Watching the 2006 Sidewinders drive to a division championship brought flashbacks to teams, fans and promotions of earlier seasons. Reminiscing about minor league baseball in Tucson over the past 25 years is full of triumphant memories and disheartening losses.
In the 1980s, minor league players were dealt with much differently by the big leagues. Shortstop Bert Pena stayed with the Toros for six seasons, patience unheard of today. Nicknamed "The Mayor of Tucson," Pena's slick mitt and weak stick endeared him to fans.
One of those fans was the late Dave Bell, who would yell from High Corbett Field's left field bleachers at opposing players like John Kruk. "What kind of name is K-R-U-K," Bell screamed, "a radio station?"
When attendance occasionally overflowed, folding chairs were set up in a roped-off outfield. The shorter dimensions made home runs easier, but fans sitting there had to be especially observant for flying balls and charging outfielders.
In 1991, in a tense, gut-wrenching game, the Toros won their first league title (See "Toro! Toro! Toro!" Sept. 13, 2001). Doug Baker, Trinidad Hubbard, Kenny Lofton and the unforgettable Joe Mikulik contributed to the winning run as the Toros scored in the bottom of the ninth in the deciding fifth game.
Two years later, another Pacific Coast League championship came to town. To some observers, the 1993 team was the best all-around club to ever play here.
Other highlights from that era involved promotions organized by longtime general manager Mike Feder and his wife, Patty. These included "Dash for Cash," where a fan chased Tuffy the Toro around the bases.
One muggy August evening, on a free-ticket Monday, a man won $75 by beating Tuffy home. As he crossed the plate, arms raised in victory, his wife and two young children cheered wildly from the nearly empty grandstand.
"Diamond Dig," unlimited 25-cent hot dogs and junk-car giveaways were also favorite promotions, but the coolest event had to be "Field of Dreams" night on Aug. 20, 1994. Some fans who submitted an entry about what baseball job they wanted--batboy, radio announcer, concessionaire--got a taste of the task. One lucky participant was even a groundskeeper before the game.
Three months earlier, Mark Petkovsek provided the highlights by twirling the first no-hitter in team history. Some novices in attendance, though, complained about the lack of action.
Weddings were also held at Hi Corbett. Popular outfielder Tuffy Rhodes marched under an archway of crossed bats on his way down the aisle at his wedding, while Roberto Petagine and his new bride offered free wedding cake to everyone in the stadium at their wedding.
Over the last 25 years, many players have stood out. Bobby Abreu had amazing talent, while Billy Wagner was throwing BBs from the beginning, even though he didn't have great control over exactly where they went. Other exceptional abilities were the speed of Brian Hunter and the quickness of James Mouton.
There was sadness when former Toro Darryl Kile passed away in 2002, and also after Ken Caminiti died. But there was gladness that Phil Nevin, who needed to grow up before he could succeed, eventually did so.
Two years after its 1993 championship, the Toros had a great winning percentage, but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Since then, Hi Corbett, and now Tucson Electric Park, have been without a contender--until now.
Even though Hi Corbett is a friendlier place to watch baseball because of its intimacy and ability to talk with pitchers in the bullpen, Sidewinders owner Jay Zucker and his crew always turn a night at TEP into an enjoyable experience.
The current crop of recent players has been outstanding. Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin, Stephen Drew and several others appear to have bright major league futures.
Since the Sidewinders began play in 1998, they have usually had good hitting. But the 2006 squad is special because of its pitching staff, which has provided the spark to lift a solid club to near greatness.
Playoff baseball doesn't come very often to Tucson. So whatever your plans tonight, Thursday, Sept. 7, change them. Get out to the ballpark for the 6:30 p.m. game, and start collecting your own baseball memories.