On the Road: On a Different Scale and Off Key in Tacoma

Note: It took all of my willpower not to reference my favorite GNR song of all time in this post’s title.

I visited six teams on this most recent road trip, and five of these teams were members of the aptly-named Northwest League. The one anomaly was the Tacoma Rainiers, who compete in the inaptly-named Pacific Coast League (unless you consider locales such as Memphis and New Orleans to be part of the Pacific Coast).

The Northwest League is Class A Short-Season, comprised of players just beginning their professional journeys. But the PCL is Triple-A, just one level removed from “The Show,” and the mentality of fans, front office staff and players at this level is markedly different.

So I knew going in that the Rainiers would be a whole ‘nother animal, operating on a totally different scale than the likes of Eugene, Salem-Keizer, and Yakima. These differences rang loud and clear as soon as I checked into the team hotel, which offered BY FAR the swankiest (and most self-consciously post-modern) accommodations I’ve ever enjoyed whilst on one of these road trips.

That’s room 2306 (!) of the Hotel Murano, and this was the view:

Hello, Tacoma!

I’ll have more on the Hotel Murano in an upcoming “Return to the Road” post, but for now let’s get to the evening’s primary locale: Cheney (pronounced “Cheeny”) Stadium, home of the Rainiers since 1961 and the recent recipient of a massive renovation (read all about that, and more, in last week’s MiLB.com piece). After getting lost on the way to the stadium (which happens regularly, even with GPS) I arrived at a parking lot which placed me in the rear of the facility.

Unfortunately the above entrance, neatly carved into the landscape, was not the one for me. “Will Call,” world-famous home of the media pass, was at home plate and thus began an arduous journey. Along the way I saw the back end of the stadium’s famous batter’s eye — located a staggering 425-feet from home plate and one of the few features of the old Cheney that survived the renovation intact.

Along the road I came across a species you rarely encounter in the Minors — the ballhawk. These guys were doing their darndest to snag batting practice home runs.

Finally, parched and hallucinating, I arrived at the front entrance. I can’t say for sure what those satellite dish-looking obelisks are above the sign, but they are a publicly-funded art project (Cheney’s renovation was partially funded by public money, and with this came the stipulation that it be decorated with public art).

First order of business was, as it often is, to conduct a few interviews with the good ol’ Flipcam. While waiting for my victims to emerge, I took a few shots of the dugout surroundings.

I interviewed Danny Hultzen first, an affable young TOP PROSPECT who has been a member of the Rainiers for less than two months. (I had actually been in attendance for his final Double-A start, when he took the mound for the Jackson Generals during my aptly but inelegantly named “OKARKMOTN” road trip). This was followed by a clunker of an interview with Italian-born third baseman Alex Liddi, in which I led off with a question about a ridiculous article I wrote about him back in 2006.

Nick Franklin was next up, who I wanted to talk to simply because I’d already interviewed him in High Desert and Jackson. But Franklin, now hip to the awkwardness that ensues whenever I roll into a Minor League dugout, never emerged. He was “busy.” That’s okay, Nick. I was busy, too — taking pictures of scintillating light pole signage (as an aside, those antiquated light fixtures are originally from San Francisco’s Seals Stadium).

I would have relished the opportunity to ketchup with Franklin, so its too bad that he never mustard the initiative to speak with me. Instead, I joined up with director of communications Ben Spradling for a pre-game ballpark tour. Post-renovation, Cheney Stadium is a dramatically different place than it was. Examples of creative re-invention are everywhere.

This berm area, sponsored by Alaska Airlines and featuring blinking blue airport runway lights, used to be comprised of bleacher seating.

This “Backyard BBQ” area was once a batting cage.

And what was once the visitor’s clubhouse is now a secondary ticket office.

Next to this structure is a new group area called the “Home Run Porch,” which sits level with the playing field.

Spradlin and I soon made our way back to the main area behind home plate, where we took the elevator to the topmost floor (otherwise known as the “third”). Once there, he opened an imposing metal gate (with the power of his mind) and we ascended up a darkened stairwell.

This camera well area, not open to the public, has been dubbed “The Bird’s Nest.” The view (and note the batter’s eye, some 425 feet away):

Also offering a prime view is the “Summit Club,” a season-ticket area that was packed with fans eager for some pre-game food and, especially, beverage.

The Summit Club offers views of, appropriately, a summit: Mt. Rainier, for which the franchise is named.

Okay, well, it would have been a great view of Mt. Rainier. But, unfortunately, on the day I was in attendance the mountain was completely obscured by the clouds. I never did get a proper glimpse of it, but such is life.

Doing my best to let go of feelings of disappointment regarding view obstruction, I stopped into the press box just as the game was about to begin (that’s Spradling, my tour guide, in the middle).

As always, the press box was the place to be if you’re a fan of sardonic, quick-witted banter. (Sample bit of dialogue: “Tonight’s ‘Play Ball Kid’ was pretty good. Yesterday’s asked for his line.”)

But with the game now underway, I felt a restless itch that only wandering can scratch. So off I went — to wander! The concourse, although not of the “open” variety, is very spacious. Although this picture was taken later in the evening (My beloved chronology! Ruined!) it does help to illustrate the overall feel of the place.

One of the evening’s promotions was “Firefighter’s Night,” as members of local departments had been invited out to the ballpark. One crew even drove out in this beautiful antique:

Around the bend from this cherry-red beaut was another stadium feature that had survived the renovations intact: the Tacoma Baseball Hall of Fame.

Front and center in the Hall of Fame is a plaque honoring Ben Cheney, a local businessman who spearheaded the drive to get the stadium built.

A more poignant (and noticeable) tribute to Cheney can be found in the seats behind home plate (and slightly up the first base line). A bronzed Cheney can be observed watching the game, surrounded by a small section of original blue stadium seats.

While I was taking pictures of Mr. Cheney, an usher approached and drew my attention to the ground in front of him. There, embedded in concrete, was one of Cheney’s peanut shells.

Meanwhile, PCL baseball was breaking out all around us. The view from the top (note the steep pitch of the seating area, a Cheney staple).

New seats, original grandstand.

The Rainiers hit something like 11 home runs in the second inning, en route to a seven-run frame (you do the math). Exhausted by the offensive outburst, I went back down to the concourse in search of sustenance.

Oh, hey, it’s Rhubarb!

I decided upon the Narrows Catch stand — while there were some seafood on offer (almost always a good thing) the necessity of obtaining a gluten-free option led me to go with what had become a theme on this trip: hot dog, sans bun.

“The Best Hot Dog in Baseball,” to be more specific.

I dressed it up with condiments as well as I could — and it was a very tasty hot dog — but even considering that a bun is usually involved here this seemed like a small amount of food for $7.

While ordering the hot dog, I noticed that the next stand over offered gluten-free Grist Mill beer. Finally, my first chance for a celiac-friendly beer at a Minor League Baseball game!

Or…not.

I’ve gotta say, what followed was a very frustrating experience. I ordered the beer, and even though the menu placard directly behind the woman at the register listed Grist Mill I was told that “We don’t serve beer here.” She then pointed toward all the other places in which I could get beer, apparently not realizing that Grist Mill was only offered in one place and that, if you’re ordering it, you’re doing so for a reason. So I went back to Narrow’s Catch, where I had ordered my hot dog, and was told that Grist Mill was only available at the next stand over — where I had just been! So I went back there, but to a different register, and now the beer was magically available. Except, no. “Sorry, sir,” I was told. “We don’t have a bottle opener.” This was followed by a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say “And we’re not going to look either.”

And…Scene!

Disillusioned, I retreated to a concession stand on the other side of the concourse and got some fries. Those were good.

The evening slowed down a bit at this point, giving me the time to appreciation this high-resolution scoreboard graphic. Konrad Schmidt: a Sal Fasano for a new era.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cheney had found some company.

This game turned out to be a blowout win for the Rainiers (seven-run second innings often lead to such things), but the visiting Reno Aces weren’t completely lifeless. Here’s Josh Bell, in the midst of a leisurely home run trot.

I made one final concessions stop, at this popular and distinctly Pacific Northwest eatery. Baked goods and high end coffee at the ballpark!

I ordered a mocha (for whatever reason, that was my coffee drink of choice throughout the trip).

Throughout the ballgame, firemen (the evening’s guests of honor) had comprised the majority of the between-inning games and contests. Most of these games were quite simple (trivia, push-up contests, etc) and conducted from the top of the dugout by ebullient MC Christy Magana.

Although not a firefighter (at least not in this life), I was asked to be a contestant in a between-game at the end of the seventh inning. I can’t remember what the game was called, specifically, but it was of the standard “Sing for Your Supper”/”Finish that Tune” variety.

Knowing that my pipes would soon be on display in front of thousands, I retreated to the top of the stadium and practiced a bit.

Me “singing”

For those who’ve never done it — being alone in a strange place and knowing you soon have to entertain a crowd with some off-the-cuff stupidity can be a bit nerve-wracking. I’ve done it enough where I’m no longer really nervous, because the number one takeaway is this: In the best way possible, it just doesn’t matter. You can do (almost) anything you want, and it will be fine. Don’t think.

Blogger in need of a makeover, reporting for duty.

The song was “Billie Jean.”

I adopted a falsetto, and then realized I didn’t really know the lyrics. The combination of the ridiculous voice, awkward pause, and mangled lyrics (“I am the one! (pause) I have a son!”) got a surprisingly strong reaction from the crowd. As much as I look like (and am) a doofus, I like the below picture because Christy seems genuinely amused by my idiocy. What can I say? As much as I’m a very reserved person overall, in these sort of situations I really enjoy making people laugh.

That’s enough narcissism for now, and there’s not too much else to report. The game ended unceremoniously, and upon its conclusion I snapped a few pictures of my new interview-avoiding nemesis Nick Franklin. You can never escape the all-seeing eye of Ben’s Biz! (For the record, I have no real issue with Mr. Franklin).

On my way out, I documented some glow-in-the-dark stadium art. Publicly funded! This one is called “Home Run.” The artist is David Franklin (no relation to Nick), and the medium is powder coated aluminum LED RGB fixtures.

All that was left for me to do was to drive upstream back to my place of lodging. The Hotel Murano, its day-glo “M” beckoning from on high, awaited!

twitter.com/bensbiz

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

8 Comments

I hope you enjoyed it overall. I have had the same issue with the concession staff, but I always remember they only do it for minimum wage. Cheney also holds soccer games. :)

Sounds like top-notch customer service!

Love them Rainiers. Good write-up, you said pretty much what I say as a local. Come back when the Mountain’s “out,” it’s a better view than you get from Seattle :)

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Since the demise of the Portland Beavers, I’ve made a couple of trips to new Cheney Stadium. I love the place. The seating and legroom are terrific. There are more microbrews available than any ballpark I’ve ever been to, including the majors. And there are ticket packages that include all you can eat/drink, which seem expensive until you price the food and drink items individually and then you realize what a bargain they are if you happen to want a dog and 2-3 beers. Even though it’s more than a 2-hour drive for me, I’ll be back for a couple of games a year, at least.

Great pictures and very entertaining stories. Sounds like a typical ball park dog, way overpriced!
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I currently work concessions at that stand, and I go the extra mile for my customers. I’m sorry that you received sub par service in the past. I REALLY ENJOYED reading this blog.

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