/ Modified mar 14, 2024 9:19 a.m.

They have a passion for it: Meet a pair of Tucson-born professional athletes

Different sports, different generation, but both Alex Bowman and Eddie Leon are among the top athletes Tucson has ever produced.

Alex Bowman Alex Bowman sits in his car during a practice session for the Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022.
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
More than a Game

More Than a Game, Season 2 Episode 1

(Download MP3)

On this episode, we meet two professional athletes from very different sports who grew up generations apart, but they have one thing in common. They grew up in Tucson.

Alex Bowman is at the top of the NASCAR world after a second-place finish in one of its premiere races. And Eddie Leon reached the pinnacle of baseball when he became a starting short stop in the Major Leagues in the 1970s.

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Episode Transcript:

(Music starts)

I'm Tony Perkins and this is More Than a Game, the podcast that takes you beyond the box score and tells the Arizona sports stories you've never heard.

On this first episode of Season Two, making it to the Daytona 500 by way of Tucson, and the story of an Old Pueblo baseball legend.

(TV audio) Back to green, huge pushes on that outside that kept getting in one another had to back off, accordion effect, stacked him up everybody had to lift.

TP: It's February 19 in Daytona, Florida, and Alex Bowman is at the doorstep of history at NASCAR's biggest race.

(TV audio) Here he comes. Ross Chastain leading the outside lane. One lap to go sponsor by credit one bank. away they go. That is Cindric into Chastain and up into traffic.

TP: A crash late in the Daytona 500 left him running in second place, crossing the finish line just behind the winner. William Byron.

(TV) it's gonna be close. You see the light on you see Bowman ahead of Byron right there but you to back it up and see this again.

AB: To be that close to a Daytona 500 is a little bit heartbreaking for sure. But it's much worse to not have a shot at all, right?

(TV) Today's winner will be 24, 24 crossed the finish line.

TP: Bowen climbed into his first race car when he was seven years old. Now at the age of 30, the Tucsonan is a Daytona 500 legend. He holds the record for the most consecutive front row starts and is tied for the second most starts from the pole in the Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, which has been held every February since 1959

(TV) 200 laps, 500 miles to start the 2020 Ford season. Green flag the Daytona 500 is underway.

TP: Bowman drives a Chevrolet Camaro specially built to run the NASCAR circuit. It's almost the same kind of car you can buy for the street. Except Bowman's circles the two and a half mile Daytona track at 186 miles an hour.

Alex Bowman is the number one active professional athlete born and raised in the old pueblo. I spoke to him a few weeks before the 2024 Daytona classic. And we talked about his childhood in Tucson. And what drew him to driving a race car.

AB: Growing up my dad was just a big NASCAR fan. Specifically, he was a big Jeff Gordon fan. And somehow he knew that when Jeff started racing, he started racing a car called a quarter midget, which is kind of like a go kart. They raced on small ovals. And coincidentally there was a quarter midget track being built in Tucson. I don't think it was finished yet when my dad kind of showed up at home with quarter midget, but kind of took off from there race those from the time I was seven to 13 I think.

There are different divisions of quarter motor racing. And they start off slow, right, and they get a lot faster, kind of as you go. And I remember the first time I drove the fastest division like thinking that I was like the fastest thing ever. That's like, out of everything I've ever raced. I remember, like that's the car that stands out to me as feeling the fastest, which is crazy, because obviously I've raced cars that are way faster than that. But I was probably nine or 10 years old at that point. And just thinking I was crazy fast, which was super fun.

TP: That's interesting, because I've talked to other drivers who are professionals. And they talk about the fact that of course that way before they ever got any kind of driver's license to drive a car like the rest of us do. They had been driving in a race car for maybe five years or six years, in your case, almost 10 years and a racing background. Before you would get into a passenger car or anything like that. Do you remember in Tucson just where this was where this track was located? Was it a dirt track, was it paved?

AB: Yeah, so it's a it's a pavement track. It's still there. I want to say it's like I-10 and Cortaro Farms. I raced there and then we started traveling to California quite a bit to race kind of up and down in California. And then as it progressed further like traveled all over the country. I remember one week, we had a big race in California one weekend and the next weekend we had a big race in New Jersey. So it was like we race to California then road trip across the country and race in New Jersey.

I was super fortunate to meet a lot of pretty influential people along the way at a really young age. You know, the first development deal I signed, came a lot later. But really started off by meeting Joe Custer, who was running Stewart Haas Racing at the time, because his son Cole was racing quarter midgets. He's a bit younger than me and kind of got started there. But, you know, if I hadn't made that connection, when I was super young racing, quarter minutes, like I never would have gotten a break to move to North Carolina and my career never would have gone where it went.

TP: Okay, so now, you guys are traveling from one side of the country to the other different tracks, different events, that kind of thing. You know, say you're a teenager now. And you get an opportunity. And maybe a big big break.

AB: Yeah, so I kind of moved up from quarter midgets to racing midgets, like full size race car, really fast. I had my own car, but also driving for some other people here and there, raced Manzanita in Phoenix quite a bit. And it was kind of out of nowhere, Joe Custer called and was, was like, we're gonna start a little development deal, build a shop and in Charlotte, kind of separate from the cup shop, and to do you want to move to North Carolina, and, and, you know, continue racing midgets, but race it out of the shop in North Carolina, and kind of run a more national program. And I think I was the middle of junior year. So I was 16. At the time, I was like, of course, I was going to say yes to that. So I had a little Chevy Cobalt, and I packed up all my stuff in a Cobalt and I moved to North Carolina. Obviously, it takes a lot of things to go right to make it in racing, like, especially to make it to the Cup Series. There's 36 of us now that run full time, and there's thousands of really talented racecar drivers across the country. So took a lot of things to go right. And that was definitely one of them.

AP: You get the development deal. You know, you're you're sort of thrown into a group with other drivers. Are you still racing against some of those guys now?

AB: Yeah, I mean, so Kolkata was a part of that, obviously. And he went on to, he won the XFINITY Championship last year. So he ran the cup full time for a little bit as well. So, you know, when I was racing midgets, Kyle Larson was coming on. He started racing midgets, kind of like as I was getting out of it and getting into stock cars more. But yeah, so still race with a bunch of those guys today. And, you know, I've known Cole since he was, I was probably 10 when I met him 10 or 11. I met like Sheldon Creed, super young quarter, Midget racing kind of the same deal. So yeah, it's really cool to see kids I grew up with have have success as well.

AP: Let's switch over to Daytona. Was one of your career goals to sit on the pole at Daytona? you've done it more than once now.

AB: Daytona 500 qualifying is pretty interesting. It's much more the race car than the driver. Like the driver can really only mess that one up. So I've just been super fortunate to have a lot of really fast race cars down there. Drive for, obviously driving for Hendrick Motorsports at daytona. Hendrick engine shops is phenomenal. You know, with the old car, the fab shop. I mean, they're all in on the speedway cars. Obviously, the next gen car is a little bit different. But we've been on the front row every year since I've been at Hendrick Motorsports. And I think we've been on the pole three times now. So yeah, really, really neat to be a part of it.

And obviously, like I do all the media for it. And I do like the pole org and all that. But it's it's really the people and the effort that gets put in back at the shop. So I'm just I'm glad I get to drive it. And obviously it's a goal. Like everybody wants that trophy. But yeah, it's hard to take much credit for it. I'm just glad I'm the guy that's gotten to do it for last couple years.

AP: And of course, it's a fact that winning the poll at Daytona is one thing, but winning the race is another one. How much are you looking forward to actually getting into victory lane at Daytona?

AB: You know, I think last year we finished fifth or sixth, which was a huge improvement over the last couple years. So yeah, hopefully we can get the job done this year. It's just really hard to make it to the end of that race. You know, we've led a lot of laps, crashed early, we've crashed late, kind of figured out every time to crash until last year. So it's just a difficult event. It's a marathon for sure. And the intense it gets so intense at the end that I feel like a lot of people end up getting crashed, like a lot of people in contention to win that race get crashed. So trying to get to the end is crucial. And I feel like we figured out how to do that last year. Hopefully we can be a couple spots better this year.

AP: All right. Great. You are probably the most accomplished professional athlete to come out of Tucson in a long time. But you're really not that well known because your sport is not one of the top stick and ball sports out there. Is it any different when you come back to Arizona and race in Phoenix?

AB: Yeah, it's always super cool to be in Phoenix and see kind of the hometown crowd, obviously, 100 miles away, but it's still super neat. There's a lot of great racecar drivers come out of Arizona that I feel like don't get the recognition they deserve or maybe are a bit forgotten and shouldn't be, but I think I was the first person from Arizona to win a cup race. So that was that was really neat. Just got to keep winning a bunch more and the rest will take care of itself.

AP: Alex Bowman, thank you very much. Really appreciate you taking the time with us.

AB: Yeah, thanks for having me.

AP: Alex Bowman, drives the stock car for Hendrick Motorsports. He has inherited the mantle worn by modern NASCAR greats like Jeff Gordon, and Jimmy Johnson. Bowman turns 31 years old in April, and in 2025, he will drive again at Daytona and make another attempt to win the Great American Race.

(organ music) Now in to close this episode, a righty from Tucson, AZPM's Katya Mendoza. (crowd cheering. Music)

Last season, I got to share quite a few baseball stories that most people outside of Southern Arizona, have probably never heard.

Maybe even outside of Santa Cruz County.

If you want to hear more, give Season One a listen…

The thing about being a hometown hero in the world of baseball, is that because Latinos have changed the sounds, sights and tastes of the game from ethnic foods to walkup songs– baseball has historically presented itself as a vehicle for change.

And Eddie Leon’s story, exemplifies just that.

EL: I was born in Barrio Hollywood, I attended what is now Manzo Elementary School, went to John Spring Junior High, four years at Tucson High, graduated 1963…

EL: I was a couple years younger than my classmates and I graduated from high school at 16 and from college at 20.

KM: During his years as a badger, Eddie played under Ray Adkins, a former professional baseball player with the New York Giants,

Adkins led Tucson High to two state baseball championships and retired as the winningest coach in Arizona history, in 1983.

Adkins took over for Hank Slagel, a fellow University of Arizona alum who was a member of “Pop” McKale’s all-time baseball team.

Slagel coached Tucson High to 10 state baseball championships.

Talking about his teammates, Eddie says a majority were Latino.

EL: … At that time, they hadn’t there weren't that many other high schools, so there was a pretty good concentration.

KM: In 1963, Eddie’s college career began.

Eddie Leon, The Desert, 1965 VIEW LARGER University of Arizona varsity baseball team, 1965. Eddie Leon is pictured second from the left.
The Desert, University of Arizona yearbook, 1965.

EL: … went to the University of Arizona for four years, graduated in 1968 with a degree in civil engineering. My senior year I was drafted for the third time and out of Major League Baseball draft and I signed with the Cleveland Indians.

KM: The U-of-A was a strong baseball program when he was there.

He played for Frank Sancet, who took the team to nine College World Series and retired as the second-winningest coach in college baseball history.

KM: Eddie was a young teammate– after all he graduated from high school at 16 years old.

EL: Sancet said he wanted me to come to the university to play, but that I probably wouldn’t be able to play full time until I was a junior…

KM: A two-year starter was ahead of him, and so Sancet would be unable to offer him a scholarship, and college rules from back in the day said he couldn't play varsity as a freshman.

EL: But our freshman team had gone and we had three future All-Americans on that team, and we used to beat the varsity regularly as freshman. So after my freshman year, I went to Sancet and I said, ‘I think I need to have a full baseball scholarship,’ and he gave it to me.

KM: Eddie was a two-time all-American and Western Athletic Conference first team in 1966 and 1967.

EL: We went to the World Series in 1966. We only played three games, we were eliminated, we played University of Texas, Northeastern and Southern Cal.

KM: A well-known competitor who played against Eddie, was Reggie Jackson, who played for Arizona State University that same year.

You know, Mr. October, Baseball Hall of Famer, two-time World Series MVP, who played more than two decades in the Majors.

EL: I played against Reggie for six games that year, and then I played against him when he was with the Oakland A’s and I was with Cleveland. The year before, ASU had Sal Bando, Rick Monday, Duffy Dyer and I played against all of those in the major leagues as well.

KM: Eddie caught the eye of MLB recruiters early on– in 1965, he was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Twins and again in 1966, by the Chicago Cubs. Both of which he turned down.

EL: After my freshman year, I wanted to sign with the Yankees and I was going to sign with them after my sophomore year. But that year, 1965, Major League Baseball created the Major League draft and that was a first draft in 1965 and the Yankees were not the top nine selectors and I was taken in the first round as the number nine pick with the by the Minnesota Twins.

KM: Eddie says that they didn’t offer him much.

Rick Monday, who was the number one pick for the Kansas City Athletics back then, had received over a 100,000-dollar bonus.

EL: The Twins offered me $7,500 as the second college player taken. I said no, I don’t think I’m gonna sign.

Eddie says the next year was probably his best playing college ball. He was drafted number one by the Chicago Cubs

EL: They were going to send me to Double A, I think it was somewhere in the Texas league ,that they wanted me to learn how to play third base or left field and I told them that I didn’t want to sign with them because they had Ron Santo as a third baseman and Billy Williams as a left fielder, who was going to go through like 1000 so many games consecutive played and I said, ‘If I’m a third baseman or left fielder with your team, I’ll never get to play. I want to continue to play short (stop) and [they] said no we want to sign you and play… So I said no, then I’m not signing.

KM: And so, Eddie returned to the U-of-A to play his senior season in 1967.

EL: The Cleveland Indians drafted me then.

KM: He went on to play five seasons with the team we now know as the Cleveland Guardians, then two seasons with the Chicago White Sox, and one with the New York Yankees, who released him in 1975.

EL: That’s a pretty hard thing to take. You’ve been playing baseball since you’re four years old, playing professional baseball in the major leagues for eight years and then all of a sudden they said, ‘We don’t have room for you on our team anymore. We’re releasing you.’ And all of a sudden, you say, ‘Well wait a minute, what happened here? I’ve been doing this forever. Now I don’t have this job anymore. It’s, it’s it’s a shock, especially when you’re 30, 31 years old, you still can play and all of a sudden they say, ‘No you can’t play anymore.’

KM: So he headed to Mexico…

EL: …the summer Mexican League with Tampico, and in the Mexican Pacific League in the winter, with the Naranjeros from Hermosillo.

KM: His first year, los Alijadores de Tampico, the Tampico Lightermen, finished first in the league’s Northeast Division.

EL: We ended up being the National Champions, and there were 32 teams in the league, so it was a pretty good accomplishment.

It probably helped that he wasn't the only former MLB player on the team: Tom Silverio, Joe Pactwa, Denny O’Toole and of course, Eddie Leon.

During his time with the Naranjeros de Hermosillo, or Hermosillo Orange Growers, the team won the Mexican Pacific League playoff in 1975.

EL: And earned the right to the Caribbean World Series, which that year was held in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.

KM: The Naranjeros became the first Mexican team to win the Caribbean World Series in 1976.

EL: So that was a lot of baseball.

KM: That same year, Eddie would retire from playing professional baseball.

During our interview, I happened to pull out a few photos of him, from the Desert, the U-of-A’s yearbook in 1967…

Eddie Leon, The Desert, 1967 VIEW LARGER Eddie Leon, shortstop for the University of Arizona in 1967. Leon was a two-time all-American and Western Athletic Conference first team in 1966 and 1967.
The Desert, University of Arizona yearbook, 1967.

EL: Oh yeah (laughs). Number 11, yeah.

KM: He had never seen this one before.

That’s actually, this probably was not my senior year, because this was in at Bear Down Field on Cherry Street which is now the library I guess. It was right outside of Bear Down Gym, baseball field was, and I can remember that scoreboard right there. So the my senior year was the first year that the university used the old baseball stadium here by McKale stadium.

KM: Eddie would return to the U-of-A years later, for an exhibition game.

In 1978, the school asked him to put together a team of pros from around Tucson for a benefit game against the Wildcats at Hi-Corbett Field.

EL: They called it the Eddie Leon All-Stars against the University of Arizona.

KM: On the UA lineup, was a young Terry Francona.

EL: Many years later I find out from Terry, who who’s a very, very good friend of mine, he said that he called his dad Tito Francona, another great baseball player. He called him after the game and he said, ‘Hey, Dad, do you know do you realize I just played against six pro players that were down here at Arizona to play against us?

KM: Terry Francona helped lead the Wildcats to the 1980 College World Series National Championship and was voted as the Series’ Most Outstanding Player and enjoyed a long career with the MLB as a player and manager.

KM: That exhibition game was about two years after Eddie retired from professional baseball.

In over 600 games across eight seasons with the MLB, Eddie finished with over 400 hits in nearly 2000 at-bats. He had 165 runs, 24 home-runs, and 159 runs batted in.

(music fades in)

EL: I decided I think I had enough.

You’ve reached your pinnacle of of your industry, you know when, when you’re, when you’re starting shortstop in the major leagues, there’s only 30 of them in the world doing that. So that’s, that’s something that to really be, to have an honor of doing that because not too many people can do that. And then in Mexico, it was again, I had a lot of success here because we won a couple of championships. Even though I didn’t really enjoy the environment there, I did get to to go to a lot of different Mexican citizen Mexican cities and so I got to know Mexico and I got to know the culture and and speak the language for two full years.

KM: I first heard about Eddie’s story from a traveling Smithsonian Exhibition that came to Tucson called, “¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues.”

The bilingual showcase examined just how generations of Latinos have helped make the game what it is today, regardless of gender, race and class.

Eddie was approached by the Smithsonian to submit photos and personal artifacts for the display.

One photo, he’s wearing a Minnesota Twins Hat and Naranjeros uniform.

Eddie Leon, 1975, AZ Daily Star Archives VIEW LARGER Eddie Leon, 1975. Leon wears his Naranjeros de Hermosillo uniform and Minnesota Twins hat.
Arizona Daily Star Archives, 1999.

EL: This was a, this is a funny story on that one. This was when I was playing, I don’t remember who I was playing with. Probably my right, after my last year with the Yankees, because I’ve got a Naranjeros uniform on and I played with the Naranjeros just after that. And For some reason I have a twin cities hat that the twins had. I don’t know how I got that on there.

KM: I asked him in hindsight, how he felt about being asked to participate in the Smithsonian’s exhibit and about Latinos place in baseball.

EL: Well they have a passion for it, I saw it when I went to Venezuela to play there. I saw it certainly in Mexico, in Hermosillo especially, and then in Puerto Rico, of course they love Roberto Clemente so there were all out and then in the Dominican as well. But I actually felt that a lot this weekend on Sunday, when I went up to the World Baseball Classic to watch USA get beat by Mexico. But there were 47,000 people in the stadium and I would think that two-thirds of them were Mexican and they were draped in their flags, and their Hermosillo Naranjeros uniforms and the Mexico jersey and the hat. I meant it was, it was crazy. They just have a passion for baseball.

KM: At last year’s (or 2023’s) World Baseball Classic, Mexico’s 11-5 victory over Team USA on March 12 drew a crowd of 47,534 people– an attendance record for any first round game.

Eddie says that all three of his sons played through high school, and that he didn’t feel a need to pressure them to play beyond.

He says they didn’t show as much interest in the sport as he did, until now.

EL: We attend a lot of major league games. You know we had when, when the Indians would have an alumni reunion in Cleveland, I went back for three straight years and I took each one of them individually with me for three years and they got to go play outfield in Jayco what was called Jacobs field back then, now it’s Progressive Field.

KM: Eddie says in 2016, they went to the World Series and in 2019, to the Cleveland All-Star Game.

EL: All four of us, my three sons and I are pretty good Cleveland Guardians fans now.

KM: I asked Eddie out of all the teams he played for, which was his favorite.

EL: Probably the Indians because I played every day and I was there for five years. My idol was Mickey Mantle and I always wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees.

KM: Last season, we talked about just how connected baseball is to Southern Arizona, and its reputation of consistently producing good players.

Eddie says it's because the state has the weather, the fields and tradition.

EL: When I was going to the university, the best sport it had was baseball. And so it kind of filtered down to the high schools and junior highs and everything and summer leagues, and I think it’s just continued to grow that way.

KM: Closing out this season’s opener for More Than a Game, I’m Katya Mendoza.

TP: And that's it for this episode of More Than a Game.

Join us next time as we learn about some of Arizona's most extreme endurance sporting events.

The show is produced and mixed by Zac Ziegler.

Our News Director is Christopher Conover.

Our logo was designed by AC Swedbergh.

Thanks to our marketing team for their help in launching this podcast.

This show is part of the AZPM podcast family. You can find all of our podcasts, news and video productions at azpm-dot-org.

I'm Tony Perkins. We'll see you next week.

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