The days of romantic involvement of local fans and minor-league baseball decades ago, when teams were not affiliated with a big-league club and played from town to town, are a piece of Americana like the drive-in movie theater and delivery of milk from the milkman.
Members of Tucson’s modern-day independent minor-league baseball team — the Tucson Saguaros — pay mostly out of their own pocket carpooling to remote towns in Texas, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado to play the game they love and gain potential exposure from scouts.
That is no different than the Tucson Cowboys of the Arizona-State League from the 1920’s to the 1950’s going by car or train to Phoenix, Bisbee, Globe, Miami or El Paso.
“There’s a lot of small towns we go to, but I feel like because of that, it brings the team together,” said Tucson Saguaros manager Sean McNeill, whose team carpools to Pecos Independent League Mountain Division locations such as Austin (Texas), Santa Fe (N.M.), Roswell (N.M.), Alpine (Texas), Garden City (Kan.) and Trinidad (Colo.).
“It’s like college all over again, except we took a bus for road trips in college,” said right-hander Jaymon Cervantes, a Class of 2014 Empire graduate who went on to excel at Minot (N.D.) State until 2019. “It’s a grind, but honestly, it’s a good time being around the guys.
“Our road trips run from anywhere from four to seven hours. Being on the road with the boys that long, it’s a good time. You make it work. It definitely takes you back to your college days. Just the camaraderie of also being in the hotel. It definitely builds good team chemistry, that’s for sure.”
The team bonding may be old-fashioned with players confined to limited spaces — including living at the resident of host families during the season — but the fan involvement is not like the good ‘ol days of minor-league baseball here.
The significant difference from then to now is Tucson’s citizens have many more ways to keep themselves occupied during the hot summer nights.
Watching independent-league baseball may not be as appealing as viewing a major-league game on TV, streaming a movie or series on Netflix or choosing from numerous places to take the family to eat dinner.
Back then, the Tucson Cowboys were the buzz of the town.
The Cowboys and Hi Corbett Field (then called Randolph Park) both originated almost 100 years ago in 1928. About 2,000 fans attended the season-opener against Miami Miners that year.
As time went on, the Cowboys continued to be a popular draw. At the end of the 1953 season, more than 3,000 fans showed up for Fan Appreciation Night on the last home regular-season game.
The festivities included a motorcade from the old Santa Rita Hotel downtown to the ballpark that featured Senator Hi Corbett and other dignitaries. The Tucson Cowboys, champions of the Arizona-State league that year, were also part of the motorcade as were all Little League players from the area. Fans drove behind the motorcade to the park.
Once there, the Cowboys were serenaded by the Tucson Boys Chorus on the infield. The Davis-Monthan Air Force Band performed the national anthem.
People did not have ESPN or Fox Sports. Phones were not in their hands; they were mounted to the wall with a rotary dial.
Only about 300 fans attended the Saguaros’ game Thursday night at the Kino Memorial Stadium despite the team being atop the Mountain Division standings. They concluded a three-game sweep of the Austin Weirdos (nicknames are also different these days) on Saturday to improve to 28-9.
The Saguaros are the best team nobody knows.
“There’s talent; there’s lots of talent here,” said Tucson right-hander Travis Cole, a Sahuaro High School and Memphis (Tenn.) Christian Brothers University alum who was selected to the Mountain Division All-Star Game that was played Sunday at Alpine.
“Just wish there was an opportunity for more scouts to look at this league because there is some really good talent here (in which) kids can move up and make a good career for themselves.”
Former Sahuaro baseball standout Travis Cole is playing with the Pecos Independent League’s Tucson Saguaros. Cole, a RHP, is 1-0 with a 3.48 ERA with 33 strikeouts and 7 walks in 20 2/3 innings for the 26-9 Saguaros. Concluded 5-year career at Christian Brothers U. at Memphis… pic.twitter.com/QnHPwbP1Zh
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) July 15, 2023
Cole is one of many Saguaros who recently excelled at small colleges, including NAIA and NCAA Division II and III institutions. They attended tryouts after their college seasons concluded and were picked by Pecos League managers to play for their team. This is a situation in which dreams actually fuel the desire to succeed.
The healthy attitudes of the players allow them to manage through the day-to-day grind while playing mostly in obscurity with little or no pay.
A Pecos League baseball salary is $500 a month at maximum. The lowest is $200. Each of the Saguaros is paid $60 a week. That does not include donations that are gathered at home games from fans to help players with gas money for their road trips. Host families provide a relief from housing costs, and the league pays for hotel rooms for road trips.
No other player on Tucson’s roster could be more frustrated or down on himself than infielder Madison Santos with the extremely low salary and long car rides. At this time last year, Santos was playing at Single-A Tampa in his second year in the New York Yankees’ farm system.
There he was before Thursday’s game at Kino Stadium being the most vocal and boisterous of the Saguaros, making others laugh and stay loose before first pitch. He approached the Saguaros’ cactus-looking mascot “Sticky” and asked to check out the old wooden bat it was carrying.
“My experience here is great,” said Santos, who is from the Dominican Republic. “I never played for another professional organization (than the Yankees) and I feel great. My teammates and my manager are great, too.
“I love talking to my teammates, my guys. They need me.”
Santos keeps in contact with his agent, who tries to alert teams and their scouts about him. With how he’s performing, he may get another shot with a big-league club especially because he is only 22.
Also selected to the Mountain Division All-Star Game, Santos is batting .458 with 17 doubles, nine home runs and 43 RBIs.
In the All-Star Game, in which his team won 12-7, Santos was 4 for 6 with two doubles and a triple and four RBIs.
Former New York Yankees farmhand Madison Santos, an infielder from the Dominican Republic who was with Single-A Tampa last year, is enjoying his season with the Pecos Independent League’s Tucson Saguaros and it shows with how he’s become a vocal leader who tries to keep things… pic.twitter.com/i4lFVxQFET
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) July 15, 2023
Players elevating themselves from the Pecos Independent League (formed in 2011) to a major-league franchise has occurred before.
Right-hander Jon Edwards, formerly of the Alpine Cowboys, made his major-league debut with the Texas Rangers on Aug. 15, 2014, becoming the first player in Pecos League history to play in Major League Baseball.
Another right-hander, Chris Smith, who played for the now-defunct Alamogordo (N.M.) White Sands Pupfish in the Pecos League, was called up to the Toronto Blue Jays in September 2016 to become the second player from the league to make a major-league roster, though he did not appear in a game. He eventually made his big-league debut for the Blue Jays on June 27, 2017.
Right-handers Eric Yardley, Chris Mazza and Logan Gillaspie and utility player Yermín Mercedes also progressed to the majors after playing in the Pecos League.
Mercedes played for the Douglas Diablos in 2014 in the only year of their existence as part of the Pecos League. He played for the Chicago White Sox in 2020 and 2021 and the San Francisco Giants last season.
Two players in the World Baseball Classic played before this season were in the Pecos League — Panama utility player Edgar Muñoz (Garden City) and Nicaragua outfielder Juan Montes (Roswell).
A total of 28 players from the Pecos League have elevated themselves to a major-league club either in the minors or majors, including former Saguaros pitcher Duncan Snider, who is with the San Diego Padres’ rookie affiliate in Phoenix.
“For us as a team, it’s important to get the word out to let people know we’re actually here,” McNeill said. “For the players, just getting their numbers out there. I have a lot of contacts in the higher leagues and try to help them get promoted.
“They also need to go to tryouts to get their face out there or going to social media. It’s different nowadays. You can go on the internet and search a player’s name and information pops up.”
McNeill is in his fourth season managing the Saguaros in the summer while living near Philadelphia and working with FedEx Freight as a forklift operator and mentor the rest of the year. His girlfriend is from Tucson and has family here.
He led the Saguaros to the Pecos League championships in 2020 and 2021 and came close to three consecutive titles last year but Roswell won the last game of the series at Kino Stadium.
He won his 200th game as Tucson’s manager this season.
This must be news to many. Chances are, a vast majority of people, including ardent baseball fans, in Tucson do not know of the Saguaros’ success under McNeill.
Less than 500 showed up at Kino Stadium for the championship series last year.
The Saguaros are building to yet another postseason appearance this season. They are already assured a playoff spot, hosting Alpine from Aug. 1-3 in the opening best-of-three round of the playoffs.
“I read it and hear it all the time, ‘Tucson does not have a minor-league baseball team,'” said Bill Jones, who hosts two of the players at his home. “Well, there is one, a very successful one, right here.”
REMAINING SAGUAROS SCHEDULE
Home games start at 7 p.m. at Kino Memorial Stadium
- July 17 — at Roswell (NM) Invaders
- July 18 — at Roswell (NM) Invaders
- July 20 — Alpine (Texas) Cowboys
- July 21 — Alpine (Texas) Cowboys
- July 22 — Alpine (Texas) Cowboys
- July 23 — at Alpine (Texas) Cowboys
- July 24 — at Alpine (Texas) Cowboys
- July 25 — at Alpine (Texas) Cowboys
- July 27 — Roswell (NM) Invaders
- July 28 — Roswell (NM) Invaders
- July 29 — Roswell (NM) Invaders
- July 30 — Roswell (NM) Invaders
- Aug 1 — Pecos League Mountain Division semifinals Game 1 — Alpine (Texas) Cowboys at Tucson Saguaros
- Aug 2 — Pecos League Mountain Division semifinals Game 2 — Alpine (Texas) Cowboys at Tucson Saguaros
- Aug 3 — Pecos League Mountain Division semifinals Game 3 (if necessary) — Alpine (Texas) Cowboys at Tucson Saguaros
Part of the reason for the eyesore of many empty seats is the Saguaros play in the largest facility of the Pecos League Mountain Division with Kino Stadium seating 11,000. The next highest is Alpine’s 1,400-seat Kokemot Field.
This is the fourth year the team has played at Kino since its inception in 2016. They played Sunday games in 2016 and 2017 at the old Warren Ballpark in Bisbee. In 2018, the operations moved to Reid Park Annex Field No. 5 and also Cherry Field, where they played the 2019 season. During the COVID-19-affected season of 2020, all league games were played in Houston, where the headquarters for Pecos Baseball is located. After playing games at Amphi High School in 2021, the team moved back to Kino Stadium last season.
Who knows where they’ll play next? That’s part of the identity problem with the Saguaros.
Tucson also does not have a marketing staff like other minor-league ballclubs that reach out to the community for advertisements or help with giveaways for promotions. Laura Martin handles the operations of the Saguaros specifically at Kino Stadium on gameday, and she coordinates the players with their volunteer host families. She and her husband David, who assists her with the operations and serves as the groundskeeper, house players themselves.
Jones is in his first year housing Tucson’s players after he and his wife years before housed an exchange student, Up With People participants and people from touring groups who needed an extended stay.
“Our kids are all grown and out of the house,” Jones said. “So what we essentially provide them is a bed, shower and a washing machine. And they sleep late enough that we’re not feeding them much.
“And even when we’ve said, ‘Hey, do you want something to eat?’ They say, ‘No thanks, we’re going to the game.’ They seem to be easygoing and get along. They’re all out here trying to enjoy playing baseball.”
Cervantes, also selected to the Mountain Division All-Star Game, has the luxury of staying at his own place during home games.
After his career at Minot State ended 2019, Cervantes returned to Tucson and served as an assistant coach at Sahuaro the last four years while running a personal training program.
He took it upon himself to regenerate his baseball career by attending one of the Pecos League tryouts in Scottsdale during the spring. McNeill noticed him and their encounter evolved into Cervantes joining the hometown Saguaros.
“I decided I want to start playing again and I gave it a shot. The sky’s the limit,” Cervantes said of his baseball career. “I don’t want to just stop here. I want to keep kind of building up what I’ve recently picked up again and kind of go from there. I just want to go as far as I can.”
Cervantes, an imposing pitcher who can also hit the ball hard at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, is not performing like he had a four-year respite from playing baseball.
He is 6-1 with a 3.76 ERA. He has recorded 50 strikeouts and 12 walks in 36 1/3 innings. McNeill has allowed Cervantes to bat as a pinch-hitter and when he is the starting pitcher, and Cervantes is hitting .300 in 20 at-bats with three doubles and three RBIs.
“I think it was a little different for me than it was for a lot of the other guys because I’m from here,” Cervantes said about his success. “I got an opportunity to play for the hometown team, which is something that not many people get to say they can do.
“That was probably one of the biggest things for me, as well as getting back into the game. But it is definitely about getting to that next level. I’m having a lot of fun. I definitely enjoy playing for the hometown team and it’s cool to have these guys see my hometown as well and kind of get to experience that, too.”
Another unique aspect of the Pecos League is if visiting teams are in need of help, local players are called upon.
That was the case last weekend when Austin needed pitching help and former Salpointe and Pima College standout Marcus Catalano — who does not have an extensive pitching background — was summoned by one of his friends who plays for the Weirdos. Catalano played for the Saguaros in 2020 as an outfielder and then in different leagues in 2021 at Puerto Rico, where he started to dabble with pitching. He has not played a full season of baseball since.
Catalano, who stays in shape just in case a baseball opportunity arises, owns a popular barbershop called “Edged,” which is at the corner of La Cholla and Orange Grove.
“It was random,” Catalano said about joining the Weirdos. “I randomly called my friend Carlo Francisco, who’s on the Weirdos. I told him I might stop by the game, and he said, ‘Do you want to pitch? We need pitchers.’
‘I came out because I was like, ‘If you really need me to pitch, I’m down.’ I don’t know why I wanted to but I did. The same thing happened last year when a former teammate of mine with the Monterey Amberjacks was here and I was giving him a haircut. He was like, ‘We could use you.’ I played in two games with them against the Saguaros.”
Catalano has also coached at Sahuaro. The school on social media highlighted Catalano, a former coach, pitching to Cervantes, a current assistant, on Thursday night. Cervantes hit a double off him.
They shared laughs afterward.
Austin’s record was 1-33 (not a typo) after it was swept by the Saguaros over the weekend. It continues to field a team and get through the long arduous road trips without dismay. With no permanent home field, the Weirdos have played only four games in Austin this season.
Catalano said he did not sense a downtrodden feeling in the dugout. It was one of anticipation of getting more at-bats or more innings on the mound that mattered most.
That was the vibe back in the old days when the Tucson Cowboys played and the community rallied around them.
Tucson was much smaller back then with a population of about 45,000 at the start of the 1950s. The population here now is estimated to be close to 550,000.
Although the relationship with the Cowboys and Tucson was a lot more intimate at that time than it is now with the Saguaros and people around here, the Saguaros compete with the same passion for the game as the Cowboys exhibited in front of the large crowds at Randolph Park and then Hi Corbett Field.
“They’re here to play baseball and have fun, the way it should be,” Catalano said. “I honestly did not know Austin had only won one game this year after playing with them (Thursday). That wasn’t brought up. Playing in an independent league, the record does not always matter.
“These guys are truly playing for the love of the game with the possibility of getting noticed. That’s all they really care about.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.