This year marked the final spring training season of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies in Tucson. Baseball fans tell their favorite memories of spring training in their city and what they will miss most.
The year was 1998, but Deanne Duprie remembers it like yesterday.
“It was the Diamondbacks’ first spring training game ever in Tucson, and I was sitting on the lawn in the freezing cold but thrilled to be there,” she said. “I still have the t-shirt they gave out that day.”
As an avid Diamondbacks fan, Duprie has attended Cactus League games every year throughout the team’s stay in Tucson.
“I would stand in line at 5 a.m., waiting for spring training tickets to go on sale,” she said.
The newly-wed Duprie would often go to games with her two sons, now 19 and 22 years old. One of her favorite memories is when Reggie Sanders was tossing pieces of gum into the third base line stands, and she had caught one.
And now that’s what experiences like that will stay: memories.
This year marked the final spring training season of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies in Tucson. The two teams will be moving to a new 140-acre facility, nestled within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community, just east of Scottsdale, for all future Cactus League games
The Diamondbacks called Tucson Electric Park their base for 13 years, while the Rockies were grounded at Hi Corbett Field for the last 17. Both franchises had Tucson as their Cactus League headquarters since their team inaugurations. Spring training in the city first began in 1947 with the Cleveland Indians and now comes to end after 64 years.
Since the Tucson Sidewinders – who played Triple-A baseball – also left the city last year, the relocations leave Tucson without any minor or major league teams.
“I’m sad that spring training won’t be here anymore,” Duprie said. “I’ll miss being so close to the players and the element of surprise when foul balls fly into the crowd. I’ll miss a lot.”
She is just one of many fans that will sorely miss major league baseball in Tucson.
“It’s disappointing that it’s ending.” Kevin Meeker, 20, said. “I really like seeing all the new players every spring, and now I won’t have that chance anymore. It’s a shame they couldn’t keep them here.”
Meeker remembers getting Quinton McCracken’s signature at a spring training game a few years ago. McCracken had caught a fly ball during the game and tossed it into the stands to Meeker. The former Diamondbacks outfielder autographed it after the game.
“I’m really going to miss sitting on the lawn, and just talking and watching the baseball game and getting autographs,” he said.
Meeker also said that he would make more of an effort now to get to games at Chase Park in Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks play during the regular season. But other fans aren’t as willing to make the haul.
“I don’t know if I’ll go up (to Phoenix) more, because they’re deserting us,” long-time Diamondbacks fan Gary Ramirez said. “It makes me really sad that they’re leaving us.”
For others, the loss of spring training in the city goes beyond the game itself. Chris Walden-Jones, 34, said the ballpark experience has been a family tradition for generations now, and the departure leaves a personal hole.
“My grandfather and I spent a great deal of time at Hi Corbett Field,” he said. “My mother tells stories about having her first beer with her father in that stadium, or getting to sit on the warning track and watching Willie Mays roam centerfield. Losing spring training is like losing a connection to part of my families’ history.”
Walden-Jones, a teacher at Sunnyside High School, has followed the Diamondbacks since their conception in 1998. But it’s not just Diamondbacks fans that will miss spring training in Tucson. The disappointment spreads to all Tucsonans who love the game, and even, the ones who simply enjoy the experience at the park itself.
“I love the whole atmosphere (of TEP),” Sarah Keith said. “It’s a fun place to go to. I definitely always drink a lot and have a great time.”
Emotions High, Attendance Low
However strong their feelings are, Tucson baseball fans have not shown their support through attendance this season. On opening day of spring training, the turnout was just 5,730, only half of TEP’s maximum capacity.
On Fan Appreciation Day (Mar. 28) at TEP, attendance spiked to more than 10,000. But for the final game at the stadium – held on Mar. 30 – a crowd of just 5,184 showed up.
"I only made it to one spring training game this season and didn't go to the last (game in Tucson)," Walden-Jones said. "I just didn't make the effort. And I think the main reason was avoidance of the inevitable."
In the last big-league bout ever in Tucson on Mar. 31, only 6,817 seats were filled at Hi Corbett Field. It marked just the fourth-largest crowd at the complex this spring.
In 2009, the Diamondbacks ranked fourth in attendance out of the 14 baseball franchises that spring trained in Arizona.
Reasons behind the Move
Both the Diamondbacks and the Rockies said their relocation comes down to two main motivations: long commute times to away games and inability to study their opponents.
The other 13 major league clubs that have spring training in Arizona play in cities with close proximity to each other. All of them are much farther north than Tucson, located at the very bottom of the state. Because of this, exhibition games demand much travel from the two teams. In fact, the Rockies are on the road more than any other major league team during spring training. So starting next spring, all 15 Cactus League teams will be in the Phoenix area.
Also, the other Arizona-based teams do not often send their starters down to Tucson because of the long trip south. So neither the Diamondbacks nor the Rockies can get a feel for what they’re going to be up against during the regular season. Both teams have said that being unable to gauge their competition, while 13 other franchises can, put them at a disadvantage heading into April.
The Diamondbacks and Rockies are also forced to play against each other more frequently in the Cactus League than any other teams in the same city. The standard number of games, for two organizations based in the same location for spring training, is three. In 2010, the Diamondbacks and Rockies faced each other five times in the span of a month. The Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, sharing Peoria Sports Complex, were also scheduled to compete fives times but one game was canceled.
Other Options for Tucsonans
Although Tucson faces its first year without a minor or major league presence in 2011, there is still some baseball in the city to feed their fix.
The Tucson Toros, who play in the independent Golden Baseball League, will still be around. Returning to Tucson in 2009 after a 12-year absence, the team plays at the Rockies’ old stomping ground, Hi Corbett Field. Their season runs from late May through early September.
Fans can also get a dose of America’s pastime through collegiate baseball, as the University of Arizona Wildcats continue their season, which started in mid-February and concludes at the end of May, at Kindall/Sancet Stadium.
To fill the void, the city of Tucson is trying to attract Japanese baseball teams for spring training next year. If that happens, the Diamondbacks and Rockies said they would be willing to come down for a couple of games next spring.
No deal regarding the Japanese ballclubs has been agreed upon yet.
Final Showdown in Tucson
In the last MLB spring training game ever in Tucson, the Rockies edged out the Diamondbacks, 4-3, at Hi Corbett Field on Mar. 31.
Jason Giambi drove in three of the Rockies’ four runs. Two of his RBIs came off a single in the first and the other from a bases-loaded walk in the fifth.
Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez electrified the mound on Wednesday, pitching five innings on three hits, two walks and no earned runs (one unearned). His no-hitter was broken up in the fourth inning on Justin Upton’s high chopper over the shortstop’s head for a single.
Diamondbacks starter Kris Benson got his first major league start in the final Cactus League game ever in Tucson. In his debut, he sacrificed three runs on five hits and four walks in 4 2/3 innings.
The Diamondbacks were dead quiet offensively for most of the contest, until scoring two runs in the top of the ninth. Coming through in the clutch, Rusty Ryal shot an RBI double down the left field line to score Tony Abreu with two outs. The next batter, Jeff Bailey, appeared to be the final out at Hi Corbett Field when he sent a routine grounder to shortstop, but he ended up reaching on Radames Nazario’s throwing error, and the inning continued.
Diamondbacks catcher John Hester, who was the final out at the last spring training game ever at TEP on Mar. 30, was also the last out at Hi Corbett Field by grounding out on a fielder’s choice.
The Diamondbacks’ current record is 14-16-1 this spring, while the Rockies stand at 16-13-1. Both teams dismount their spring training this year on Saturday, Apr. 3, when the Diamondbacks face off against the Chicago Cubs at Chase Field, and the Rockies close out their preseason exhibition opposite the Seattle Mariners in New Mexico.