Death of a ballpark

For the longest time, I’ve been meaning to get out to El Paso to see that new ballpark. No, I’m not referring to the new Triple-A, Padres-affiliated facility being built for the 2014 season; I’m referring to Cohen Stadium, the ballpark that was built to house the Double-A Texas League franchise in 1990.

It seems like only yesterday I was reading about how Cohen Stadium was such a magnificent minor league venue. For example, ballpark maven Charlie O’Reilly (http://www.charliesballparks.com) visited the park in 2000 and 2007 and exulted “A GEM OF THE SOUTHWEST: Cohen Stadium is absolutely the finest example I’ve seen of ballpark construction from the late 1980s.” Well, I know Charlie and Charlie knows his ballparks, so his opinions are highly informed.

But that was then and this is now, and the distance between the two seems to be shrinking. In a sense, ballparks are akin to special effects in the movies. The best FX from 25 years just won’t cut it in today’s action blockbusters. The same is true of ballpark design. That overused compound adjective state-of-the-art has a short life and those blue ribbons fade quickly.

Now that Cohen Stadium is about to bite the dust (easy to do in West Texas), I felt a sense of urgency. I don’t recommend visiting El Paso in July but given my schedule and the El Paso Diablos’ schedule, that turned out to be the best time. Actually, sweltering at the ballpark is something of a tradition in El Paso.

Baseball has been played in El Paso in some form or fashion since the 1890s, and the earliest professional teams were anywhere from Class B to Class D. The Double-A Texas League era began in 1962, and the lion’s share of the city’s baseball history lies therein.

The first Texas League team was known as the Sun Kings (a carryover from the Class D Sophomore League team of the previous season) and the Giants were their MLB affiliate. These Sun Kings didn’t reign anywhere as long as their namesake, Louis XIV (who ruled France for more than 72 years). In fact, they only made it through 1970 (the Giants gave way to the Angels in 1965) when the franchise moved to Shreveport.

After a one-year hiatus, during which the league merged with the Southern League to form the Dixie Association, the Texas League returned and welcomed the El Paso Sun Dodgers in 1972. The name reverted to Sun Kings in 1973, and the affiliation reverted to the Angels.

The name Diablos was adopted in 1974. The Angels stuck around through 1980, whereupon the Brewers moved in from 1981 to 1998, followed by the Diamondbacks from 1999-2004. Throughout these changes in affiliation, the name Diablos remained.

The common thread running through all these Texas League changes through 1989 was Dudley Field (erected 1945). After more than four decades of service, the old south side ball yard was showing its age, and a new ballpark was decreed. Cohen Stadium was the result.

The name is unusual in that it refers to not one but two men: brothers Andy (1904-1988) and Syd (1906-1988) Cohen, who grew up in El Paso and played minor league ball there. Andy Cohen was a second baseman with the New York Giants in the 1920s, while Syd Cohen was a pitcher for the Washington Senators in the 1930′s. Both coached at the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP (unfortunately, the baseball program was terminated after the 1985 season).

When it opened in 1990, Cohen Stadium was the pride of the Texas League. Located on the north side of town, at the eastern terminus of the Trans-Mountain Highway, it featured a view of the Franklin Mountains (the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains in the United States), which run north towards New Mexico and divide El Paso into a V shape. With a seating capacity of almost 10,000 and ample parking, Cohen Stadium certainly appeared to have it all.

But 16 seasons later, the honeymoon was over. Texas League ballparks were going glitzy and Cohen Stadium was falling back in the pack. In fact, if the Texas League had remained in El Paso, Cohen Stadium would be the oldest stadium in the league today.

After the 2004 season, the Texas League franchise moved to Springfield, Missouri. Cohen Field remained occupied, however, as the Diablos were resuscitated as a franchise in the independent Central League. Independent minor league teams, like cuckoos, often take up residence in balllparks/nests that have been abandoned by previous teams. Sometimes they find a long-term home, sometimes they just lay an egg.

After the 2005 season, the Central League was absorbed by the American Association, which was a new independent league that had nothing to do with the old affiliated Triple-A league of the same name. And there the Diablos have played ever since. The attendance was decent even though the teams, for the most part, were not. This year, however, attendance has nosedived, now that everyone knows the Diablos are just playing out the string till the one-degree-of-separation-from-the-Show (i.e., Triple-A) team arrives next April.

One curious aspect of the upcoming change is that the San Diego Padres will have their top minor league affiliates in areas that feature chains of missions. Triple-A El Paso has three missions south of the city along the Rio Grande (and more on the Mexican side of the river), while Double-A San Antonio has four.

Given the California missions, the San Diego nickname, and the swinging friar mascot, it’s almost as though the MLB franchise has been on a mission in search of MiLB venues with missions. I don’t think the Pope is a baseball fan, but if he is, I know what his favorite team is.

Moving from affiliated ball to independent ball is far more common than vice versa, but the latter is exactly what happened in El Paso. In fact, the town not only returned to affiliated ball, they got an upgrade from Double-A to Triple-A! And they have Portland, Oregon to thank for it.

Portland had been a sometime member of the Pacific Coast League. Up till 2010 the Portland Beavers were the Triple-A affiliate of the Padres. But their venerable old stadium was converted to a soccer-only facility and the city would not build them a new ballpark, so they were forced to move.

The Padres’ Plan A was to build a Triple-A park in Escondido (just north of San Diego) but that fell through. As a stopgap measure, the Triple-A franchise moved to Tucson, the former home park of the Triple-A Sidewinders, formerly an affiliate of the Diamondbacks, who had moved their affiliate to Reno (yes, it is hard to keep all this stuff straight).

The arrival of the Tucson Padres displaced the independent Tucson Toros, who played at historic Hi Corbett Field, now the home of the University of Arizona baseball team. After 2013, pro ball comes to an end in Tucson, unless the city wants to have another fling with an independent minor league team

Whatever questions El Paso presents as a Triple-A market, population isn’t one of them. The metropolitan area is growing quickly and has a population close to 1.1 million (ironically, just ahead of Tucson). Throw in Juarez on the Mexican side of the border, and the potential fan base swells to about 2.7 million people.

Admittedly, border crossing is a hassle and few of the denizens of Juarez have the money to attend games in El Paso with any frequency, but since El Paso-Juarez is the biggest metro area on the U.S. border, the market area south of the border can’t be totally ignored. In fact, organized baseball had a presence in Juarez from 1937 through 1984.

Due to its geographic isolation, El Paso meant long bus rides to Texas League or American Association ballparks. Triple-A teams fly commercial jets, and by air, El Paso’s remoteness is negated. In that sense, Triple-A ball is a better fit for El Paso than Double-A ball.

What remains unknown at this point is what happens to the name Diablos. To give the devils their due, it was a perfectly good nickname for four decades, and it’s a shame to see it dumped into the landfill of minor league baseball trivia. In particular, I will miss the team’s logo, a baseball bat-wielding chile pepper with an appropriately devilish grin.

For better or worse, a name-that-team contest has turned up five finalists:

Aardvarks. Surely you jest. Other than putting the team in first place in a listing of all-time team nicknames, what advantage does this bestow? Every now and then a minor league team likes to adopt an ugly animal nickname (e.g., the Winston-Salem Warthogs), which would be all right if said animal’s habitat were anywhere close. But aardvarks? In West Texas? The best way to sink this possibility is to refer the team decision-makers to the fact that aardvark, when used as a verb, has some sleazy sexual connotations.

Buckaroos. This is an Anglicization/bastardization of the Spanish word vaquero, which loosely means cowboy. You can easily imagine the name being shortened to either Bucks or Roos.

Chihuahuas. Those noisy, irritating ankle-biting canines won’t strike fear into opponents’ hearts, but the name has more than one meaning. El Paso sits in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert and the Mexican state of Chihuahua is just across the border. Given all that, plus the popularity of the eponymous pooch, the name does make sense.

Desert Gators. This isn’t as goofy as it sounds. El Paso has a landmark fountain with alligator statues commemorating a downtown alligator pond that lasted from the 1880s till the 1960s. Of course, they won’t know that in other Pacific Coast League parks and the fans there will be puzzled by the name. In truth, it sounds too much like one of those Arizona Fall League teams.

Sun Dogs. Well, at least they didn’t spell it D-A-W-G-S. In El Paso, the Chamber of Commerce really likes that word “sun.” Hits the snow birds where they live. Also, there is an atmospheric phenomenon known as a sun dog, but as far as I know, El Paso is no more conducive to them than anywhere else. Keep in mind there is a manufacturer of sunglasses known as Sun Dog. So I’m guessing the lawyers will nix this name unless the team ties in with the corporate interests. Not farfetched if you think about it…they’ve been naming stadiums after corporations for decades. Why not teams?

Personally, I think they should have considered the Robins. The bird is not only local but the name also salutes Marty Robbins, the balladeer whose song about El Paso has withstood the test of time. Another good one would have been the Del Nortes (sounds like one of those 1960s surf music bands), since the original name of the City was El Paso del Norte (the pass of the north). Given the climate, how about the Scorchers? Given the desert sands, how about the Pharaohs? Then after every base on balls awarded to the home team, “Walk Like an Egyptian” could blare over the loudspeakers.

Actually, I don’t see any of these names as an improvement over Diablos, but if you want to turn over a new chapter in El Paso baseball history, you might as well go all the way. When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the Devil, their fortunes turned around quickly. Maybe something of the sort will happen in El Paso.

In the meantime, the Diablos are still taking the field, but clearly the team and their ballpark are just marking time. Of the four games I saw there, the Diablos won just one. That .250 wining percentage was actually slightly higher than their winning percentage before those games. So we’re looking at the American Association equivalent of the 1962 Mets – and potentially worse!

Managing this team is a thankless task, and I can’t imagine what persuaded Carlos Lezcano to come in and take over for Tim Johnson halfway through the season. The P.A. announcer has vocal cords of steel and works overtime to get the crowd worked up, but it’s all for naught. It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for a moribund team that can’t win more than one game in four. If they were going out in an apocalyptic blaze of glory, that would be another matter.

I’m guessing that Cohen Stadium hasn’t been seriously maintained since the Texas League affiliation ended. For sure, there is no motivation to fix it up now. The scoreboard clock doesn’t work and the video board also needs a repairman. Granted, the park is in the desert, but the grass, infield and outfield is unacceptably patchy. Given the team’s circumstances, why would a groundskeeper knock himself out in the heat? And who could blame the Diablos for trying to keep their water bill down?

Curiously, Cohen Stadium contains no plaques or monuments to explain why the field is so named. I seriously doubt that one fan in a hundred has any idea as to who the Cohen brothers were. If you quizzed them, they’d probably say they were those two movie guys who made “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Big Lebowski.”

Speaking of movies, Cohen Stadium has a large sign containing the complete “Build It and They Will Come” speech delivered by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, which was released one year before the ballpark opened.. I think that qualifies as a unique feature, and probably one that will be in demand as an artifact before the wrecking ball comes calling.

After viewing four games at Cohen Field, I have no doubt that it could be fixed up for Triple-A baseball. When it was built, the park was considered remote, but that allowed for plenty of parking spaces. Now suburbia has caught up with the surrounding area, but the parking lots remain. Needless to say, the parking situation downtown will be very different next year.

The park reminds me a bit of an older spring training park in Arizona—Phoenix Muni comes to mind. As in Arizona, there is desert landscaping around the park, but it looks as though not much upkeep has been done. A row of eleven palm trees stand sentinel around the outfield walls. Unfortunately, only one is still alive. Again, with money and motivation, it could have been rectified.

On the plus side, the Cohen Stadium concourse is wide, there are plenty of concessions stands (though the food offerings are generic), and deluxe boxes ring the grandstand. While they may not be deluxe by 2013 standards, I’m sure they could have been updated.

Another big plus is the killer view of the mountains from the third-base side. That side of the park is covered by a sturdy, multi-peaked white canopy (it kind of looks like the roof of the Denver Airport). In fact, the mountains and the tent-like overhang are the defining features of the ballpark.

The seating bowl is split with box seat chairbacks in the lower half and general admission aluminum benches in the upper half. For contemporary Triple-A ballparks, chairbacks are a must. Gotta have those cup holders, you know. (Sudden thought: are those cup holders just for the convenience of fans, or have they done studies that show people spend more on drinks when cup holders are present?)

The cluttered outfield wall (double deck advertising signs all the way around, save for the batter’s eye) wouldn’t pass muster in a Triple-A park. Cohen Stadium isn’t the only minor league park suffering from advertising overload but, again, it would not have been difficult to rectify the situation given sufficient motivation.

Still, despite the aforementioned problems, I have no doubt that updating Cohen Stadium would have been a lot cheaper than acquiring land downtown, demolishing buildings, and putting up a new ballpark. Too late now, however, as construction got underway on May 30.

There’s not much to see downtown right now, but there is a web site (http://www.elpasotriplea.com) that offers computerized renderings of the ballpark. Admittedly, the design is impressive, and if the reality is anywhere close to the plan, the city will have quite a showplace.

As with all projects of this nature, exaggeration, political grandstanding, and hyperbole are all in evidence. Last year’s $50 million price tag went up to $60.8 million and finally $64 million. No telling what the final tally will be. Of course, none of this matters unless you are a taxpaying El Pasoan.

But the locals may be in for more sticker shock when they see ticket prices in 2014. Granted, the brand of baseball will be far superior to what they have seen in the American Association, and there will be more seats available. But the bargains they enjoyed at Cohen Stadium will vanish.

For sure, box seats will not go for $8.00. Also, the numerous free ticket giveaways (e.g., buy a $3.00 program and get four vouchers for free general admission Monday through Thursday) will probably disappear. Free admission for active military for specified games may remain—after all, there are 13,000 troops a few miles away at Fort Bliss, and you want their support. Parking downtown will probably be more than $5.00 on game nights, however, and will likely involve a longer trek. And 25¢ hot dog night on Sundays? Downtown you might get a $1.00 hot dog night… maybe… if you’re lucky.

The cost of living in El Paso is reasonable, as American cities go, but that means the pay scale is also lower. People will still be looking for something to do in the summer besides dehydrate, but regular visits to the new ballpark may be a bit too expensive for most El Paso families.

My guess is that initially the locals will flock to the new park. They will be proud of it. Whether or not the new park makes downtown El Paso more of a happening place is anyone’s guess. In some cities downtown ballparks have that effect; in others, it doesn’t make much difference.

Whichever way it goes downtown, I think the locals will come to miss Cohen Stadium. And if you’re wondering what’s going to happen to it, the city has bought out the Diablos’ lease and plans on tearing down the ballpark and putting up a water park. So the parking lots will linger long after the last crack of the bat has faded. If you find something symbolic or ironic about that, go ahead and indulge yourself.

Granted, while in its death throes, Cohen Stadium hosted “minor” minor league ball, as opposed to the “major” minor league ball fans will enjoy next year. But it definitely had its good features. Glad I had a chance to pay a visit before they pulled the plug. Personally, I think it was too young to die.

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Comments

  1. GlenW said...

    Very well written. Kind of sad that, even way out in El Paso, the taxpayers are footing the bill for a ball field they may not afford to attend, while at the same time tearing down something that still had use. And build a water park? Of course, the Rio Grande still has some water in it. Might as well use it up.

  2. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    The Pope probably isn’t a baseball fan, as you say, since they favor soccer down there in Argentina, but he might conceivably prefer San Francisco.

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