Dbacks last spring in Tucson — thank goodness

I drove down to Tucson yesterday, happy that this will mark the last of 13 winters I’ve traveled down there from Phoenix for the start of the Dbacks’  spring training grind.  

Tucson Electric Park is the only spring home the team has ever known.  I thought it was a mistake then to train there and I think so now.  It was the owners way, I think, of making a PR statement, that the first part of the team name, Arizona, meant something.  But I doubt a true baseball fan in Tucson, or Flagstaff for that matter, ever spent a dime at the stadium in Phoenix because the team trained at TEP.

Now, after 13 seasons there, the Dbacks will move  in 2011 to a new facility on the Salt River Indian reservation east of Scottsdale.   Only the gods know what will happen to the little stadium in Tucson and its large array of playing fields and office buildings.  I wanted to shoot a photo of it with my Canon, but didn’t.  There is no part of the stadium that is special, that identifies it as anything other than brick and mortar.  Like almost every other modern structure in Tucson, it has the fingerprints of a penny-pincher all over it.  

Even the Dbacks’ original minor league team that played there, the Sidewinders, are long gone.   The Japanese and Little League, I suppose, are options as tenants.  And to think it is a relatively young place.

Leaving Tucson couldn’t happen soon enough for me.  I have a lot of nice memories, a few mementoes and many scorebook pages crammed with the numerous lineup changes scribbled everywhere.  I’m not the kind of fan, by the way, that seeks autographs.  A foul ball off the bat of Albert Pujols could land in my lap, and I would gladly give it away. 

But springs at TEP all became a bit weary and a whole lot monotonous.  The memories are the last to go. 

My unbroken string of attending Dbacks “exhibition” baseball goes back to the most memorable one of all, the first one,  in 1998, the franchise’s inaugural season.  TEP was a sparkling new facility then, shared with the Chicago White Sox.  I was excited.  I wanted to be a part of history.  I wanted to collect the first program, save some of the first tickets and take some of the first photos.  And I did.  Most are safe and secure in a rented storage room.  

Nothing will ever again match that first spring.  Records of Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Andy Benes all tucked away in containers.  Even that all-time bust of an outfielder, Karim Garcia, is in there somewhere. 

I had been there for Randy Johnson’s first pitch as a Diamondback in the spring of 1999.  His signing the previous autumn had nudged me into re-upping on a second-year of Dbacks season tickets.  It was the same spring that an unheralded Luis Gonzalez began to make a mark on the team’s history, the same spring that I saw the newcomer, Tony Womack, hit by a pitch that broke his hand and kept him out of the lineup at the start of the season.

Then there was 2002.  It was the first spring after 9/11.  There was tension under the cool sun as a military air show took place above the field and Davis Monthan AFB.  Bush and his pals were about ready to invade Iraq.  You could cut the patriotism with a knife, not that I felt good about it.  I remember thinking America had lost its way, that the enemy and unfinished business was in Tora Bora with Al Qaeda, and wondering what craziness would soon lead us to Baghdad.  I watched the air show more that weekend than I did the games.

I remember too the 2006 spring, my first sighting of the young players that would change the face of the franchise once again.   Stephen Drew started at shortstop on March 3, and another stranger, shortstop, Justin Upton, replaced him.  I was most impressed with a new face that soon went away, that of the cocky and aggressive right fielder, Carlos Quentin, who for a while was the rage of the American League with the White Sox.

I think spring training has become weary partly because the team, after Jerry Colangelo, has become frugal.   Needlfully so, perhaps.  But worse it has become bland and its management at times inept.  Every spring now there is no new star to build a dream on.  No Randy Johnson, for sure.  This spring, the newcomers of note, pitcher Edwin Jackson and  first baseman Adam La Roche, are not your average household names.  And the organization’s younger players don’t measure up as they once did.

But yesterday, a Thursday afternoon, was OK.  Nothing much has changed.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Small weekday crowd of 6,307.  Matt Williams, the 1998 star, still visible.  He coached first base.  I’m sure Gonzo, now some sort of PR guy, was around somewhere close.

The setting at TEP still remains one of the most beautiful in baseball.  That is if you look far enough, past the sordid industrial area at the edges of the foreground.  Patches of snow drape the Catalinas and Rincons to the northeast amid forests of pine, and the hues of gray rock, blue sky and dark shadow can be breath-taking.  And, in Section 118 behind the Dbacks dugout, it was 66 degrees at game time, so it was announced anyway. 

The most welcome change is the completion, finally, FINALLY, of the interstate construction near downtown.  Traffic was horrible for a stretch of 3-4 miles in the last several years.  But now, with the road-widening moving north of town (and for several miles between Picacho Peak to the town of Picacho), you can zip into and out of Tucson, no problem.

I’m going back to Tucson with Nebra this weekend.  It may be our last time at TEP.  We’ll do as we usually do, make a pleasant outing of it.  Get a nice motel room for a night, and I’ll treat her to a birthday supper at the Old Pueblo Grill or at Buddy’s or somewhere else she likes.  Maybe even visit a bookstore or two.  Just wind down. 

Wind down as the Dbacks are winding down  in Tucson.  And not a tear in my eye. 

The important thing about Sunday’s one o’clock game is this.  I want to leave the ballpark in time to get back to Phoenix for the  Academy Awards at 7 o’clock on TV.

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