Tucson is a sprawling city with wide streets built on a grid, featuring the
University of Arizona. It has a crime problem and a ton of those annoying
street kids who panhandle all day to buy high-end hiking shoes,
skateboards, and nice second-hand clothes they can wear in hip bars as they
nurse premium beers like strip-club customers, staring warily around to see
if someone who gave them money is going to notice them and pick a fight.
Tucson has packed frat bars and cool Swingers-style places to drink,
like Plush, a beautifully decorated lounge bar complete with good low-key
groove bands, cushioned stools with backs on them, and a bar surface of
polished copper squares.
I last went to the Cactus League almost ten years ago, when developers in
Phoenix were putting up strip malls as fast as they could, counting on the
constant southwest migration of the nation’s population to eventually fill
them with franchises, Mexican restaurants, chiropractic offices, and palm
readers. As I drove out of Phoenix, listening to Sleater-Kinney (the best
rock band you’ve never heard of), I saw that the developers had bet correctly.
Arizona has always grown ahead of itself, because there’s no reason to
build on any particular lot as the next one down is just as flat and a
little cheaper. Here in Tucson, which doesn’t seem to have a defined
downtown, that makes navigation hard for visitors. Even in Atlanta, where I
had a lot of trouble getting around downtown, I could tell when I was in
the industrial section, or the liquor-and-short-term-stay-hotel section,
and so forth. Here a warehouse is next to a paint store, which is next to
an empty lot with a mobile-and-difficult-to-prosecute taco stand parked on
it, and then there’s a movie theater.
Tucson Electric Park is a nice ballpark located in a bad section of the
city, one where you can sense the chop shops behind the quiet and
razor-wire-protected warehouse spaces. It’s only a couple of years old, a
smaller version of the modern, well-designed parks, with nice lines, good
seats, and a lot of ads along the outfield walls and the scoreboards. One
ad for a local gambling establishment is set so that it seems to be the
motto of the park: Tucson Electric Park, "Casino of the Sun."
One of the interesting side effects of concourse shading, which consists of
metal roofs under which the concessions stands/credit-card urchins/local
charity types ply their wares, is that foul balls ricochet wildly, so a
ball hit back hard could end up anywhere in the park, including the
hard-liquor stands or the infield. And throughout the game, A-10 attack
planes fly past the outfield, flaps down, seemingly slower than the visible
street traffic, beautiful, intimidating, and deadly, like the women in this
A lot of people make fun of minor-league baseball, because they have a lot
of giveaways, organists, and so on, but the major leagues are just as
guilty of that kind of nonsense. You’ll hear "YMCA" at least 60
times if you’re a season-ticket holder in Seattle, for instance, and you
get those little musical cues for all the players, the zany sound effects
on foul balls, the annoying announcer…. If anything, my experience has
been that minor-league games allow you to better enjoy a couple of hours,
with cheaper beer prices.
No, what really sets the minors apart is Zorro.
There’s some old movie studio in Tucson where they used to film Westerns,
and they’ve tried to turn it into a Universal Studios-type tourist
attraction. So at the ballpark today I got to see Zorro get into a
dialogue-overdubbed sword fight with a Spanish captain, who was threatening to
close down the place for…no explained reason (and what’s he doing in
Arizona anyway? Spanish authorities haven’t had any kind of jurisdiction in
the southwest since James K. Polk annexed it). Zorro then drew a pistol and
picked a Spanish soldier off the left-field scoreboard. (At about 400 feet.
You just don’t see that kind of marksmanship anymore.) And through the
whole spectacle, the look on all the White Sox players at the dugout fence,
the players who’d paused in their stretches, and all the fans in the
stadium read "What the hell?"
People couldn’t figure out if they should applaud, or laugh, or call the
police. It was that weird.
The first thing I noticed after I’d settled in was how amazingly ugly the
Cubs uniforms are. They’re even worse than they are on TV, which is the
extent of my Cubs-viewing experience. That color scheme is just awful, and
it’s made worse by the White Sox uniforms, which are restrained and cool. I
was surprised by how many Cubs fans turned up in Arizona. I’d heard there
was a massive contingent of them, both in the local population of retired
people and many others who took the trip down here, and indeed there were
people of all ages in Cubs stuff at the stadium.
Despite the largely old-and-boring lineup (I’m sorry, I just can’t get
excited by seeing Eric Young take the field), I was really happy to
get to see a bunch of players I’d never gotten to see in person. Corey
Patterson went 0-for-4 and displayed great range in center field. He
really does have the arm and the speed for the position, but he has to
learn to use them more effectively to be as good as he can be. On one
hard-hit line drive he got a great jump, ran an impressive sprint, then
dove for the ball, his glove up and over the ball. Unfortunately, Patterson
is taking game-delay tactics from Sammy Sosa, something that started
to grate immediately.
I was excited to see some of the White Sox’s fine young pitchers in Jon
Rauch and Mark Buehrle. Rauch is a massive presence on the
mound. He has a great-looking windup, and practically steps off the mound
(like Randy Johnson) with his huge stride. I can’t imagine having to
face him; he must seem to release the ball halfway to the plate. Rauch
seemed to have great control with his slower stuff, and when he cranked it
up it was impressive to watch; he racked up an impressive strikeout of
Patterson. Still, while he seemed to be making good pitches, he gave up a
couple of hits.
Buehrle, besides confounding the guys in the stands, threw some
great-looking pitches and impressed me. He seemed really smooth, his stuff
moved well, and he located his pitches consistently. Both pitchers were hit
harder than they should have been given the way they looked, but I wonder,
perhaps, if this isn’t somehow a field verification of the Heisenberg
uncertainty principle: that if you have enough scouts measuring the
velocity of the ball, it becomes possible to figure the exact speed of a
pitch, which then makes its location uncertain, and thus Jon Rauch becomes
Hee Seop Choi subbed in for Matt Stairs (who had cranked a
towering home run in the first), and while he looks like an impressive
first baseman, all I got to see of him was a weak one-handed swing as he
was sat down. I was surprised at how big he is–6’5" and 235 pounds,
and it looks like it’s all muscle. And for that matter, Frank Thomas
looked a lot better than when I’d seen him last (the fan next to me
remarked that perhaps he’d gone on a hunger strike as part of his struggle
to get more money).
And there was also a couple of cool things not related to prospects
about whom I’m excited:
- Situational hitting gives, and situational hitting takes away. Paul
Konerko did a great job making contact on a hit-and-run and in a
subsequent at-bat totally missed the same sign, which meant Magglio
Ordonez was left out to dry, and thrown out easily.
- Ricky Gustier tried to stretch a cheap single (a ground ball
that hit third base and bounced up) into a double and was thrown out by six
steps. I have no idea what he was thinking.
- Robert Machado, who’s not a favorite of mine, turned on a
fastball and powered it probably 400 feet into the left-field concourse,
maybe a meter off from putting it out of the park entirely. He also
demonstrated his defensive prowess by gunning a ball way into center field
on an attempted stolen base. Machado’s opposite on the White Sox was
Josh Paul, who is cited in Machado’s comment in Baseball
Prospectus 2001 as what can happen to players who can contribute about
as much to a major-league team but don’t whine about their role.
- There was a whole pack of scouts present, camped out in the small
section just behind home plate, mostly in Panama hats, trying to figure out
if Cal Eldred is over his injury, or hiding one, or if Kevin
Tapani is over his injury, or hiding one…. When a new pitcher comes
in, they all clock him for a while, guns up for each pitch and back down
for the notes like a Utah firing squad putting in a long day’s work, until
they get bored and fewer clock the pitches until only one scout, who must
have been the most diligent of all and who never stopped taking notes, was
left. And what’s strange is in about the seventh inning, they started to
get up and leave in small packs, though this meant they missed Buehrle, as
well as the Cubs’ Scott Chiasson doing his weird little hoppy delivery.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.