Baseball America correspondent Alexis Brudnicki traveled to El Paso in July to take in a weekend series at the first-year Triple-A franchise's Southwest University Park. She chronicles the scene at this unique baseball venue.
EL PASO, Texas—Fans are lined up outside of the El Paso Chihuahua's Southwest University Park on a Friday night in July with plenty of time to spare before the gates open to the public. Music blares from across the street at the Convention Center Plaza, where free outdoor concerts happen for Alfresco Fridays throughout the summer. Ticket holders continue to drift in as pregame announcements commence.
It's not long before the stands are full of enthusiastic fans, including many some from just across the border in neighboring Juarez, Mexico. Every variation of the Chihuahuas logo can be seen among fans, in every corner of the stadium. Chihuahuas followers are proud of their new team, their city and the heritage behind it.
“This is a town that's rich in baseball history and they had a great lineage before we got here," Chihuahuas general manager Brad Taylor said. “We've paid tribute to that, so I think these people not only get it as fans but they've produced players. There are guys who have played in the minors, the big leagues, and it's got a cool history."
Keeping the fourth floor suites secure during games and guarding the elevator lobby, Mark Mena and Bruce Brubaker will tell you as much as you want to hear about El Paso's earlier baseball teams, with the Browns, Texans, Sun Dodgers, Sun Kings and the Diablos—the latter eventually going independent after the city's tenure in the Texas League.
They'll happily talk ballpark history, food, surroundings, or anything else you might be interested in, and they are extremely giving with their time and incredibly proud to share. And they're not the only ones.
“Every other place I've (worked), it's been kind of easy to be the better guest service place in town, because you commit to it," Taylor said. “You always remember the restaurant where you didn't get great service. Here it's a little harder because everybody is nice everywhere you go. When they ask you how you're doing, they really mean it. They'll stop and they want to hear about it."
Batting practice won't be taken on Friday afternoon, because the home team didn't get in from its series against the Albuquerque Isotopes until the wee hours of the morning. But manager Pat Murphy is out on the field early, hitting fly balls to his 13-year-old son Kai, with veteran big leaguer and right fielder Jeff 'Frenchy' Francoeur playing the role of the cut-off man.
Amidst Murphy's long-time coaching career, spending years with Notre Dame and Arizona State before joining the Padres organization in 2010, the Chihuahuas organization is one that stands out.
“I expected it to be nice, but I didn't expect it to be this nice," Murphy said. “And I didn't expect the fans to be into it the way they are . . . You mix the stadium and the fans together, and it's been the best professional experience I've been a part of."
Francoeur has nine years in the big leagues, and made his Triple-A debut last year in the Giants organization with the Fresno Grizzlies in July. Joining the Padres, the 30-year-old outfielder certainly didn't have his sights set on El Paso, but he's learned to love it.
“I was definitely nervous coming here, no doubt about it," the Chihuahuas right fielder said. “You hear El Paso, Juarez, the whole (crime) deal, but the people have been awesome here. It's a beautiful stadium, we get 9,000 (fans) a night, so for me it's been a lot of fun to play here. Not everyone wants to play in Triple-A obviously, but if you've got to, it's nice to be able to play at a park and a place with a complex like this."
Southwest University Park opened three weeks late in April while the franchise, which had spent the previous three seasons in Tucson, completed a particularly industrious ballpark construction project. In 2012, the city agreed to pay $72 million to raze its city hall and replace it with a new ballpark.
The Chihuhuas played their first official home series back in Tucson on April 11-14, but arrived to a sellout crowd in El Paso on April 28. And the fans haven't stopped coming. As July wound to a close, El Paso ranked fourth in the 16-team PCL with a 7,749 per-game average.
“There are a lot of people who took a lot of heat for being brave enough to help create the chance that has taken El Paso to the next level," Taylor said. “This is a cool city that now has a downtown that's a little more buzzing than it was a year ago. It has spawned development, new restaurants, people buying buildings . . . this is alive.
Building the stadium in the center of the downtown core of El Paso wasn't without ramifications either. With city streets surrounding every edge of the park, the outfield dimensions are unique, to say the least.
In right-center field, the ballpark allows bystanders a viewing area from the street, no ticket required. Pedestrians can also stroll right by the visitors' bullpen. Above the bullpen is the Santa Fe Pavilion, with two floors to choose from for dining and spectating. It's great for fans, but from the field the fence in front of the bullpen makes balls off the wall unpredictable.
“For me, in right field it kind of sucks because all around from center to left, if the ball hits the wall, it comes back, but here, it's a chain-link fence and it can go everywhere," veteran outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. “You've got to be a little more careful when you're running back there, not knowing where the ball is going to go, but I've gotten used to it now. It's fun watching other teams because they kind of get messed up."
So, even the unpredictable provides an edge for the Chihuahuas. Or it will, once they've settled into their new home.
WATCH FRANCOEUR GET PRANKED
“It takes a while to get used to," Murphy said. “I think it's great but it takes a while. It's hard to discern whether it's a home run or not or a ground-rule double or not sometimes, but it's a great place. It would definitely be a home-field advantage if we had a couple years under our belt . . . but it's a pretty cool place."
In right field, fans can enjoy the luxury of one of several full-service bars in the stadium at The Big Dog House. The Wooftop Deck and the Sun Kings Saloon offer drinks with a great view, the latter being a sports bar showcasing various games of the night. Below the bars is the City Hall Grill, with all areas offering ticket holders an open-air vantage point of the field.
Left-center field encompasses the lawn seating area, in front of a very popular splash pad for the hot Texas nights. Fans come prepared with blankets to sit on and quickly settle in on a patch of grass of their choice for the duration of the game.
With the Peter Piper Pizza Porch on top of an almost Green Monster-esque wall in left field, and more intriguing jagged dimensions heading into left-center and center field, Southwest University Park is less friendly to righties than it is to lefthanded hitters.
“It's a little interesting," Taylor said. “We're bound by streets. Believe it or not, the area behind left field that looks like a sidewalk and acts like a sidewalk, that's a street. Obviously we can't just build into a street, but that's why you see a little higher wall in left field. But this park is not a homer dome. It's legit down the lines and we have a humidor here for baseballs so this park plays legitimately."
Righthanded hitting utility man Cody Decker has a little bit of a love-hate relationship with the ballpark, and would certainly agree that it's not a homer dome, with just four of his 13 long balls on the season coming at home. But all of the positives that the stadium brings to the table outweigh that pesky disadvantage to a righty with 119 career home runs over five-and-a-half years.
NOT YOUR STANDARD FARE
The spot for a pre-game meal on Saturday is one that could never be found without instruction.
Even with directions and recommendations to head to H & H Car Wash—that's right—and Coffee Shop for brunch, doubt creeps into one's mind with each approaching step.
But like every the majority of venues in El Paso, the staff is friendly and welcoming, not to mention the food is outstanding and authentic. Co-owner Maynard Haddad greets every new guest with a friendly smile and positive reception, while occasionally spewing derogatory comments and jabs at long-time customers and friends of his.
Haddad loves sports, everyone around town knows him and he has supported University of Texas at El Paso basketball since the days Don Haskins started coaching. Letters of gratitude, restaurant awards and pictures of Haskins and other UTEP memorabilia adorn the walls of the small dining area.
Small business owners and the fantastic service and community feel outside of the ballpark are a continuing reason for its growing success. And, cuisine from the surrounding area was the inspiration for the variety of great food found around the concourse.
“It's not your standard fare," Taylor said. “We have hot dogs and hamburgers, and we also have them a little jazzed up. But we've also got salads, we've got Leo's Mexican food and Leo's is a big brand here in town, we have Peter Piper Pizza which is a huge brand here, and then some of the desserts.
“We have pineapples covered in chamoy sauce. It's the sweetness of the pineapple and the spiciness of the chamoy sauce. We have raspas, basically Mexican snow cones, and they're made with fresh fruit as the juice. These are just different than you get in other ballparks."
A brief early afternoon thunderstorm required the field to be tarped and another batting practice moved indoors. As players readied for the impending matchup, veteran Jason Lane took time out to work with Kai Murphy in the cages while Kai's father answers to his pre-game media duties, offering insight into the ballpark particulars and conforming to everything his job requires.
Murphy shares his sense of humor and engages his audience easily, just part of the reason players one step away from the big leagues are happy to be here. They love to play for him.
“You've got a team, you've got 25 different types of guys, 25 different egos, 25 different personalities, and he's very good about keeping us loose and keeping us together, and 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.
“You hear 'college guy' and sometimes it worries you about what it's going to be," Francoeur said. “But he's been awesome. He communicates with you, you need a day off, you need this or that; he makes it happen. He keeps things loose, he jokes with guys, but at the same time he can get on you when you've got to be serious and do things. That's been the fun part, playing for him."
Murphy does joke. The Chihuahuas clubhouse is already famous for pulling an early prank on Francoeur, tricking him into thinking a teammate was hearing-impaired for a month and displaying the right fielder's reaction on the Internet for all to see, thanks to film-directing aficionado Decker.
The team has since played another joke on the veteran player, locking him into a clubhouse bathroom and filming his escape.
“Obviously I got a prank pulled on me at the beginning of the year that was pretty good," he said. “(It's) because I love to have fun. I don't ever film anything but I get everybody in this place, at least twice, and you can ask them. So they love when they get me."
Much to the relief of that staff, and everyone in favor of days where single nine-inning games are played, the skies opened up on Saturday before gates were scheduled to open. As anxious fans poured into the stadium, several gravitated to the array of food carts immediately. The one with the longest lineup sells Juarez dogs, bringing Mexico's influence slightly north of the border.
“Juarez is the (border) city and they are known for their bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and they top them with salsa and crema and fresh tomatoes and all kinds of different stuff," Taylor said. “We decided, let's have a Memphis-meets-Mexico dog, so we topped it with barbeque and candied bacon.
“It's not the low-calorie option but it's been a fun one. It was so successful that after the first homestand, Ovations, our food service provider, created another cart for those dogs and those are two of the busiest lines in the park every night."
The club's appeal to both sides of the border is unique. Mexico is barely five miles down the road and floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the stadium offer an incredible view of another country.
“El Paso is a minor league region like no other," Taylor said. “Of what I know about the 160 teams in minor league baseball, none of them are like El Paso. There's another county right across that fence . . .
“They're big baseball fans in Juarez and they like the food experience in Juarez. That's why we have different things here. We've been over there with the mascot, we've gone over there to do some community things, and with part of our staff being bilingual it makes it very easy for us to be interchangeable . . . That's certainly part of our strategy to make them part of what we're doing here."
Everything the Chihuahuas organization is doing on this side appears to be working, and incredibly successfully. And there's no one happier that baseball is back in town than Bernie Olivas.
Olivas officially scored Diablos games for 30 years and saw the game at its prior peak in El Paso. He knows firsthand what baseball can be in the town and he's excited about what the Chihuahuas offer.
“People were ready for affiliated baseball," said Olivas, now a season-ticket holder on the third-base line. “The owners, (MountainStar Sports Group), have done a great job of bringing back not only (baseball) but Triple-A. The (popularity) is obvious by the amount of people who are showing up here.
“El Paso is a huge baseball town and I think that started early when you had a local school here winning two state championships in Texas – that is big; that is huge. There are a lot of baseball teams in Texas . . . and El Paso is a huge baseball town."
CHIHUAHUAS GEAR IS EVERYWHERE
At several stops on the way to the field for the Sunday evening matchup, Chihuahuas gear is everywhere —sports stores, pharmacies, malls, draping the heads and shoulders of shoppers, you name it. A logo that was resisted early has been embraced, and is selling all over town and beyond. The primary hat design even won MiLB.com's clash of the caps earlier this season.
“We wanted something that was fun, something that was very marketable to men, to women, and to children," Taylor said. “It's something that represented what this area told us about themselves, which was they know they're not the biggest dog in Texas, they are feisty, they are fiercely loyal, and you start looking at those descriptions and you see some of the names that came in for the name-the-team contest, Chihuahuas matched that.
“We knew with that we could have a ton of fun. We're not geniuses but we've come up with things like the Wooftop Deck, the barking lots, nachos in a dog bowl—we told people the whole time, it's not about the name, it's about the brand . . . My whole family has bought more of this stuff than any place I've ever worked.
“You see it here tonight, it's stunning how many people are wearing Chihuahuas stuff to every game. I go out in public and at my son's little league game today, five or six people have on Chihuahuas stuff at a little league game. I go to the mall and my wife's tired of me talking about it. It's still so cool to see that people like it that much that it's in the everyday fabric of their lives…it's just been phenomenal."
Taylor and his family have even taken the brand one step further when they adopted a 7-week-old chihuahua on Friday and welcomed Nacho to the family. While the success of the branding of the team, among its desirable aspects, is impressive, the organization realizes there will be more work to do when the honeymoon phase is over.
“There's a recipe and it's pretty simple," Taylor said of sustained success. “You treat people well, you have superior guest service, you keep the park clean, you keep it affordable and safe. That's all come together here. When you combine that with the passion these people have for baseball, and they also like to laugh.
“They've taken to the things we do on the (video) board and the in-game skits. We keep finding silly things fans send us, like dancing chihuahuas, and we put it on the board. People are part of the program here . . . They know they can count on this to be clean, to be safe, to be affordable, to be fun, and it's our challenge to continually create different promotions."
All of the kids in the stands, big and small, appear to enjoy each night at Southwest University Park. Beginning in a whirlwind of controversy, from the branding to the location to the effort it took to get the stadium ready on time for the season – and saw the team play its first 24 games on the road in 25 days – the organization has enjoyed early success.
“I hear it every night," Taylor said. “I tell people, 'Thank you for giving it a chance, you could have stood in your corner and not been a part of what's happening, but you decided to throw out preconceived notions.' When people do that, it's hard to argue that this is not fun. The best part of our job is people coming out to have a good time and be together."