Will fans pay to see lower level of ball?
A crowd of 6,033 showed up for the final game in Tucson's 40-year Triple-A history Monday at Tucson Electric Park. The Sidewinders, who are leaving for Reno, Nev., drew a total of 245,121 fans this year - an average of 3,552, worst in the Pacific Coast League.
Perhaps you missed it. A couple of Saturdays ago, the independent league baseball team in Yuma, in its big end-of-year promotion, gave away a ton of manure.
You might have a different word for what the Scorpions were giving away.
Like it or not, that same level of minor league baseball – the Golden Baseball League – is coming to Tucson. Whatever you call it, it sure beats the alternative: nothing.
The Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders and the reborn independent league Tucson Toros were two tumbling tumbleweeds passing in the desert Monday, one going, one coming and Tucson baseball fans left to wonder what was being shoveled.
Jay Zucker, who owned the Sidewinders from 2000 to 2007 before selling to a group that is relocating the team to Reno, is doing two positive things:
He’s bringing back the Toros name and playing the games at Hi Corbett Field.
“It’s a new chapter of professional baseball in Tucson,” Zucker said.
At 8:29 p.m., when Phil Avlas fouled the ball for the final out in a 7-2 loss at Tucson Electric Park, the Sidewinders wrote the final line of the last chapter, ending 40 consecutive years of Triple-A baseball in Tucson.
A few hours earlier, public address announcer Dale Lopez introduced the team as “Youuuurrr Tucson Sidewinders!” But if they were truly our Tucson Sidewinders, then attendance would have been better, and they wouldn’t be Reno bound.
A few hours before that, Zucker said he was hopeful of being able to lure comparable crowds to see the new Toros.
“We believe we would draw similar to what we did with the Sidewinders during the week,” he said. “And on the weekends, we’d be looking at several thousand, which might be a little bit shy of the Sidewinders.”
Which might be a little bit optimistic.
The Sidewinders’ average attendance this season was 3,552.
The best attendance in the eight-team GBL: 2,175 for the Chico Outlaws. The Long Beach Armada was next at 1,640.
As for the quality of baseball . . . well, who much cares?
If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll care. Baseball is baseball.
If you didn’t much care about Triple-A baseball and the Sidewinders’ affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks, then you won’t much care about the Golden Baseball League. And that’s OK.
Because while it is nice to see the occasional rehabbing star in Tucson and a few fast-rising prospects, minor league baseball is often just about a night out.
It’s not about being able to name more than three players on the field.
It’s not about a pennant race.
“Our research tells us the fans are going out there for the family fun and value, and not just professional baseball,” Zucker said.
Zucker will be a busy man until late May 2009, when the season begins (it ends by Labor Day). He hopes to pick a manager by November, and then attend baseball’s winter meetings to help hunt for players.
The Golden League is not affiliated with major league baseball, but the level of GBL baseball is comparable to the Double-A level, said David Kaval, founder and chief executive officer of the Golden Baseball League.
“You’ll have three or four guys with major league experience,” Kaval said. “Our Long Beach team had seven players with major league experience.”
There are 25 alums of the GBL who are in major league organizations, including six in Triple-A. Ex-major leaguers are in the GBL, including 43-year-old Felix Jose, who hit .391 this season.
Remember Nick Bierbrodt, the Diamondbacks’ No. 1 pick in 1996? The left-hander pitched for Long Beach this season.
The real stars are the managers, including former major leaguers Mike Marshall, Steve Yeager, Garry Templeton, Corey Snyder and Jeffrey Leonard.
Each team’s salary cap for the season is $83,000 – less than the cost of one night from Manny Ramirez – but, hey, the franchise does arrange housing for its 22 players. Franchises have sold for $1 million. Zucker declined to give the exact figure of his buy-in.
“The independent leagues are very focused on the fans,” Kaval said. “Affiliated baseball is very focused on the players.
“We’ve had a lot of wild promotions over the years. We have given away a funeral in Yuma. We’ve done Michael Vick Animal Awareness Night. We have done some crazy things that created some buzz and excitement.”
Which brings us back to the manure and Barnyard Night in Yuma.
“We had a nursery come to us and said, ‘Look, we want to give away manure,’ ” Kaval said.
“We said, ‘Well, what are you going to give away, like a ton of poop?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’ll give away a ton.’
“That’s not like a Tucson promotion, but it was a great Yuma promotion.
And, I’ll tell you what, if you had an affiliated team there and you tried to do that, they would have said, no.”
Zucker says he will retain the usual alliterative promotions: Thirsty Thursdays, Fireworks Fridays, Souvenir Saturdays, etc. The average cost of a ticket around the league is $5.50.
And the games will be at Hi Corbett, where at least you’re not far from an In-N-Out Burger, or somewhere else to take the family and meet friends, before or after the game. Can’t really say that for games at TEP.
So, adios, Sandy Sidewinder.
“We focus on having fun,” Kaval said, “not taking ourselves too seriously and giving people reasons to come back.”
Eventually, you’ll be the ones to decide if that’s the straight poop or not.