium is only 15 years old, 3 years newer than Lake Elsinore's Diamond, time and the sun haven't been kind. Everything at Kino is faded, from the seats, the the signage put up only this year, to the paint on the buildings and bridges in the park. It makes the park appear much older than it should look. Indeed you think they would have put a roof on a stadium in the desert, but alas no such luck. Adding to this aged look is the fact the stadium doesn't have any sort of video board and only a tiny matrix space on the scoreboard.
To play into the rest of my review a little history is in order. Tucson has been the Padres AAA affiliate since 2011, after the big Padres would be owner Jeff Moorad purchased the Portland Beavers from Merritt Paulson and moved them to Tucson. The move was never meant to be permanent, as in better times Moorad hoped to have a ballpark built up in Escondido to house the team for the 2013 season and beyond putting the AAA club in close proximity to the big Pads. Moorads hopes fell apart last fall when the state disbanded redevelopment agencies. Rather than ensure Tucson as a longer term home for the T-Pads however, Moorad put them up for sale in the offseason and they’ve all but been sold at this point to a group from El Paso, Texas. This, "temporary" feel is one that has permeated everything to do with the T-Pads from the day they showed up in Tucson and the fact they're packing up after 2013 to move east down the I-10 isn't helping matters.
As if the fact they weren’t staying long wasn’t bad enough the T-Pads suffer from what you’d expect would be a problem in the desert, the heat. They play almost all games after 7pm to try and minimize the problem (this particular game was also a 7:05 start), but even with this late season game the game time temperature was still 98 degrees on the night I visited, and hadn’t cooled off below 92 by the time I left the park at 10:30.
All of these handicaps lead to one inevitable problem, low attendance. Saturday’s game was not only their final Saturday home game of the season, but also "firework spectacular" night. One of several promotions the folks in Tucson run in addition to things like "Thirsty Thursdays" and the like. Saturday’s attendance was only 5621, which is high compared to their PCL last place average of 2956, but is well below the league average.
As a result the crowds get swallowed up in Kino Stadium’s 11,500 seats. I don’t know if it’s the size of the crowd, the temporary nature of the team or the heat, but the crowd itself was also somewhat lifeless. The majority of fans are not wearing Padres gear of any kind, though to be fair I did see some people wearing T-Pads jerseys and/or caps (if you haven't seen the T-Pads uniforms look them up as they're an interesting hybrid of the SD Pads 70's and 80's uniforms with the big club's current duds). Though I also saw almost as many people wearing D-Backs or U of A gear as T-Pads. The majority weren’t wearing anything baseball related. Most fans seemed inclined to just sit in the heat and watch the teams play, only making noise when Vince Belnome and Jedd Gyorko hit the two long balls that were the Padres only scoring plays of the night.
To the team’s credit they try to keep the crowd involved and excited using all the well known minor league tricks including between inning games, multiple mascots, loud music, etc… However having taken in numerous minor league games over the years, the T-Pads did not seem to generate nearly the excitement I’ve seen at places like Lake Elsinore, Portland or Vancouver. Speaking of mascots the T-Pads had two that I saw. An on loan Mexican league mascot named Beto Coyote, and their home mascot the Kino Bambino. The Bambino as you can see is the twin of our Swingin Friar just with a light blue robe with the T-Pads logo on one side and "Kino Bambino" on the other. Though the teams claim they’re "cousins". The biggest difference between the cousins however isn’t in their style, it’s in the result of the Bambino working in near 100 degree heat. By the end of the game he was sweat drenched, and I’d imagine miserable inside his suit. To his credit however he managed to cause some mischief not even the Friar would dare early in the game by flicking on and off the lights in Kino’s expansive press box (a remnant of its MLB heritage). Several of the beat reporters looked a tad annoyed.
For the fans that do make the effort to come out however they're treated to a team that is trying their hardest despite the obvious problems. And despite being subdued they appeared to be having a good time, particularly the younger fans which is typical of minor league games. The staff were all very friendly. The Pads appear to have a good selection of food including street tacos, Nun Popped Popcorn (it is seriously popped by Catholic nuns), brats, chicken sandwiches, plus the more typical fare. Unfortunately being the end of the season for a team in the midst of having an owner dump them as fast as possible most of their food items were out of stock (I literally had to work my way down the menu 3 times before I finally hit something they still had with the bratwurst). Beer selection is not what most San Diego fans would call expansive given PETCO's very large selection. Kino is limited to mainly domestics. Though prices for everything falls on the cheap side with beers as low as $1.50 on Thursdays. I also stopped by the team store which had everything on clearance and was able to pick up a cap for $20 and a t-shirt for $10. Though again they were running low or out of many simple things like collector magnets (my wife collects a magnet almost everywhere we go).
The team itself hasn't been very good since they arrived, though as I mentioned earlier they were able to hold on to win 3-1 on two crushed balls by Belnome and Gyorko. A few players however did stand out on Saturday. Gyorko being first and foremost. His hitting is great in the desert as he crushes the ball, and hopefully will someday translate well into playing at PETCO though of that I have my doubts. He's also a small guy, not that it matters, but I was struck by just how short he was in person. Not sure why he seemed that way being listed as 5'10" though batting before 1B Matt Clark who is a monster 6'5" might have had something to do with it. Other standouts on the night were leadoff man CF Dan Robertson who went 2-3 on the night with a BB. And on top of that he looked quick on the basepaths and 2B Vince Belnome. Belnome went 2-4 and absolutely smacked the snot out of the ball in the second inning, one bouncing it to the property line fence beyond the berm above the 380 mark in right center.
The night itself ended with a very nice fireworks show beyond the outfield wall. All in all my group had a good time. My wife actually stated how surprised she was when I mentioned they'd been having attendance issues. Though that was before she'd been sitting in the heat for 9 innings. By the 8th she looked ready to pass out. Despite that however we both agreed we'd go back if the chance arose, and I'd recommend everyone take a weekend and give the T-Pads a go next season before they move further east and out of reasonable driving range from SD in 2014. If nothing else it's a different experience unlike any other minor league game I've been to and very different than the big Pads.
PS: My wife and I didn't want to make the whole drive on Friday night seeing as we left late so we stopped for the night in fabulous Yuma, AZ just across the state line. And being the historian I am, we made a quick mile long side trip from our hotel to the Padres old spring training home at Desert Sun Stadium and the Ray Kroc Sports Complex. The latter is still getting a fair bit of use as a community field complex and several teams were out playing soccer and other sports very early to beat the terrible Yuma heat. But the stadium itself currently sits empty as it's most recent tenant, the Yuma Scorpions (now Panthers) did not play this season in the North American independent baseball league. But if the Panthers plans come to fruition this winter the American West Baseball League should be calling Desert Sun home in 2013. And the old girl still seems like a fine place to take in a game, provided you bring a very big hat.