BY CAROLYN LaWELL
TUCSON, Arizona | Families stand in line at the taquería, children sift through the black, gold and red lucha libre masks, others relax in the stands to watch Ballet Folklorico in their bright costumes perform traditional Mexican dances on the Tucson Padres dugouts.
It’s Cinco de Mayo, and here at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium there’s a festival on the concourse celebrating the history of so many who live in this city, 60 miles north of the border.
Today is not about tacos, margaritas and mariachi bands – so many of the things with which Cinco de Mayo is associated in the United States. This is authentic.
The Mexican flag has been raised in the outfield, sitting just below the stars and stripes. The Mexican Consulate is even here. It’s a little bit of Mexico shared by first-, second- and third-generation immigrants with baseball fans and local residents.
"If you look at the footprint of the PCL, there is no Triple-A ballpark that is available that would pass the standards." - Mike Feder
“We’ve never made a concerted effort to do better in the Hispanic community,” says Mike Feder, vice president and general manager. “And that’s not to say we ignored them, but we looked at the Hispanic community as part of the overall community.”
That has changed this year. The Padres broadcast games in Spanish, PA announcements are made in Spanish, they have a Spanish Facebook page. They invite teams from the Mexican Winter League – Naranjeros de Hermosillo, Yaquis de Ciudad Obregon, Aguilas de Mexicali – to play exhibition games at Kino Stadium and they invite notable Mexican mascots like Beto Coyote. They hired a director of Hispanic marketing.
“Are we where we want to be?” Feder asks rhetorically. “Not even close. We need to be heavily involved in the Hispanic community. The Hispanic family is very prideful, they’re large families. They do things together, so we need to come up with things that are affordable. As we get closer to summer, we’re going to have to turn the knob on these things.”
The Padres have one event scheduled each month to attract Tucson’s Hispanic population, which makes up about 42 percent of the city. The hope is to gain a bigger fan base.
The Padres were last in the Pacific Coast League in attendance last year, attracting just more than 240,000, less than 40 percent of what the Round Rock Express, another PCL team, managed to draw during 2011.
But the Padres are in limbo.
Last year, just four months before opening day, team officials announced the team – which then played in Portland as the Beavers – was moving to Tucson because of an increased interest in that city in Major League Soccer. The Timbers had replaced the Beavers.
The Padres arrived with no guarantee beyond that first season. Now there’s no guarantee for next season. At the same time, there’s really nowhere for them to go. “If you look at the footprint of the PCL, there is no Triple-A ballpark that is available that would pass the standards,” Feder says. “That’s pretty crazy.”
The original goal was to move the team to Escondido, California, about 30 miles from their big league affiliate. Then the funding fell through. The chance that a stadium will be built in California looks slim since the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of a state law that abolished redevelopment agencies, which used a portion of tax revenue to work with developers. The state government faces its own budget problems. Reports have named El Paso, Texas; Boise, Idaho; and Vancouver, British Columbia, as possibilities. The immediate problem is none of those cities have Triple-A stadiums. “Ballparks don’t magically appear,” Feder says.
"I believe in doing something good in Tucson. Ultimately, I’m trying to make this something so that there’s a future." - Mike Feder
Feder knows what a minor league organization can be. He knows what it can be in Tucson. His first job as a minor league GM was for the Burlington Bees in 1974. He has led teams in Daytona Beach, Florida; Jackson, Mississippi; and Davenport, Iowa, to name a few. Most recently, he was the general manager of the Tucson Toros and Sidewinders from 1989 through 2000.
The Chicago native left Tucson for a job with the New Orleans Saints and, by choice, moved back to Tucson five years later without a job. “It’s home,” he says.
Feder was asked to return to his role as general manager when the team moved back to Tucson. He formed Tucson AAA Baseball LLC and brought in 12 local investors. Together the LLC took on the marketing risk of the Tucson Padres from the team’s owners, North County Baseball LLC.
“Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” Feder says. “But I believe in Tucson, I believe in doing something good in Tucson. Ultimately, I’m trying to make this something so that there’s a future.”
Feder doesn’t know the future past September.
Because of that fact, he’s fiscally conservative with the organization. The Padres are the only team in the PCL without a video board. Does he spend money on a video board not knowing if the team will be back next year? Probably not. With promotions, he’ll try anything. Last year, Bark in the Park night was so successful that now fans can bring their dogs to Kino Stadium to every Sunday home game.
“All I can do is keep throwing everything out there,” Feder says. “If we knew we were going to be here the next 10, 12, 20 years, we’d do better. There are a few people who say, ‘Well, why should we get behind you? We don’t even know if you’re going to come back.’”
The Cinco de Mayo festival and doubleheader brought 3,001 fans through the gates, a number that falls in the middle for the team’s attendance this season. Feder says he was disappointed in the turnout. He took a gamble and only used Hispanic media to promote the event. The problem is he doesn’t speak Spanish, which makes it hard for him to track actual coverage.
But he will keep trying new ideas. Keep trying for the diehard Tucson baseball fans. Keep trying to attract fans.
“The beauty of this is we’re doing something good,” he says. “At the end of the day, whenever the end of the day is for us, I have to leave this knowing that we helped a lot of people. If we achieve that and we’re not the greatest minor league team, I’m perfectly happy.”
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