It was the end of an era, and it went out with no fanfare and hardly a whimper. Yesterday marked the last spring training game at Tucson Electric Park for the Arizona Diamondbacks. They move to a new facility next year near Scottsdale, 150 miles to the north.
There were no ceremonies. No signs. No PA announcments. No special commemorative programs. No material for collectors at all. As if it were an ordinary Cactus League contest. If you came to the ballpark on Tuesday in ignorance of the Last Game significance, you left the same way.
Baseball spring training sites change regularly. The last game usually is not news. But the Tucson ballpark, known as TEP, was the first and only spring training home the Dbacks knew. They first played here on a blustery, cold Friday night, February 27, in 1998. They were a National League expansion team then with few players anyone knew. Only one of those players, Matt Williams, was on the field Tuesday at the end. He is now the team’s first base coach.
I was there for the festive First Game 12 years ago. I drove down from Phoenix through a desert pooled with rainwater courtesy of El Nino. Those beautiful mountains that border Tucson on the north and east, the Santa Catalinas and the Rincons, seemed to bend under heavy snow. I stood in the middle of a long line at Gate A waiting to get in. It was 5:30, an hour and a half before game time.
Another line awaited. The program seller was having a field day. Some were buying three and four programs at a shot. I bought two.
“Baseball is history, and this is history,” I told someone beside me. “Tomorrow no one will stand in line to buy a program.”
I found my seat in Section 120, behind the Dbacks dugout near third base. It was only two sections over from where I sat for yesterday’s Last Game.
As I waited for the First Game to began at 7 o’clock, a man in the seat behind me asked his wife if he could read one of their four programs. “No,” she said. “They’re wrapped up and packed. They’re collector’s items.”
It was getting cold. A bitter west wind blew through the grandstand. Almost everyone was buttoned-up. A few wore ski-masks.
I hustled into the restroom to put on long johns. I was so layered on top I could barely move. Thermals under a T-shirt, vest zipped around the neck, a windbreaker pulled over everything. A cap and gloves. And I was still chilly.
Autograph seekers came out in droves. They stood along the field like animals begging players to stop and sign whatever. Players no doubt had a mandate from management to render signatures without question. No doubt some official watched this very closely. I didn’t note it, but I’d bet the Dbacks’ strange little manager, Buck Showalter, did not sign a single one.
Roy Drachman, 92, and a pioneer in bringing spring baseball to Tucson in 1948, threw the ceremonial first pitch.
The first official pitch ever at TEP, a strike, was delivered by the Dbacks Willie Blair to Ray Durham, the second baseman for the Chicago White Sox. Camera flashbulbs went off everywhere, like it was the start of the World Series. Durham struck out on a 1-2 pitch. The White Sox shared the facility then with the Dbacks.
Chicago’s Frank Thomas got the first hit, a single in the first inning with two out. Teammate Albert Belle slammed a 3-2 pitch into the left field bullpen in the fifth inning for the first home run at TEP.
Tony Batista, the second baseman who in mid-season would become the everyday shortstop, singled in the second inning, the Dbacks first hit in the new park. No one seemed to care that the Dbacks won, 6-5. They were doomed for a poor finish in regular season.
For that first game, the Dbacks batting order: Devon White cf, Jay Bell 2b, Jorge Fabregas c, Matt Williams 3b, Brent Brede rf, Karim Garcia lf, Travis Lee 1b, Batista 2b, and the pitcher, Blair. Much was expected from Garcia, and he did become somewhat famous in a round-about way. His trade to the Detroit Tigers brought to Arizona one of its all-time greats, Luis Gonzalez.
During the seventh-inning stretch and the singing of “Take Me Out to The Ballgame,” a tribute was made to Harry Caray, the famed Chicago Cubs broadcaster who had recently died.
A crowd, announced at 11,298, set a Tucson spring training record.
Openings generally fare better than closings. And the Dbacks last game at TEP on a roasting, sunny Tuesday afternoon fit the bill. The good-bye turnout pulled in less than half of the first game back in 1998. At 5,184, it was lower by almost 600 than this year’s opener on March 4.
Scores mean nothing in the spring. For the record, the Texas Rangers won, 4-2, behind a big right-handed pitcher, Colby Lewis, who played in Japan the last two seasons. Oddly, he bested the ace of the Dbacks staff, Dan Haren who pitched nicely but got no run support.
The Dbacks are predicted to play more competitively this season. They’ve signed their two young stars, Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds, to longterm, multi-million dollar contracts. They’ve added a top-caliber first baseman in Adam LaRoche. But the pitching again is in question. In question because its former Cy Young winner, Brandon Webb, has not fully recovered from arm surgery. And it is the first full-season for the manager, A. J. Hinch.
The Last Game ended at 3:39 p.m. according to the scoreboard clock. The Last Pitch thrown by a Dbacks pitcher came from the right arm of reliever Blaine Boyer at 3:27. Honors for The Last Out for the Dbacks went to backup catcher John Hester, a grounder to third base.
A sense of history escapes most Arizonans. They care little about the past. Only the future matters. After all this isn’t New York, Boston or Chicago where the history of the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs mean a great deal, where sentimentality oozes out at the ballpark. The departure of the Dbacks from TEP was as cold as the weather for the opener all those years ago.
The thing that irked me most about the Last Game was this. I wanted to shoot a final photo of the TEP scoreboard in left field. I wanted to shoot it with the final stats on the board. Scores by inning, the summary of runs, hits and errors. Maybe even the last batter, Hester, with his jersey number would be left up. But no.
I took a quick photo, thinking there was a possibility the scoreboard would be turned off quickly, and began walking to get a closer shot with better quality, better angle.
I had maybe 100 yards to go. And, bang, as I got halfway there, the board went blank as if killed by a bullet to the heart, just like this was any other game at TEP. You would’ve thought in most ballparks, given the same situation, this wouldn’t have happened. The scoreboard would’ve stayed lit longer to let the moment sink in.
I should’ve known better. After all, I have lived in the arid lands for more than three decades.