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Wednesday, July 28, 2004 - Page updated at 01:31 P.M.
Minor League Baseball
By Bob Sherwin
TACOMA Down here, in the clunky but cozy 44-year-old Cheney Stadium, it's turn-back-the-clock night every night. Only one deck forms a crescent around the field, where no seat is more than about 30 yards away from a player or a concession stand.
The grass may be greener somewhere else, but you can smell it here.
Although those elements don't necessarily enrich the players' situation, they are essential to the fans' Cheney Experience. This is not the big leagues. This is not Safeco Field. This is Class AAA bargain baseball, especially when the option of watching the Mariners this summer has yielded so little for so much.
"We don't worry about what we don't have," said Kevin Kalal, the Rainiers' assistant general manager for baseball operations. "Like we don't have higher prices, huge lines and parking problems. Once our fans are in their seats, this is as good a place to watch a game as any from a fan's standpoint."
The fans and players also realize that this is a rare season in which many of the Rainiers actually are fulfilling their big-league dreams. The Rainiers' shuttle has been burning up I-5 this summer as never before. Already this season the Mariners have shuffled in and out pitchers Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, Matt Thornton, Bobby Madritsch, George Sherrill and J.J. Putz. Prodigious slugger Bucky Jacobsen has moved up as have infielders Justin Leone and Ramon Santiago. Pat Borders has come back to Tacoma.
Others could get the call up at any time. Infielders Jose Lopez and Greg Dobbs, outfielders Jamal Strong and Jeremy Reed, and pitcher Randy Williams. Along with pitcher Gil Meche, who is poised for a recall to Seattle.
A higher calling
They pay rapt attention to the Mariners' postgame radio show, broadcast on the overhead speakers. Blackley, who was promoted a month ago, is being interviewed. Nageotte, whose spot in the rotation and roster was taken by Blackley, stares blankly across the room as he listens. Pitching coach Rafael Chaves, credited with molding many of the system's young arms, stands arms akimbo in proud silence.
It's church-like in its veneration. Actually, it is a church, in baseball terms. The cramp-damp clubhouse is the Church of a Higher Purpose, the Altar to the Alternative. Such is life in Class AAA baseball, a way station on the highway to a player's ultimate destination the major leagues. Some have ascended and others will follow; most won't go beyond these walls, but every guy clings to the dream.
What is the most difficult aspect for both players and fans is the label stamped on this level of baseball, that it's substandard and transitory. Players come and go and the fans have no control. But it is what it is. It's like life, enjoy it while you can.
When Jacobsen played for the Rainiers, fans poured out to see his power potential. "That's where our affiliation with the Mariners helps," Kalal said. "Before, when we were affiliated with Oakland, it was like, 'Who cares?'
"Former Mariners like Ben Davis (since traded) and Luis Ugueto get more cheers than the other guys," he said. "Nageotte gets more cheers every time now because he has been up there."
Competing despite instability
This is the 10th year in which the Mariners have been affiliated with the Rainiers, seemingly a symbiotic relationship. Although this is one of the few times in which most of the system's brightest prospects have advanced to Class AAA and now beyond. Over the past few years the Rainiers have been a wasteland for career minor-leaguers, has-beens and never-beens. This is a much-improved bunch, as indicated by the upward movement.
That improvement and subsequent advancement have provided encouragement for the players and fans. The team has played well all season, despite the personnel instability. Manager Dan Rohn and his staff have kept the club in first place in the Pacific Coast League's North Division, with a 54-46 record going into last night's game.
Even with seven rainouts and plenty of threatening skies in the spring, attendance has been decent 4,887 fans per game, better than last season's average of 4,554. This is despite playing in a spartan stadium with an owner, George Foster, who has tried and failed to sell the team for four years.
As far as facilities are concerned, Cheney (capacity 9,600) might be viewed as venerable at best, decrepit at worst. Without much argument, it's considered the worst stadium in the 16-team PCL. Many of the PCL teams have built or improved their facilities, such as Portland, Sacramento, Fresno, Oklahoma City and Memphis. There are no plans for a new park in Tacoma. No one wants to even buy the team.
The facility, owned by the city and Pierce County, was built in three months and two weeks for $940,000. The first scheduled game on April 14, 1960, was, fittingly, a rainout. It officially opened two days later under an affiliation with the San Francisco Giants. The old wooden grandstands, still in use, and outfield light towers were from Seals Stadium in San Francisco.
There have been a series of improvements over the years. A new field was installed before the 1998 season. A new backdrop and sound system were added in 1999. The home clubhouse has been enlarged with a new trainer's room and workout room in the old visitors' clubhouse. The visitors now dress in a trailer beyond the left-field wall.
Before the clubhouse renovation, the home team and the visitors entered and exited through the same corridor behind the first-base home dugout. When tempers flared during games, the close proximity also triggered some memorable confrontations under the stands.
The hot water in the showers can be sporadic at times. The washers/dryers are not commercial sized, but household sized. Equipment guys would work long hours after games cleaning two teams' uniforms in washers and dryers designed for families, not baseball teams. Blown fuses are just a fact of life.
"They put a training room in and a weight room in," Rohn said. "They've done some things. It's not bad. It's an old ballpark. You have to put up with the nooks and crannies."
For the fans, it's a pretty simple layout. The concession stands, featuring BBQ beef sandwiches, grilled chicken salads and quesadillas, are all tucked under the stands, just a few steps from their seats. Lines can be long, but prices are reasonable.
The seats behind home plate, from third to first, are exceedingly close to the action. Fans can hear all the language of baseball, perhaps with a little extra salt on their pretzels. And players can hear the fans. One voice in the stands can carry throughout the entire audience. All the conversations, on and off the field, create a wonderful and nostalgic crowd buzz that permeates the park.
Babies and young kids are everywhere. The club promotes the family atmosphere. Children can actually run on the field during the fourth inning "Run with Rhubarb." Kids enter through the right-field gate and join Rhubarb, the Rainiers' mascot, for a run down the foul line and out another gate at the first-base bag. Selected kids also can catch a ride on the back of the cart that rakes the infield between innings.
On a clear day, Mount Rainier is a bonus sight for fans sitting along the left-field bleachers and in the upper four rows under the third-base grandstand roof. Fans sitting along the right-field bleachers can catch the sunset behind the left-field stands.
It's a huge playing field, one reason some of the hitters don't like the park. The center-field wall is 425 feet away. No one has ever hit a ball over that wall, although Jacobsen put one three-quarters of the way off it this season.
Ticket prices are reasonable compared to the Mariners. General admission is $5, reserve seats are $7 and box seats are $12. Parking is $5. On Thursdays, all hot dogs, sodas, ice cream and beer are $1.
"We know where our sport is in the Puget Sound sports scene," Kalal said. "We're not the Mariners or Seahawks or Sonics or Husky football. We try to beat them with prices. We try to beat them with entertainment."
They also beat them with proximity. Few places can get a fan closer, cheaper. It is with some irony that from a fan's perspective, that the closer these players get to Seattle, the farther away they are.
Bob Sherwin: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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