Teaming with Talent
If you’re new to town, you may not realize that along with events involving the UA Wildcats, there are other athletic competitions taking place here — even on ice! Meet three local, professional sports teams, whose young players have their eyes on moving up to competing on a national level.
By Betsy Bruce
Though the exact origins of baseball are unknown, it can be traced back to 18th century England. It’s safe to say that the early practitioners of bat-and-ball contests wouldn’t recognize a modern game. But baseball has become iconic in America, as well as loved in countries such as Japan, Cuba and South Korea.
The players of the Pecos League’s Tucson Saguaros, all just cracking their 20s, play for the love of the game. Their manager, 72-year-old Bill Moore, has been involved in independent league baseball for almost half a century. Moore identifies the 1988 Kevin Costner film Bull Durham as his favorite baseball movie because, “It is the most realistic portrait of minor league baseball ever.” If you wonder what he thinks of toiling outside the spotlights of “the Show,” his comment on his career is: “In the big department store of the universe, I work in the toys department … great job.”
Home base for the Saguaros right now is TUSD’s Cherry Field and the team’s roster is composed of plucky young men, most fresh from college, who aspire to play in “the bigs.” Indeed Moore has managed an amazing 28 players who’ve made it to the major leagues, including Paul Konerko, captain of the 2005 World Series Champion Chicago White Sox and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers’ all-time leader in postseason appearances. “I like an aggressive bunch of guys,” says Moore. “I like to play with speed.” When the Saguaros are having fun on the field, that’s when they’re playing their best.
Pitcher Eric Morell returned to the Saguaros after a perfect 7 and 0 in 2017. The recent LaGrange College (Georgia) graduate majored in exercise science, and though he throws the heat, he says icing the arm post game isn’t necessary so he doesn’t indulge. Morrell pitches with a “bulldog mentality” and has little doubt the Saguaros are championship caliber this season. California native and leftie pitcher Ryan Baca has been playing baseball since he was two years old and says being a southpaw “makes me a little sneakier.” The 2018 marked Baca’s inaugural year playing for Moore. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about him,” says Baca. “This is a guy you can learn a lot from. Dude is awesome.”
Pecos League play starts in mid-May and, according to Moore, will end in mid-August with the Saguaro’s taking part in the League championship. First pitch for weekday home games is at 7 p.m., just when that cooling expanse of shade begins to grow. Tickets can be purchased online or at the gate. Bleachers are in place and lawn chairs are welcome. A food truck will offer burgers off the grill and cold drinks.
For FC Tucson Head Coach Dave Cosgrove, paradise can be found on the green quilt of soccer fields at Kino Complex North. “This is the best facility in our league and it’s why they bring in the pro teams for pre-season training,” he comments. The immaculate fields, densely carpeted, make one imagine a player might be bounced back to his feet upon falling.
Although most of the world calls the sport football, we Americans call it soccer, borrowing slang that originated in England in the 1800s. The story goes that in order to keep Rugby and the other ball game from being confused, it became known as Association Football, with students at Oxford, et al. shortening it to “soc” plus “er.”
In any case, FC stands for Football Club and it takes major skills to make the FC Tucson roster of 18 players who travel. The season runs from early May through July and the team is composed of collegiate stars and newly graduated players who all aim to advance to the professional leagues. Former FC Tucson players now competing in MLS (Major League Soccer) include Aaron Long, a defender for the New York Red Bulls; Aaron Herrera, Real Salt Lake forward; and the 2016 Collegiate Player of the Year Jon Bakero, a forward for the Chicago Fire. “Tucson,” says Cosgrove, who also is the soccer coach for Pima Community College, “is a terrific soccer city.”
The North Stadium at Kino Sport Complex, just across from Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium on Ajo Way, affords covered seating for 1,800 fans. Games start at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can be purchased online and at the gate. The season runs from May through July (longer with championship play). Grilled burgers, hot dogs, nachos and popcorn are served, as well as ice-cold beverages.
In its six years of existence, FC Tucson has had unprecedented success, winning division titles five of those seasons. Under new ownership, the future looks brighter still. Phoenix Rising, the Phoenix-based team aspiring to become an MLS franchise, purchased the team last year, adding cachet and resources. FC Tucson will advance to the professional ULS (United League Soccer) within the next two years. “We play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” says Cosgrove. “Fans can expect a total soccer experience.” FC Tucson soccer is relentless and artistic, and when you go, expect to see nose-to-the-pitch, infinitely conditioned athletes working the soft leather ball with feet as articulate as hands doing sign language. And that sign, more often than not, is victory.
Editor’s note: The FC Tucson women’s team recently won the Pac South Conference Championship.
For the last two years there has been a new weather phenomenon in the desert Southwest. October though May, it’s been snowing inside the Tucson Convention Center. Throwing up rooster tails of fresh, fine ice (know in the game as “snow”) are a group of 28 supremely padded, hockey-stick-wielding buddies called the Tucson Roadrunners. They may be the “farm team” for the National
Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes (most under contract to the ’Yotes and many called up), but they are so much more than that. They are Tucson — unique, spirited and determined.
The charming “Coyotes and Roadrunners” reference is indeed an homage to the classic Warner Bros. cartoon. “Meep Meep” sounds after the clamor of each Roadrunner goal at the TCC.
Last season’s captain Andrew Campbell hails from Caledonia, Ontario. Tall at 6’3” he rises to 6’6” on blades. Campbell credits chemistry in part for the team’s success. “We have a lot of fun on the ice and outside the rink. It’s a great group of guys.” One of three goalies for the team, 22-year-old Minnesotan Hunter Miska, says he savors the pressure of the position — the last line of defense. His artist father has custom air-brushed the masks of some of the most famous NHL goalies, including Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff. It’s the one concession to individualism allowed on the ice. Miska’s mask, painted by his father, is adorned with the state of Arizona with a rising sun and mountains on one side, and the Coyotes’ logo on the other, willing his son to someday defend the crease against the very best.
The Stanley Cup of the Roadrunners’ AHL (American Hockey League) is the Calder Cup and in May 2018 the team made it as far as the Pacific Division Final. “We are young and fast,” Miska says.” We outwork other teams.” The thousands of fans who cheer on the Roadrunners are “passionate and rowdy,” pounding the Plexiglass, clanging purple cowbells and snacking on mini doughnuts fresh from a concessioner’s sizzling deep fryer.
The weather calls for snow again this October inside the TCC, and one lucky fan will be chosen to gather it. A second seat has been added atop the Zamboni, the backyard shed-sized machine that snakes around the rink, collecting snow, dispensing fresh water and erasing the scars of the last quarter. Rink-side tickets can be had for $40 to $50, but there is always a seat for just around $10. The Roadrunner 2018-19 season starts in October, and tickets will go on sale this summer. TL