Baseball and Tucson haven't exactly fit together well in the past few months.
The Sidewinders are gone.
Spring training is on life support, with the Colorado Rockies looking for renovations to aging Hi Corbett Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks being courted by Maricopa County municipalities left and right, and the Chicago White Sox already long-gone, moving up the road to the Phoenix area, swelling that locale's already-rich baseball ranks.
What will save Tucson fans of bat and ball?
How about an angry, little-person umpire wailing on the opposing team's unitard-clad "coach?"
Welcome to the new era of Tucson Toros baseball.
For those who don't remember, the Toros first arrived in the Old Pueblo in 1969, and were affiliated with the White Sox, the Oakland A's, the Texas Rangers, the Houston Astros and the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1998, the Toros became the Fresno Grizzlies. The Tucson Sidewinders, affiliated with the Diamondbacks, came to town to play at Tucson Electric Park.
When the Sidewinders left for Reno after the 2008 Triple A season ended, the Toros were brought back to Hi Corbett without MLB ties, instead playing in the independent Golden Baseball League.
Bringing a club back to a town it left more than 10 years ago might seem like a daunting task, but the Toros front office has devised a long list of promotions to entice Tucson baseball fans back into the team's fold.
For example, while Thursday night's exhibition game against the San Diego Surf Dawgs ended in an 8-3 Toros' loss, attention was diverted from a sub-par on-field performance by the antics of the above-mentioned little-person umpire and a troupe of "Lucha Libre" (a form of professional wrestling popular in Latin America featuring colorful masks and storylines) performers posing as Surf Dawg coaches.
In one instance, the umpire, nicknamed "Pitbull," hurled one of the performers to the ground and a second on top of the first, gaining cheers and jeers from the fans. Game action gave way to the performance at intervals throughout the game, and both umpires and the wrestlers were hooked into microphone systems so the crowd could hear the taunts.
This type of promotion is in contrast to the Toros "Wine, Women and Baseball" promotion taking place on Saturday, July 25. A pre-game wine tasting, presumably free of Spandex or masks, will take place from 6 to 7 p.m., complete with free hors d'oeuvres from a local fine dining restaurant.
Other promotions include a long-time Sidewinders favorite, Thirsty Thursdays, as well as Fireworks Fridays, and $1 hot dog Sundays.
For some Tucson-area fans attending last Thursday's exhibition game, it didn't matter where the Toros went, what promotion was planned for that night, or who the team was playing, but simply that they were playing.
"I grew up in San Manuel and Oracle," said Billy Hill. "We used to drive all the way down here for every home game."
The 23-year-old Hill, who played baseball for San Manuel High School and tried out unsuccessfully for the Toros this season, had a simple answer for why he came back to support the team after its long absence.
"I've got to," he said with a smile.
Other spectators felt the same.
"I saw them opening night in the rain," said Mike Zinkin, a high school umpire.
Zinkin attends Thursday night games regularly, and he said personal history with the club and the stadium keeps him coming back.
"I used to come over here and have batting practice with (Tucson-born former Cleveland Indian) Eddie Leon," said Zinkin. "That's when I was in college."
When history and nostalgia aren't enough, baseball itself is a draw.
"I came out here on a Friday just because I wanted to watch a ballgame," said longtime fan Randy Shields.
Single game tickets cost $10 for box seating, $8 for upper reserved and $5 for general admission.
Contact 325-1010 for more information, or buy tickets at the game or online at www.ticketmaster.com.