This year’s team came in with low expectations but is drawing record crowds
The only thing missing from Arizona home softball games has been Linda Ronstadt herself.
Does she even know? Quick. Someone call her agent since she’s in town for the Tucson International Mariachi Conference.
From the very first game at the on-campus Hillenbrand Stadium, dating to Feb. 13, 1993, the same Ronstadt song has blared over the loudspeakers every time the Wildcats take the field for the first inning.
“I love it,” said senior Sam Banister. “You feel home. That’s how you feel. It’s like, ‘Here I am, I’m home.’ ”
Home. There has been no place like it for Arizona, which has led the nation in attendance in eight of the past 15 years and is on pace to shatter its season record as it heads into this weekend’s final regular-season homestand.
Winning is Arizona’s biggest tradition – we’ll get into all the numbers in a bit – but another tradition is that catchy Ronstadt song.
It’s not your typical ballpark fare, for sure, but her “Palomita de Ojos Negros” from her 1990 release “Mas Canciones” has become as much Arizona softball as the colors cardinal and navy. Shoot, I’m whistling the darn tune as I write this, and I can’t possibly be alone among the Hillenbrand regulars who will, apropos of nothing, start humming the song six months after the season ends.
“I would feel a little nervous if I didn’t hear it,” said Arizona’s notoriously superstitious coach Mike Candrea. “It has become an element of our tradition.”
Totally by accident, of course.
UA sports information director Tom Duddleston is of a certain age to have heard Ronstadt sing with the Stone Poneys on Tucson’s Sixth Street in the late 1960s. He was a fan. He had a copy of “Mas Canciones.” On cassette. For whatever reason, he played it as Hillenbrand Stadium opened.
“We said, ‘That sounded pretty good. Let’s play it again,’ ” Duddleston said.
And so they did.
Another track from the same album, “La Mariquita,” plays during the middle of the first inning. “You hear the other team saying, ‘Oh, what is this music?’ ” Banister said. “And, we’re like, ‘You know what, you have no idea we’re about to come over here and beat you guys up.’ ”
There has been a lot of that over the past 16 seasons.
Arizona is 491-40 at Hillenbrand, including an NCAA-record 70-game winning streak early this decade.
Arizona is 181-25 in Pac-10 games at Hillenbrand.
Arizona is 51-5 in NCAA tournament games at Hillenbrand.
This season has been more of the same, with a 22-1 record at home.
The strange thing is, this season began with the lowest UA expectations of any season since Hillenbrand opened. Arizona doesn’t have its usual ace pitcher but is countering with the best offense in the country.
The Wildcats have slugged 105 home runs, 21 shy of the NCAA record set by UA’s 2001 team.
Seventh-ranked Arizona is 36-9 overall and leads the Pac-10 with an 8-2 mark.
“I think people just didn’t expect us to be good, and they’re kind of coming out here to watch a miracle, almost,” Banister said. “Not in our eyes, but in their eyes. We expected this.”
Arizona is averaging 2,426 fans per game, significantly better than the school record of 1,877, set last season when the team had popular pitcher Taryne Mowatt.
Capacity is 2,956, and there are no immediate plans for expansion – although Candrea, only half-jokingly, said if he had to do build it all over again, he would have put a bathroom in the dugout.
“I think we have developed a good fan base, and they like the game, they like the kids. And they like winning,” Candrea said, trying to explain the spike in attendance this season.
“I think a lot of it, too, is the growth of softball. We see more and more kids here than we used to. I think the growth of softball in the city of Tucson and all over has definitely helped create more fan base.”
Sunday will bring one more tradition to Hillenbrand. Senior Day festivities will be held after the game, and UA officials tend to make it an emotional, downright sappy, tear-inducing affair. Banister, an infielder/outfielder, is one of six seniors, including third baseman Jenae Leles and first baseman Laine Roth. Walk-ons Jill Malina, Jen Martinez and Mandy Monge also will be honored.
“OK, this is the thing,” said Banister, preparing herself for some Sunday waterworks.
“Normally, I wear, you know, a good amount of makeup because I try to protect my face and I want to look pretty for the games. But I don’t think I will be able to wear that much makeup because if I was a mess the last three years, I don’t even want to know what I’m going to be like that day.”
Banister adds that she doesn’t really expect it to be Arizona’s final home game of the season. A Pac-10 title would nearly assure postseason home games at Hillenbrand.
Which, of course, is another fine tradition.
Can Linda make those?
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The UA softball team holds its final regular-season homestand this weekend at Hillenbrand Stadium, where the Wildcats are averaging a school record 2,426 fans this year:
Friday: UCLA at UA, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Washington at UA, 7 p.m.
Sunday: Washington at UA, noon
ARIZONA 8-2 36-9
Washington 7-4 34-7
UCLA 7-4 32-8
Arizona State 6-4 36-9
Stanford 7-5 37-6
California 5-7 29-15
Oregon State 3-9 22-22
Oregon 2-10 13-26