Last one out: Padres (and baseball) swing away from Tucson
Cloud-filled skies loomed with the possibility of rain as the Tucson Padres closed out their final season of minor-league ball in the Old Pueblo with a 2-1 loss to the Reno Aces.
Despite the uncertainty in the air, just over 8,000 fans showed up to see the team off. While this wasn't a sellout, it was one of the best-attended games the Padres have put on since coming to Arizona. But the future of baseball in Tucson is, for the moment, as shadowed as Thursday night's sky.
Tucson's relationship with the Padres was always one built more on hope, inter-sport rivalry and the failings of other cities than what Tucson offered the club.
Portland got the ball rolling when the Timbers MLS soccer club pushed the baseball team out of town due to competition for a stadium. Tucson was to be a temporary home for the Padres while Escondido, Calif. built a new home for the Triple-A club, but that fell through like many recent municipal projects in California.
Tucson baseball fans hoped that this might mean San Diego's minor-league affiliate would take up more permanent residence in our fair city. This wasn't to be, however, as El Paso ended up luring the team to West Texas with the promise of a new stadium opening in 2014.
The uncertainty surrounding the future of Tucson's own Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium was never going to be resolved on the baseball diamond, but the question certainly hung in the air during the night. Tucson Padres General Manager Mike Feder lined up the backroom staff before the game and thanked them for all the hard work over the last few years. Padres Manager Pat Murphy then spoke and promised the crowd that professional baseball isn't finished in Tucson.
But with the Padres' last home game played, there won't be professional baseball in Tucson for the first time in over four decades. More years than not, pro ball has been played in Tucson for 81 seasons.
Once the opening ceremonies were past, the Tucson players set about trying to win a game. The team had already been eliminated from playoffs earlier in the day when Las Vegas defeated Colorado Springs, but the players showed heart and clearly wanted to leave Tucson with a positive result.
Minor-league players, of course, are trying to work up the ladder to the majors, and big-league hopes carry more weight than Triple-A standings or which town the ballpark is in.
Padres starting pitcher Burch Smith lasted 7 innings without giving up a run, striking out a season-high 10 batters while allowing three hits and no walks.
Tucson's run came when Jonathan Galvez crossed the plate in the fourth on an RBI single by Gregorio Petit. Dean Anna went 1-for-4 at the plate to keep his Pacific Coast League-leading average at .333.
The Padres remained up a run all the way into the ninth inning. Reno rallied with two outs in the final inning, and were able to score two late runs. Tucson couldn't respond in the bottom half of the inning and the game ended 2-1 in favor of the visitors.
The Padres finish the season with a four-game trip to Las Vegas, having compiled a 42-30 home record, 74-66 overall.
Next season they will have moved down Interstate 10, to begin play in El Paso.
The road ahead for Tucson isn't so clear, though. The county continues to pay off the bill for Kino Stadium with no tenants available to help chip in. Some would like to see the park modified to be a multi-use facility which could host football, soccer, rugby and other sports instead of just baseball. Some stalwarts, like Padres manager Murphy, insist that pro hardball will return to Tucson, but fans who have watched the Sidewinders, Toros and now the Padres all disappear might find it difficult to be similarly optimistic.
The clouds over Kino did finally have their say, but it was just a light sprinkle as the game wound into the eighth inning. It wasn't enough to scare off the fans, but neither was it enough to satisfy the parched desert lands outside of the stadium.