Mike Feder will toe the rubber before the start of tonight's home finale for the Padres, and while his name and face may not be familiar to most baseball fans, he is certainly a popular figure in San Diego's clubhouse and front office.
Feder has spent the past three seasons as general manager of the Padres Triple-A Tucson affiliate—a not-so-glamorous post considering the team was never supposed to be there in the first place. Feder, who was named Pacific Coast League executive of the year earlier this month, and his wife Pattie have been the Padres' guest the past two days. And as part of the team's appreciation for his work to make sure Padres minor leaguers played in a professional environment, Feder will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before San Diego's game against the Diamondbacks tonight.
“I think we were extremely fortunate to have someone with Mike’s experience helping us navigate being temporary residents in Tucson,” Padres vice president of player development and international scouting Randy Smith wrote in an email. “Mike was very familiar running a club in Tucson and did a great job promoting the Tucson Padres and making the players and staff feel at home.”
Feder planned to get to the ballpark early today, chat with some old friends around the clubhouse and get a few pointers on delivering the pitch from Tucson manager Pat Murphy—who has spent the past month as a coach with the big league club and will serve as Feder's catcher this evening.
"I would never live it down if I didn't throw from the mound," Feder said.
Feder had been out of baseball for a decade when Pacific Coast League president Branch Rickey III called him in early 2011 with a not-so-appealing offer.
Rickey needed Feder to bail out a PCL franchise that was being squeezed out of Portland, Ore., with no permanent destination in its future. Rickey wanted the team to play in Tucson for one season until it could settle on a home, and he thought Feder was the man for the job.
Feder, who had spent 12 years as general manager of previous teams in Tucson, had to set up shop in the ballpark on the wrong side of town and sell a team with no intention of putting down roots in Tucson to a fan base still smarting from its team skipping town just three years earlier.
His response: "When do I start?"
The Tucson Padres debuted at Kino Stadium a few months later with then-owner Jeff Moorad, who doubled as chief operating officer of the Padres, planning to move the team to a ballpark in the San Diego suburb of Escondido. That ballpark never got built, Moorad's bid to buy the Padres failed and he ultimately sold his minor league team. Meanwhile, one year in Tucson turned into three for Feder's ballclub.
Now Feder's run has come to an end yet again. The T-Padres home finale came on Aug. 29, with Feder's wife and fellow Tucson baseball staple Pattie throwing out the first pitch to Mike crouching behind the plate.
And while Feder laments the team never catching on as he had hoped—"People just weren't going to put their hearts into the team because they knew it was going to leave," he said—he is walking away on top. Being named PCL executive of the year by his peers means a lot, Feder said.
"This is not just a parting gift," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said. "He did a hell of a job under trying circumstances."
Feder got news of the award in a phone call from Alan Ledford, another longtime PCL operator who is overseeing the Tucson franchise's move to a new ballpark in El Paso. An hour later, Feder received an e-mail from Warren Miller, the Padres' manager of minor league operations, asking if Feder would throw out the first pitch at the big league club's home finale.
"It was a special morning," Feder said.
Yet the honors couldn't mask Feder's disappointment in how this three-year era of Tucson baseball turned out. The odds were stacked against Feder and his full-time staff of 12. The team only came to Tucson after former Portland Beavers owner Merritt Paulson converted his team's ballpark into a soccer-only facility on the assumption the city would pay for a new home for the baseball team—which it did not.
The Padres finished at the bottom of the PCL in attendance each season in Tucson and drew 200,007 fans in 2013—128,000 fewer than any other team in the league.
Feder said he was proud of the money the team helped raise for local charities, and of turning the playing field at 15-year-old Kino Stadium into of the best in the league. And yet . . .
"It never lived up to what I hoped," said Feder, who believes that Triple-A baseball will return to Tucson someday. "At least we helped some people and provided some good entertainment and treated the game with respect.
"We did it right."