On the Road: The Chihuahua Era Begins in El Paso

My itinerary on this particular road trip began in Albuquerque and ended in Austin, my  primary motivation for traveling to this area in the first place was so that I could visit El Paso. For it is in El Paso that one will find the biggest story of the 2014 Minor League season, the El Paso Chihuahuas. This Pacific Coast League entity played its first-ever home game on April 28 (after opening the season in their old home of Tucson), but I spent that evening in Albuquerque. I was on hand for the second-ever Chihuahuas game, however, as on April 29 I arrived in the city and quickly made my way to Southwest University Park in order to see what all the fuss was about.

And believe you me, there was a fuss. Upon entering my hotel room, I found a limited-edition Chihuahuas-themed can of Pepsi:

IMG_1267En route to the stadium, public transit showed its support.

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The newspaper coverage during the days that I was in town was extremely enthusiastic.

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And the one time I turned on the radio while driving in El Paso, I happened to hear a morning talk show in which one of the co-hosts was being lambasted for wearing a Chihuahuas hat after having initially bashed the team name and all it stood for. In short, the Chihuahuas aren’t just the biggest sports story in El Paso, they’re the biggest story in El Paso. Period.

I have already written a long MiLB.com story about the Chihuahuas and their home of Southwest University Park, which provides far more context regarding how and why the team came to be. The Chihuahuas are going to be an interesting team to follow for quite some time, on several levels, but this post is gonna keep it simple. This post will simply walk you through (a portion of) my night at the park.

My hotel, a Holiday Inn, was on Missouri Avenue in downtown El Paso. From there it was just a short walk to the stadium.

005Getting closer, as the ballpark can be seen just beyond the El Paso Museum of History.

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And then — bam! — the ballpark.

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Prior to this trip, I hadn’t ever spent time in a town that borders Mexico. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by just how close Mexico was to El Paso — what was I expecting? —  but seeing signs such as the above just felt surreal to me. (This says more about my northeastern upbringing and perspective  than it does about anything having to do with El Paso and Juarez.)

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The gates hadn’t yet opened at the time I arrived, but anticipation was high. People were lined up on all sides of the ballpark, hundreds deep. I had never seen so many people waiting to get into a Minor League stadium, ever.

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Once I got inside, I took this photo of the field itself. Those are the Franklin Mountains looming beyond left-center field, and later on during my stay I learned that the Rocky Mountains extend to El Paso as well.

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Taking a cue from the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Chihuahuas’ logo features a prominent set of eyes. Here’s an eyes-olated view, which I snapped on the staircase.

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Quite unexpectedly, just prior to the game I received an invite to throw out a ceremonial first pitch. While this was the second game of the season, there was still an Opening Day-level of excitement. Politicians, media personalities, pop singers, youth baseball players and military members were all gathered in this little “room” adjacent to the visitor’s dugout. Being from out of town, I kind of felt like an interloper amid this display of local pride.

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As for my first pitch — it was a strike, but no evidence seems to exist. Or, if there is evidence, I don’t have it. Hey, does anybody out there have any evidence? Chico?

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I know you can hear me, Chico! Don’t walk away from me!

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Eh, nevermind. I have no idea what I’m talking about anyway. After throwing my first pitch, I returned to the concourse and embarked on a solo walk around the facility. A pictorial tour, or, as I like to call it, a pic-tour-ial, will now commence.

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See that brick structure out in right field? Keep that in mind, we’ll visit that later.

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Berm seating is $5.

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The Splash Zone, which remained splashless on this pleasant Spring evening.

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The Chihuahuas bullpen is ensconced in a little alcove located down the third base line, while the visitor’s are caged within the bottom floor of this outfield structure.

043 The view to the bullpen’s left:

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And now here we are back behind home plate, somehow. I’m not sure how it happened either. 046

As I mentioned previously, the Mexican city of Juarez is located directly behind the ballpark. Juarez is in the Mexican state of Chihuahua (hence the team name), and residents of the city represent, at least potentially, a sizable portion of the of the fan base.

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Turning inward, and then outward again.

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That picture was taken through a window, as I was standing in a hallway located outside of the suite area. This area is decorated with a surprisingly diverse array of artwork.

This is Tom Lea’s The 2,000 Yard Stare, a famous portrait of post traumatic stress disorder and the visual equivalent of a punch in the gut.

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This Warholian expression of team pride was created by a local non-profit called “Creative Kids.”

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Around this point in the evening I ran into Chihuahuas general manager Brad Taylor, and he led me on the so-called “nickel tour” of the ballpark. Specifically, he wanted to show me the aforementioned three-story brick structure that sits just beyond the right field fence. It is called “The Big Dog House,” and the first level houses the City Hall Grill.

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This establishment got its name because it stands where El Paso City Hall once stood. City Hall, as you may recall, was imploded in order to make room for the ballpark. Was this an example of visionary leadership, or a wasteful, hubristic and ultimately self-defeating  folly? That question that has been hotly debated in El Paso (and elsewhere) over the past year, leading to some criticism that “City Hall Grill” is a disrespectful name. (Somewhat akin to clearing a forest to make room for a housing development, and then naming all of the streets in the development after trees.)

This plaque is currently displayed in the City Hall Grill.

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Taylor brushed off this controversy, saying that “Once [those critical of the City Hall Grill] realized that we had no intent to mock them, I think they understood our vision. We’re just paying tribute to those who preceded us.”

We then walked up one floor, to the Sun Kings Saloon.

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The Sun King Saloon is named after one of El Paso’s former Minor League entities (the Sun Kings were not blown up in order to make room for the Chihuahuas, however). The walls of the saloon are decorated with El Paso baseball memorabilia, often with a Chihuahuas twist.

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This advertisement is interesting, in that it lauds the Sun Kings as a Minor League Baseball success story as a result of almost drawing 100,000 fans in their debut 1962 season. It’s comparing apples and oranges, but I’d be surprised if the Chihuahuas draw less than 600,000 in 2014.

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Finally, at the top of the building, one finds the “Wooftop Deck.” It was largely empty on the night I visited, but this would be a great place to watch the game!

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From the Woof Top Deck, one can see the side profile of El Paso’s famous “Mountain Star.”

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Another view from the Woof Top:

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From there we made a brief stop the WestStar Bank Club, located on the second level behind home plate, an appealing place to get a drink despite its less-than-appealing name. (The next afternoon, I saw people chugging beer from a dog bowl at the bar.)

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The view:

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Somehow my next picture is from the far left field corner of the stadium. I guess we walked over there.

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The seats out here, they swiveled! Swiveled, I tell you!

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You know, it’s like that old gypsy woman once told me: “Once the seats start swiveling, the blog post must end.”

Part Two of this El Paso Chihuahuas saga shall appear on Monday, then. It’s gonna have a lot of pictures of food.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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