The upcoming hockey season has me thinking about all the defunct sports teams from Arizona’s history. Yeah, I don’t get very excited about the Arizona Coyotes, a team that’s done just about everything possible to antagonize and alienate its potential fan base. I’d trade them in a second to have our minor league Phoenix Roadrunners back. This made me think of all the other great teams from Arizona’s past. And yes, it’s the Roadrunners who lead the list … it’s the team and sport I love best. But I think you’ll enjoy the rest, too. Alright, let’s go back in time!
Phoenix RoadrunnersA blast from the past – Phoenix Firebirds baseball.
The Coyotes have not a single fan collective that can hold up to the 207 Psychos, the uber-loud, often drunk bunch of genial louts who held court in Section 207 where they tried their best to psychologically scar visiting teams. For me, they are avatars of everything that was great about the ‘Runners. Well, them and the Polka Boys. Fans loved the unpretentious players, the low ticket prices and the enthusiasm of their fellow fans. But there just wasn’t enough of them. The team went through several iterations in the East Coast Hockey League (2005-09), the International Hockey League (1989-1997, arguably the franchise’s Golden Age), the Western Hockey League/Association (1967-74, 1974-77, respectively) and the Pacific and Central hockey leagues (dates unconfirmed). The team went from playing at Oceanside Ice Arena to sharing a spot with the storied Phoenix Suns at the U.S. Airways Center. Wayne Gretzky once suited up for the ‘Runners (as fans called them) during an exhibition against Gretzky’s LA Kings. NHL regular Robert Long of the Czech Republic got his start in the U.S. as a member of the Roadrunners.
Even though I don’t like baseball, it was impossible to be a Phoenician and not hear about the Firebirds. They were a popular draw, making bank on the minor-league formula of cheap tickets and true fans who love the sport, not the chance to be seen loving the sport. Swimming pools in the outfield? Not for this crowd. The team started off as the Phoenix Giants (1958-59, 1966-1985) before adopting the locally relevant Firebirds name in 1986. The arrival of the Arizona Diamondbacks prompted the owners to take the team to Tucson and call them the Sidewinders.
This franchise was pretty abject – ridiculously named, to boot. It got battered in the Continental Indoor Soccer League from 1993-97, never once advancing to the playoffs. Of course, the soccer purist in me thinks soccer leagues should only have playoffs to get promoted to a higher league. And for that matter, that indoor soccer is closer to hockey than real soccer. In fact, Fake Turf Hockey has a nice ring. This one kind of deserves to be a defunct sports team.
There’s never been a better-named team for Phoenix than the Inferno. And a never worse-named team for just about anywhere than the Pride – at least in the parlance of current times. Like just about every indoor sport played in the 80s, the Inferno/Pride franchise of the Major Indoor Soccer League plied their trade at Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, aka The Madhouse on McDowell. They only lasted from 1980 to the end of the 1984 season, when MISL folded. Wikipedia says the team had an average attendance of 7,500 in 1984.
Think it’s hard to get people to watch soccer? Well, just try to get them to watch minor league women’s soccer. My wife and I got to the matches regularly, chasing the team to a variety of high school fields that served as their home. We tried to prevent them from becoming a defunct sports team. The standard of play was pretty good, but the crowds mostly consisted of soccer moms trying to inspire their rather disinterested daughters. It’s a shame – I enjoyed the Heatwave, which played in the United Soccer League’s W-League from 2003-05.
So the city of Glendale had a shiny new hockey stadium, and nothing to put it in during the summer. In 2004, the National Lacrosse League franchise formerly known as the Columbus Landsharks became the Arizona Sting (which probably annoyed Chicago Sting soccer fans from the old days). It was actually pretty successful on the field, winning the West Division title before losing to the Toronto Rock for League honors. Apparently, the Sting was so ashamed of its inability to overcome a name with such a silly name: It was culled form the league in 2007.
So, what defunct sports teams are from your own home? What good Arizona stories of sports failure have I missed?