I awoke this morning with a myriad of emotions. Today was the Arizona Diamondbacks final home Spring Training game at Tucson Electric Park. The final Spring Training game is usually a source of joy as it means the exhibition season is winding down and the regular season is about to begin.
This year the final game at Tucson Electric Park truly is the final game there. After 13 years of Spring Training in Tucson, that era in Arizona Diamondbacks history is coming to an end. Next February when pitchers and catchers report they will do so at the new Spring Training complex in northern Scottsdale.
For a long time I had planned to be in attendance at this game. I was there as the Arizona Diamondbacks opened Tucson Electric Park in 1998 and watched as they came from behind on a cold and blustery evening to beat the Chicago White Sox. It seemed only fitting that I was there as they ended their tenure at the park.
When Tucson Electric Park opened it was heralded as the most state-of-the-art facility not only in the Cactus League but throughout baseball. The fans quickly fell in love with the minimal foul territory that brought them even closer to the game.
The people at TEP were always friendly and willing to lend a hand no matter what the request. At the time our son was very small and we needed to heat a baby bottle. I remember the ushers and concessionaires putting together something to warm the milk. That customer service will never be forgotten.
Leaving Phoenix, I began my journey to Tucson one last time. As usual, the interstate was packed with cars making their way back and forth between the two largest cities in Arizona. I stared out the window watching the saguaro cacti standing at attention almost saluting our journey.
This part I won’t miss. There has been many a time that weather or traffic has interrupted a Spring Training trip. We would begin our journey with excitement to be going down to watch the Arizona Diamondbacks only to find traffic snarled to a stand still.
As the clock ticked faster and faster towards game time we would be sitting along side the road lamenting the fact that we were still 90 minutes away from the stadium. It is not just the fans that are subject to this problem. Players and team buses have likewise been delayed nearly missing game time.
Today the traffic cooperated. There was still near gridlock but at least traffic was moving. As we pulled into TEP it began to sink in that today would probably be the last time I would go through this ritual.
From the parking attendant’s cordial and helpful attitude it would be impossible to know this was the last game being played at the stadium. To them it was like any other day as they collected the $5 parking fee and directed cars to the designated parking area.
As we parked I was surprised to see how closely we were to the actual stadium. I fully expected the parking lot to be packed with hoards of people making their way to the gates. With less than an hour before game time the crowds had not yet arrived.
We made our way to the ticket window to pick up our game tickets from Will Call. The ticket representatives were very friendly and thanked us for attending. If I didn’t know any better I would have guessed this was the first Spring Training game rather than the last.
At the gates ballpark security was there checking bags entering the stadium. They seemed less than thrilled with their job and were making just cursory glances in bags. I had to offer to open my camera bag otherwise it would even have been checked.
Inside fans were milling around as the Texas Rangers were taking batting practice and fielding practice. I walked around the stadium to survey each area one last time. Most of the concession stands were open although none of them were very busy.
I walked into the Team Shop planning to purchase a souvenir to commemorate Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training. This was the first time I realized this was the end.
The walls of the Team Shop were bare with minimal merchandise still on the racks. Fans were wandering around looking at the sale racks. The only Diamondbacks Spring Training shirts they had were youth sized. There were no pins or hats specifically for Spring Training.
Most of the remaining shirts were the same ones that are available at the Chase Field Team Shop. I walked away empty handed, which may be a first for me leaving the Team Shop. I felt as though I had just walked out of a “Going Out of Business” location and my throat had a big lump in it.
Before the game began the players began to make their way onto the field to warm up. Many of the Arizona Diamondbacks took time to walk over to the stands to sign autographs for the fans. It was a great scene watching kids holding out their balls and bats hoping their favorite player would take a moment to recognize them and sign their item.
During the pre-game, they had the National Anthem and throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. At the conclusion of the first pitch there was a special recognition giving flowers to the manager of Tucson Electric Park operations for her 13 years of service.
It didn’t seem like much of an ovation and the fans were for the most part rather apathetic. At game time the stands were well over half empty, which shocked me. I had expected a loud and excitable crowd but instead the volume of empty seats was deafening.
As the starting line-ups were announced, fans were scrambling for a program. There were few if any starters from the Texas Rangers. Most of the veteran players remained in Surprise rather than make the trip to Tucson.
This of course is commonplace which is yet another reason why Spring Training in Tucson has struggled as of late. Fans want to see their favorite players in the line up not a bunch of minor league players fighting for a roster spot.
Today was Dan Haren’s final start of the spring. He pitched well going six plus innings allowing three runs (one scored after Haren left the game). Haren struck out seven and did not allow a walk. He appeared to be ready for Opening Day on April 5.
The line-up behind Haren saw a mixture of regulars and players trying to make the team. Gerardo Parra played center while Drew Mathias was in right giving the Diamondbacks two left-handed outfielders. Parra looked confused in center misplaying a couple of balls in the bright sunshine.
The infield consisted of Mark Reynolds at third, Tony Abreu at shortstop, Kelly Johnson at second, and Adam LaRoche at first. Miguel Montero was behind the plate. Abreu is battling for a roster spot with Ryan Roberts and Rusty Ryal. All three played during this game.
From my perspective, it appeared Abreu and Ryal are a lot hungrier and were doing the little things it takes to make the team. Roberts didn’t appear to have the same fire he did last spring when he was trying to make the club out of Spring Training.
The Diamondbacks were held scoreless for most of the game before finally coming up with a couple of runs. Parra and Montero seemed to be seeing the ball better and were hitting like we saw last season at Chase Field.
In the end the Texas Rangers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-2. The winning pitcher was Colby Lewis while Haren was tagged with the loss. The final out in the bottom of the ninth inning was a groundout by catcher John Hester to third base.
As the Rangers congratulated themselves on the win the Diamondbacks players and staff were gathering up their stuff in the dugout and quietly walking back to the clubhouse. The public address announcer thanked the fans for attending and noted this was the last home game for the Diamondbacks at Tucson Electric Park.
The Diamondbacks players and staff did not come out onto the field and recognize the fans nor did they walk out and clap thanking the city of Tucson for 13 years of dedicated service. I was left with a hollow feeling.
I am not sure what I expected but I thought there would be more. After seeing how the Diamondbacks thank their fans each season during the last home stand at Chase Field I guess I expected to see more gratitude to Tucson.
When Jerry Colangelo announced the Diamondbacks would train in Tucson he proclaimed this was a good thing for baseball and for the state of Arizona. He talked about how important the Diamondbacks were not just to Phoenix but to the whole state.
Now 13 years later it almost felt like the team couldn’t wait to get out of town. I’ve heard the Diamondbacks front office say how much they will miss training in Tucson but from my observations today that sure did not seem to be the case.
While I am excited to have the Diamondbacks train closer to home, I cannot help but feel sad that the Tucson era is over.