As the sun rises on the saguaro, it has set on the fields and dugouts in south Tucson, Ariz. In fact, Harry Truman was throwing out first pitches the last time Major League Baseball's spring training wasn't nestled here in the Sonoran Desert.
“Every early March, we feel it a little but we go on, we’re really happy to have the three baseball games here this spring,” Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said.
But three games is at least 30 to 40 fewer than normal, because all the major-league teams that once called Tucson their spring home have left, and consequently, tens of thousands of fans are staying away.
The Chicago White Sox were the first to swing away, followed by Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks -- all left the area for grand new complexes 120 miles to the north in the Phoenix area. Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall says having all the spring teams in close proximity makes sense for both players and fans.
“The excitement for baseball was really up here in Phoenix," Hall said. "We found that when we traveled up here, our fans filled those ballparks up here rather than traveling down south.”
So that leaves the once-bustling Kino Sports Complex in Tucson without a lineup. Normally these fields in the south part of town would help pitch-in at least $16 million to the local economy in the five weeks that MLB comes to town, but last year the city of Tucson had to take a million dollars a year from the general fund just to keep the fields and complexes operational, mostly for youth sports and a few tournaments.
With baseball gone, the community may have found a new sport: soccer.
“This city is starved for another professional type of environment. They really love the baseball, but with that not being here currently and the University of Arizona being the main sports game in town, we feel that soccer was a perfect remedy for a city that was a little bit sick from the loss of having Major League Baseball and what an important part it was to our economy,” said Jon Pearlman, general manager of the local team FC Tucson.
He and a local group of investors helped encourage four Major League Soccer teams to take part in the "Desert Diamond Cup," a two-week tournament that pits teams against each other in a spring-training-like setup for soccer. They've also started a local Premier Development League (PDL) team called FC Tucson, basically minor league soccer that plays around the West.
“Even starting at the small level with us and having these types of professional games have really energized the city and really can be a great opportunity for fans of a variety of cultures to come together,” Pearlman said.
The city could eventually host at least 10 MLS teams for a soccer spring training and even some international squads have inquired about a visit to southern Arizona. If all goes as planned, the world's game could kick life back into this economy and draw nearly as many fans as America's pastime once did.
But local leaders still feel they haven't struck out with baseball. In the best of both worlds, two or three teams would once again take batting practice here, while soccer strikes right next door.