I've been watching baseball games at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma ever since the ballpark opened in 1960, a span of 51 years that took me from a scrawny, preteen Little Leaguer to a graying, middle-age man.
But never have I had the kind of experience I had this week at a twilight double-header between the Tacoma Rainiers and Las Vegas 51s.
Olympia attorney and fellow fantasy basketball league team owner Fred Gentry – he of the 2010 title-winning Giraffes – received two Gold Card tickets to the game for purchasing a set of hearing aids from Hearing Healthcare Center in Olympia. See, there are some benefits to growing old.
In his first visit to see a game at Cheney Stadium, Gentry invited me to tag along.
We quickly discovered that holders of Gold Card tickets receive preferential treatment at Cheney Stadium. First, there’s the VIP parking, which places you about 75 feet from the stadium entrance.
At the entrance gate to the stadium, we were greeted by Tacoma Rainiers corporate sales manager Matthew Barron.
“I could have gotten you out on the field before the game, but the first game has started already,” he said.
Barron escorted us to our box seats directly behind the visitor’s dugout on the third base side near home plate. I’ve never been so close to the field at a professional baseball game.
Before we sat down to enjoy the action, Barron explained that our VIP status included free beverages and snacks. In keeping with the spirit of the night, we opted for a beer named Curve Ball, a refreshing pale ale brewed by Pyramid Brewing Co. It sure beat the heck out of the $8 I paid for a microbrew at the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field opener this year.
He also walked us down the right-field line to show us a barbecue and yet another vantage point reserved for Gold Card holders.
After our orientation, we headed back to our seats. We sat down just in time to watch the Rainiers’ catcher, Guillermo Quiroz, smash a fastball to center field. The dimensions of the field are huge – 425 feet to center and 325 feet down the left- and right-field lines. For a second, it looked like an inside-the-park home run in the making, but third base coach Daren Brown, who doubles as the manager, held him at third. Not to worry, Quiroz soon scored.
The Rainiers already have lost several key players early in the season through call-ups to the Seattle Mariners. A Major League team’s Triple A affiliate roster is always in flux and subject to the needs of the parent club.
One thing was quickly obvious in our box seats: we were in the potential line of fire for foul balls, especially off the bats of left-handed hitters.
But that didn’t stop me from day-dreaming a little bit about Tacoma games of the past, sitting there in a stadium that looks much like it did when it opened in 1960. That’s all about to change, thanks to a $30 million overhaul scheduled for Cheney Stadium before the 2011 season.
I harkened back to a hot August night in 1998 when a young Freddy Garcia, a fireballing prospect picked up from the Houston Astros when Seattle traded Randy Johnson, made his Tacoma Rainiers debut. When his fastball hit the catcher’s mitt, it sounded like rifle fire crackling through the air.
Flash forward 12 years and Garcia is a veteran 34-year-old pitcher hanging on with the Chicago White Sox, and I’m back at Cheney Stadium dredging up even deeper memories of games in this old stadium.
The best years for me were the early 1960s, when Tacoma was the farm team of the San Francisco Giants. I watched many future Giant stars on the way up – think All-Star pitcher Juan Marichal – and aging former big league stars on their way down – think 1954 World Series hero outfielder Dusty Rhodes.
The highlight of the night last week was watching Mariners shortstop Jack Wilson, who had been on the disabled list since May 12 with a hamstring injury, make his first rehab assignment start with the Rainiers. He ripped a single and a double in the first game, knocked in the go-ahead run and fielded all his chances at shortstop flawlessly.
After the first game, won by the Rainiers 3-1 in seven innings before a sparse crowd, we headed back to the barbecue to share an order of ribs and two side orders of potato salad. We had to pay for dinner – $13.50 – but that was the only time all night that money left my wallet.
After dinner, we headed back to our seats for a couple of innings of the nightcap. In the twilight hour, with the stadium lights shining bright, I had more memories of taking my young son, Zachary, to Rainiers games when he was a Little Leaguer. I remember him scampering around the stadium, chasing after foul balls. The setting is so intimate, he was never out of my sight.
I’m looking forward to the new stadium. At the same time, I’ll miss the one I’ve been frequenting off and on for six decades.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/soundings