I am Canadian.
If that hasn’t been blatantly obvious then you probably haven’t been reading my work for very long, or at all. I love all things baseball, but America’s pastime north of the border is my biggest passion.
So when my incredibly-long story on the El Paso Chihuahuas experience had to be trimmed down to less than half its size before Baseball America could publish it here, I was (not really but almost) devastated that the fantastic editors at the wonderful publication had to cut out any and all Canadian connections I made throughout the story.
I have a habit of attempting to take every assignment Baseball America gives me and throw Canadian references into it. During the off-season I wrote about two Bob Freitas Award winners, the Clearwater Threshers and the Tulsa Drillers, and I called Edmonton native Steven Inch to talk about the Florida State League team for this piece, and I asked Vancouver-born Jeff Francis to reach back into his memory a few years to talk to me about the Drillers for this one. I couldn’t NOT try to leave a Canuck stamp on the stories, could I?
No, I couldn’t.
Back to the Chihuahuas, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
I spent a weekend in El Paso, Texas in an attempt to get to know the organization and see how things worked. They have been incredibly successful in their inaugural season – moving from Tucson last year – and in all facets of the game. People love the stadium, the team, the merchandise, the food, the atmosphere, you name it and they love it.
As I alluded to earlier, I wrote a lot about the Chihuahuas franchise, probably because there are just so many things to love. So here are some of the things that had to be left out, in order to keep the interest of the reader. Don’t miss the Canadian references, and also be sure to read the Baseball America edit of the story.
The immediate view from home plate at the ballpark is downtown El Paso, in front of a beautiful backdrop that is the Franklin Mountains. The park’s location can’t get any more central, as El Paso imploded City Hall in order to make room for it.
“It’s perfect because downtown happens to be in the middle of El Paso,” General Manager Brad Taylor said. “It makes it very accessible for everyone. There are some people who still deserve to be very much credited for being so brave to take a concept like blowing up City Hall to create a ballpark. It didn’t come without controversy and we’re aware of that…
“Now everybody can look at it and go, that was a fairly good decision.”
Southwest University Park is beautiful but because of the boundaries of the surrounding streets, it makes for some interesting dimensions in the outfield.
Right-handed hitting utility man Cody Decker has a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the ballpark, those dimensions requiring a bit of added pop in the power hitter’s bat. After an even more significant early-season deficit at home, just seven of his 20 total long balls so far this year have come in El Paso.
But all of the positives the stadium brings to the table outweigh that pesky disadvantage to a righty with 126 career home runs over six years.
“It’s got a great exterior,” Decker said. “This place is beautiful. It’s a cathedral. There are things I don’t like, like the huge wall in left field and the 478 [slightly exaggerated feet] to left center, but outside of that this place is great.
“The field plays pretty fair for the most part…and it’s a beautiful place to play. You have no idea how great it is to play in a beautiful place. Nothing against [the Padres former affiliate] Tucson, but Tucson didn’t have that atmosphere. We had fans but not huge fan support. Here, it’s night and day.”
As the Friday night matchup rolled on that weekend against the Salt Lake Bees, the fans in El Paso gained momentum in the stands. On-field promotions impressed first-timers who vowed to come back for as many games as they could for the rest of the summer. Individualized chants roared through the sellout crowd of 8,544 with their enthusiasm never dwindling, even in a 4-2 loss.
Outside of the Pacific Coast League Pacific Southern division standings, the results on the field didn’t seem to matter. The hometown crowd loved their team, and that feeling was mutual.
“I’ve been lucky to play in some good places but these are the best fans I’ve ever played in front of,” Decker said. “They’re loud and they’re into it. Even [when] we’ve had a couple games where we’ve been blown out, the fans are still into it. They’re still chanting your name, they’re still cheering in the stands; they’re still screaming and going crazy. I love it.”
As it had been on Friday because of a late arrival to town following a road trip, batting practice was taken indoors on Saturday, though that time due to an afternoon thunderstorm.
The rain allowed Chihuahuas manager Pat Murphy some extra time to chat with the only media member visiting town. He conformed to the duties his job required and then the skipper went far above and beyond. He wanted to know who he was dealing with, he wanted to share stories and ask questions. He was genuinely interested and generous with his time.
Murphy shared his sense of humor, engaged his audience, and he became a friend within minutes of meeting him. For this reason and many, many more, players one step away from the big leagues love to be in El Paso.
“You don’t get that a whole lot in a Triple-A ball club,” Decker said. “Two years ago when I was in Triple-A, it was a very separate clubhouse. No one was together, no one was trying to play for a common goal.
“Last year [with Murphy], that changed in Tucson. Murph brought in this winning aspect that we hadn’t seen in Triple-A because everyone’s got their eyes set on something else – going to that next level – and you can’t fault anybody for that, but when you get a team like this with a common goal, it changes things. And Murph is a maestro at that.”
Chihuahuas starter and veteran professional Jason Lane added: “He’s great. He has a great feel for what each player needs. He keeps everything loose. He holds people accountable and he’s serious when he needs to be, but he can joke when things need to be lightened up. He has a great feel for that.”
Murphy won’t take credit for the clubhouse atmosphere, one that other players around the league are envious of, but he knows things are different in El Paso. His managing style has progressed over his years of managing ball players at Notre Dame, Arizona State and at multiple levels of the Padres system, and he has figured out what works and what doesn’t.
“Sometimes less is more,” he said. “I’ve learned that the hard way. Most of it is the [players] know I care about their careers first. We don’t put too much importance on what the normal person sees baseball as – the numbers, the wins, the losses – we put more importance on being responsible, being respectful, being a teammate, and that’s what it’s about…
“You make it fun and you make it their team. It’s not my team, it’s theirs. Everybody has their own personality and own way of doing it [and] I’m not the only one making that culture what it is, that’s for sure.
“The culture is made up of guys like Lane and [Jeff Francoeur] and Brooks Conrad, our staff, [pitching coach Mike Cather] and [hitting coach] Jody Davis, our strength coach, our trainers – that’s what makes the soup taste good. You keep stirring it and stirring it, and I try to keep my hand on the pulse of it a little bit and not let it get too far one way or the other.”
The fans in El Paso also create a great atmosphere for the team. They are happy that the game is back in town after having a Double-A team for decades and then losing the franchise to independent ball before it went defunct. And they know their baseball.
Taylor initially realized just how into the games the fans were during one of the first homestands, and has since learned to expect the same reaction more often than not.
“People here understand situational things,” the GM said. “We had a game in May, full count, two outs, bases loaded, and people stood up and started clapping to get that final out. In 20 years in minor league baseball, I’ve never seen people get it like that…
“People are very in-tune to the game here. There are over 100 TVs in this ballpark and we have the in-game feed so wherever you are you can see what’s going on. People stay tuned to that which makes it louder when good things happen because everybody knows about it. They’re not hidden away and out of the action.”
Jeff ‘Frenchy’ Francoeur has always been a man of the people, as the player who made friends with Oakland Athletics fans as a member of the Kansas City Royals and bought 20 pizzas for a select few in the bleacher seats at the Coliseum. But during his time in El Paso, he shared a similar sentiment to that of Taylor in respect to Chihuahuas fans, and cited it as one of the things he noticed immediately after starting to play games at home.
“I didn’t realize that the fans are very knowledgeable about baseball,” the Atlanta native said. “Coming here I didn’t know much [about the place], I had been through El Paso one time on my way to the [rookie-class] Arizona Fall League back when I was 20.
“So I hadn’t been here but you’ve got a guy on second and no outs and you get a runner over, they cheer you; they love you. It’s been a nice change of pace. And for me, it’s just been fun to interact. We’ve got some of the same fans behind our dugout so you get to know people next to you every night…It’s been good to have the fans here.”
A high baseball intelligence quotient among the crowd and the passion they display for the game make the park an incredibly electric atmosphere, helping all of the players on the field, and even impressing some in the visiting dugout.
“Anytime you have that much support and that much excitement, it helps the players be ready,” the team’s skipper said. “In a 144-game minor league season for all these kids, all different ages from 37 to 21, it helps them stay focused. It helps them realize the responsibility.
“I had the third baseman from Salt Lake, Grant Green, said, ‘Man I’ve been a lot of places, but this is unbelievable. With these fans, it’s unbelievable.’ Every opponent has mentioned how great this is. So we feel pretty privileged. I hope all the guys do because it’s a special place.”
Jamie Romak, Albuquerque’s third baseman and a native of London, Ont., came into town with the Isotopes in early July. The 12-year minor league veteran has experienced his share of stadiums and audiences, including a stint this season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he acknowledged how unique his time was in El Paso, both on and off the field.
“I loved playing in El Paso,” the visiting player said. “The stadium has some really cool features like the big brick building in right center with all the suites. I liked how there was always a good buzz in the crowd and we played in front of sellouts almost every night. Lastly, the visiting team [clubhouse manager] ‘Meat’ and his staff will do anything for the players and the guys really appreciated their work.”
Lane, a 37-year-old pro, certainly feels privileged to play for Chihuahuas fans.
“The electricity of the crowd and the intensity of the games have been great,” the starter said. “When you’re out there on the mound, you feel the energy in the park. It’s always fun to come to a place like that.
“It absolutely [changes the mindset] on the field. If you have a place where no one wants to be or guys are getting here late and leaving early, you’re not going to get as much work as you could get done. It definitely has an impact on how players go about their days.”
Reciprocally, what the team does on the field has a huge impact on those in the stands.
“The team is exciting,” season-ticket holder Bernie Olivas said. “I’m a baseball guy and I don’t look at records, but I do come here and watch them play and they’re exciting. They’re not winning every ball game but they make every game exciting. That’s what the people want. They want to be entertained and [the team] is very entertaining.
“They’re [59-62], but it doesn’t matter. You can see the hustle, you can see the desire, you can see the fact that they’re giving it all. They’re trying to advance, they’re trying to make it to The Show, and it shows. And the fans motivate the players, as opposed to playing in an empty stadium, and they play well.
“We know we’re going to see these guys play in the majors in a couple years and that’s the fun about coming out and watching these players. You’re going to see probably some Hall of Famers and we can say, ‘I saw them in Triple-A.’ I scored the Double-A team for 30 years and I saw a lot of major leaguers come through here as Double-A players and it’s exciting to watch them.”
Saturday night’s excitement came in the form of an extra-inning affair. The Chihuahuas never led in the game, but the team stayed in it and scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to knot it up. The final result was a loss in front of a sellout crowd of 9,100, but fans remained in their seats – some on their feet – right until the end, ten innings and three hours and 35 minutes after it began.
They were rewarded with a fantastic post-game fireworks display, lighting up the sky over the ballpark from multiple directions for the viewing pleasure of anyone within sight, a regular Saturday night experience when the Chihuahuas are at home.
Sunday’s featured pre-game meal came from L & J Café, also known as The Old Place by The Graveyard. Like the carwash-restaurant combo visited on Saturday morning and mentioned in the Baseball America piece, it was not easy to find, but highly recommended and well worth seeking out. Authentic Mexican, friendly service and fantastic times almost become old hat in El Paso within just a couple of days.
Each day during the weekend series, a new vantage point is visited. But even in a three-game set, it’s hard to see it all.
“Just like we have different promotions, we have different areas of the ballpark in which people can watch the game,” Taylor said. “We have the beautiful WestStar Bank Club, we have the Peter Piper Pizza Porch, we have the grass berm, the lawn seating, we have The Big Dog House; we have all these nice seats in the bowl.
“There are so many different places from which to enjoy a game here. Hopefully people get a chance to do that and every time they come it’s a different experience.”
Sunday’s game entertainment certainly offered a different experience. Some had seen the act before, but the Chihuahuas welcomed The Famous San Diego Chicken – who like Romak, also originally hails from London, Ont. – to the park for the final game heading into the Triple-A all-star break.
Of course, the main event was the home team looking to avoid a sweep by the Bees, but a featured sideshow was not far behind in terms of fan anticipation. For Ted Giannoulas, the aforementioned chicken in his 40th year as the Hall of Fame mascot, El Paso brought him back to his roots.
On August 29, 1978, The Famous San Diego Chicken made his minor league debut at Dudley Field, home of the El Paso Diablos. He had performed in the big leagues before, but the city and its Double-A team broadened his horizons with the brand new experience.
“It’s almost like a homecoming for me,” Giannoulas said. “These fans have always been so wonderful. It’s safe to say the El Paso fans put the chicken on the minor league map. Up to that point, for five years, I had just done major league games. El Paso was my first and from that point forward it opened up a whole world of the minor leagues to me that I didn’t know existed.”
Sunday’s sellout crowd of 8,563 enjoyed the antics of the chicken from the third frame on, laughing heartily through inning breaks and when his act took him on the field as the team’s fill-in first base coach. An incredibly cooperative on-field staff and the two teams playing – especially the game’s victors, the Chihuahuas – assisted in making the experience one for spectators to remember.
“I’ve been to a lot of venues, in all 50 states and eight countries around the world and I’ll tell you, El Pasoans love to laugh,” Giannoulas said. “It’s really magical. Everybody in the country has a great sense of humor but when you get to Texas, and especially west Texas, there’s a special humor that they just enjoy. They’re all kids; everybody becomes a kid again.”
The people of El Paso embrace the Chihuahuas, and anyone who was resistant to the change when it started happening has since changed their mind. Olivas was on board from the moment he heard about the venture, but he has seen other people around him switch sides of the argument.
“I was excited [when I found out], not only for myself but for this whole city,” he said. “It was a big controversy because of where it was built, you had people who didn’t want City Hall torn down, but I guarantee that there are a lot of people who have jumped the fence. There are a lot of people who did not want it who have [now] said it’s pretty good.”
With a park as remarkable as the home of the Chihuahuas, an atmosphere as electric as El Pasoans provide, and the attention to detail and effort provided by the entire staff, the franchise certainly looks like a candidate for continued success.
“I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed of,” Olivas said. “This stands up with any Triple-A baseball field in the country and El Paso should be proud of it. I know I am. This is great…this is absolutely fantastic for El Paso and I don’t think it’s slowing down.”
As the season continues, the Chihuahuas have only picked up steam, certainly experiencing only a gain in momentum so far. When they were just halfway through the year, the Chihuahuas set a new single-season attendance record for minor league baseball in El Paso.
“I was waiting for it to drop off but it’s only gotten better,” Murphy said. “There have been moments here that players have said that even in the big leagues you don’t have this type of excitement. It’s really cool. I feel very grateful for this privilege. The organization is solid from top to bottom.”
The atmosphere in the ballpark is a game-changer for the franchise in its inaugural season as the El Paso Chihuahuas.
“Guys like Francoeur and Lane have been in the big leagues successfully for a while and they’ve talked about the fan energy here,” Taylor said. “With the passion El Pasoans have to get behind something, and they’ve gotten behind us, it’s been so fun to watch.
“When you pair it with this facility, it’s made for a pretty exciting place to play…I’ve had 20 years in minor league baseball and I’ve never seen an energy like this place has.”
The Chihuahuas are an anomaly, a rare find among the world that is minor league baseball. They’ve discovered a region that appears to be a diamond in the rough and have matched it up with a stellar clubhouse, a team with a reciprocal, enjoyable relationship among the fans, an incredible staff of locals and newfound locals, and impressive service. They have all of the ingredients of a recipe for success.
The team’s general manager put it together best when he said, “This is a true love story between the team and the fans.”