Tucson's always-lukewarm relationship with the Pacific Coast League began on a stormy April night in 1969. Less than 2,200 fans watched the home-team Toros lose, 8-6, at Hi Corbett Field.
Four decades later, the Triple-A marriage will end on Labor Day at Tucson Electric Park. After that game, the Sidewinders are moving to Reno, Nev.
On a slightly more positive note, the last game will be followed by a fireworks show. The Sidewinders' public address announcer, Dale Lopez, remembers when fireworks couldn't be shot off at Hi Corbett: Because the city zoo is near that historic field, for years, fireworks were prohibited in order to avoid frightening the animals. Instead, to simulate a rocket's red glare, the team occasionally offered laser-light shows, and once even experimented with "Fruitworks."
"Fruit was dropped from a crane," Lopez laughs, "and the giant splat was supposed to be in lieu of fireworks."
Lopez has worked since the early 1980s with Tucson's Triple-A team, working on the message center (the electronic sign) and scoreboard, and as the announcer at both Hi Corbett and TEP. He has lots of fond memories of his time in the press box.
"Louie Meadows was coming to the plate," Lopez recalls of a Tucson Toros player from 1986 to 1990, "and the guy running the message center wanted to add about 100 o's to his name. I went for it in introducing him as 'Looooooooooooooouie,' and took so long, he finally turned around and looked up at me."
During his two years with the club in the mid-1990s, current New York Yankee Bobby Abreu was another favorite of those operating the message center at Hi Corbett. The electronic sign produced simple illustrations, and when Abreu came to the plate, they would sometimes show a bottle pouring into a glass, or "a brew" as Lopez points out with a chuckle.
Umpire Larry Poncino also received some kidding. Lopez was running the Hi Corbett message center, and after what he thought was a bad call, Lopez put up a pair of eyeglasses. Lopez remembers that Poncino complained bitterly about the criticism; he was especially irked because there were only two umpires working the game.
Labeling the 2006 Sidewinders PCL championship season "really exciting," Lopez fondly recalls how the team swept two doubleheaders in a row that year. The club, which moved to Tucson Electric Park and changed its name in 1998, had previously won league titles in 1991 and 1993.
The strange sights Lopez remembers include the outfield at Hi Corbett being roped off to accommodate overflow crowds on special promotion nights. Fans sitting in the folding chairs there had to be extremely careful--watching out for both flying baseballs and outfielders pursuing a running catch.
To attract enormous crowds like that, the Toros and Sidewinders tried promotions of all types. These ranged from "diamond digs" in the basepaths to car giveaways, and from the popular "dash for cash" to discount spaghetti meals.
Lopez has fond memories of another food attraction: For years, whenever the Toros scored 10 or more runs, coupons were given to everyone in attendance for a free pizza.
For its part, Circle K chipped in with free super-large drinks on some occasions. Thus, during certain memorable nights, at no charge, a few thousand people got vouchers for enough pizza and soda to cause health issues.
However, the personal highlight of Lopez's almost 25-year association with minor-league baseball in Tucson came in the mid-1990s.
"Channel 12 used to broadcast some of the games on television," he recalls of the city-owned station, "and around 1994, I was asked to do a game against the Tacoma Tigers. I'd never done television before, nor have I since.
"I think Tucson lost," he recalls of his one-time TV experience, "and there weren't many people left at the end of the game, because it was April and pretty cool."
The 50-year old Lopez, who is a schoolteacher by day, regrets the loss of the team to Reno. But he will keep busy as the announcer for Amphitheater High School football, Pima Community College football and basketball, and Tucson High School basketball.
Baseball, Lopez says, varies significantly from these other sports.
"There's no clock, which really makes a difference and adds to the mystique of the game," he says.
All three of his sons have worked with Lopez at TEP, and two still do. "The baseball job may have taken me away from my family," Lopez reflects of his evening employment, "but I got to spend three hours a night with my sons."
For the last game on Sept. 1, Lopez expects many former press-box employees to be in attendance. He says one of those will be Bill Ackerley, who will record the press-box crew in action for posterity.
After the final pitch on Monday, Lopez hopes those in the press box can all go out to dinner. That, he says, would revive for one last time a custom they used to observe at Hi Corbett on Friday nights.
With talk of an independent-league team playing in Tucson next season, Lopez would like to continue his baseball affiliation.
As for the last home series of Tucson's PCL era, Lopez emphatically concludes of the games against the imposing Salt Lake Bees: "I hope we sweep all four!"