On the night the Arizona Diamondbacks officially blew up their sorry baseball team at midseason, I bought a $21 ticket in an UpTown section of the right field bleachers at Chase Field. To me, UpTown was the perfect place to check the emotions of Dbacks fans as the team’s record of futility continued.
It was a Friday night, the 2nd of July, and the Dbacks now had a new manager in a former World Series hero, Kirk Gibson. The firing of the previous manager, A. J. Hinch, had been officially announced at a morning news conference. The affable Hinch made the afternoon radio talk shows, lying through his teeth of course how much he “respected” his former employers for giving him a shot at his first managerial post. Josh Byrnes, the young general manager who had hired the inexperienced Hinch and put this team together, was also fired.
As for the players, it was a trip into the unknown. Trading deadline looms and some of them will be gone, maybe even some of a talented young group that arrived several years ago. A group that was seen as the cornerstone of the franchise for a long time.
The UpTown section was a clever promotion that began in April, at the start of the season. It was a play on the last name of the team’s 22-year-old right fielder, Justin Upton. It was Upton who symbolized the rosy future of the franchise. He signed a six-year contract in March for $51.25 million going through 2015. He is built like Adonis with a handsome face, a black man who could be king in a white man’s town that is Phoenix.
UpTown rests in Sections 102, 103 and 104, just behind Upton’s position in the field. And on this particular night, it was about a quarter full in a stadium strewn with empty seats. Another disappointing turnout, especially in the light that the opponent was the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Before major-league baseball hit Phoenix in 1998, it was the Dodgers who were the darlings out here in the desert. But it is summertime and everyone has no doubt found a cool place on Mission Beach. I estimated the crowd at 12,000, though the official figure, the paid attendance, was announced as twice that. It is the actual number of seats filled that reveals interest in the team. Not the paid attendance that includes no-shows. And there have been lots of no-shows for some time now.
My seat was several rows up in 102, toward centerfield. It was unimportant that I could see little of the game from so far away without binoculars. I was there to experience the fans and their interaction with Upton and the game.
On the way to my seat I picked up the only perk at a nearby gift shop. A sign said something like “Get your free UpTown towels here.” It was small and thin and had “UpTown” inscribed in Sedona Red, the team’s predominant color. A good dust rag. I showed the clerk my ticket, and he produced the gift. I thought if it were such a big deal, the kid might have at least said, “Welcome to UpTown.”
I settled in among a scattered number of mostly whites. But there were quite a few Hispanics and a smattering of blacks. A typical ethnic mix for Phoenix. I saw families with children but it was largely couples of middle age. This obviously was not a place for young adults, but a good spot for blue-collar types. And an optimal position to snag a home run ball.
About a half-dozen high school girls sat a row in front. They were busy fondling their over-worked cell phones and texting with their thumbs so rapidly it defies belief. The girls disappeared for long periods and did not seem one bit interested in the game, but only slightly less interested than anyone else.
The most excitable anyone became was when the Wave came around twice in the middle innings. I may have been the only one in UpTown not to rise and raise my arms above my head.
The game’s subplots seemed lost. That the new manager was facing in the Dodgers the team he had once hit a famous home run for in the World Series did not mean much. Nor did the fact the starting pitcher, Edwin Jackson, was making his first appearance since throwing a no-hitter at Tampa Bay’s Rays on the road. Nor did anyone talk baseball strategy and the return of the team’s only All-Star this season, Chris Young, to the lead-off position.
No. The loudest voice in UpTown belonged either to a Dodgers fan or a Dbacks hater. “Ahn-dray Eee-thyer, Ahn-dray Eee-thyer,” he yelled as the opposing right fielder, Andre Ethier, trotted out to his position. And when a few far to the back began to chant, “Let’s go Diamondbacks,” he would counter even louder, “Let’s go, Dodgers.”
If there was a chant in UpTown for Upton I did not hear it. The interaction between player and his special section was minimal. Every other inning Upton would turn to face the fans and soft-toss a practice ball their way. That was it. It was a mindless toss, always to the same area. Like something he’d been told to do.
Upton showed no feeling for anyone except his friend and center fielder Chris Young. And as the game progressed, Justin was having another bad night in what so far has been a disappointing season for him personally. In the first inning, he let his mind wander and was easily picked off first base. In the outfield, he made good on a few routine plays and kept chomping his pink bubble-gum. He blew bubbles. They were large and near-perfect from all the practice. They marked the best part of his evening.
Unless Upton begins showing his playing potential soon, UpTown will become meaningless. He has to do well on the field. His personality alone will not carry him far with this crowd. Despite his many baseball talents, he lacks charisma. He is often seen as moody. He never seems to be enjoying the game. Sometimes he loafs. It is all so disappointing. Like everything else connected to the Dbacks. Even though this night they beat the Dodgers, 12-5.
Right now, UpTown is really Mudville, and Mighty Casey has two strikes and no confidence.