John McGrath: Things ‘R’ finally connecting for fans and Tacoma Rainiers’ front office

Aaron Artman’s office is a room with a view of Cheney Stadium. As the ballpark filled up Saturday afternoon with fans privileged to watch baseball in perfect baseball weather, Artman, the Tacoma Rainiers president, couldn’t help but smile every time he glanced through the window.

“Things are finally connecting,” he said. “Fans want to be out here. They’re coming back more than once. I used to run into people who’d tell me, ‘I understand the new place looks beautiful, but I haven’t been there in 15 or 20 years.’ And I’d say, ‘Come on back. You’re gonna love it.’ ”

Cheney Stadium’s renovation was finished in the spring of 2011, and yet each season since then has found fans introduced to additional upgrades. New this year is a spectacular mural on the wall of the third-base party deck and signage around the park with the letter “R” in red script.

The “R” is part of a rebranding project that includes a new primary logo — gone is the compass, replaced by a script “Rainiers” — along with alternate red-jersey uniforms and caps for Thursdays and Sundays.

A promotional motto — “We R Tacoma” — is featured on a pregame video shown on the high-definition scoreboard. Some of the city’s iconic landmarks serve as backdrops for the “We R Tacoma” theme.

“It gives you chills,” Artman said of the video, put together by Rainiers creative director Tony Canepa. During their days with the Las Vegas 51s, Canepa, then the student mascot at UNLV, told Artman of his interest in graphic design. Artman hired Canepa as an intern.

“He’s basically self-taught,” said Artman. “In terms of creativity, I’d rank him with anybody in the business.”

When Rainiers season-ticket holders were mailed renewal forms for 2015, the letter was accompanied with a booklet illustrated by Canepa and written by media and marketing development director Ben Spradling. The booklet won six regional ADDY awards — the advertising industry’s equivalent of an Oscar — and has earned Canepa and Spradling a June trip to Las Vegas as nominees for the national ADDY awards.

“Tony and Ben — our little Rainiers’ creative team — will be going up against some of the top ad agencies in the world,” Artman said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Before Canepa and Spradling earned regional honors, Artman realized the Rainiers had scored not merely a marketing hit with the introduction of their red “R” caps, but a grand slam.

“The ‘R’ has been in the Rainiers script since the team came here in 1995,” Artman noted. “But once we started putting it on merchandise, people loved it. It was all over town, and we thought: We ought to listen to what fans want, so let’s make it official.

“It’s gone through the roof. We’re going to need to reorder a lot of stuff after this first homestand, and that usually doesn’t happen until the summer rush. People just like the classic, traditional look. A lot of minor league teams have gone the gimmicky route — that won’t fly in Tacoma.”

Merchandise sales are up and, more important, so is attendance, which spiked midway through last season. Lovely weather never hurts, of course, but there are other reasons why Cheney Stadium has become a destination spot.

It is among a handful of Pacific Coast League ballparks with outfield seating. The left-field party area offers my idea of the best vantage point in baseball: You can track pitch location and marvel at the unsurpassed splendor of Mount Rainier, all while positioned close enough to the left fielder to read his thoughts, if not fraternize with him during a pitching coach’s occasional sermon on the mound.

And then there are those home runs, especially the laser shots that travel 380 feet in a few seconds. If a Rainiers player hits one, concession prices on the deck are reduced to Happy Hour rates for the remainder of the game.

Cheney Stadium’s renovation blueprints included left-field bleachers, but the budget was tapped out and something had to go. In lieu of bleachers, home and visiting bullpens were installed behind the fence.

“So we brought in a few more investors, with the idea of using that money for capital improvements,” said Artman. A left-field deck with party tables and two rows of chairs — about 90 in all — opened last June.

“It rounds the park out. It used to be that you’d look off into infinity,” continued Artman, referring to the parking lot adjacent to baseball fields on the south side of South 19th Street. “Now it’s a real ballpark. It would be fun to find a way to do something with right field, too, but there’s not a lot of land out there.”

Artman walked over the office window and took another look, which was worth another smile.

“I’m so grateful right now,” he said. “I’m grateful for fans for embracing everything we’re doing. I’m grateful for an ownership group whose first question at the end of the year is, ‘What can we do to add something fans are gonna love?’

“For the president of a baseball team, it’s a pretty great place to be.”

The office room with a view never gets old, even though it’s not the best view of Cheney Stadium. The best view is across from him, on the other side of the field, where home runs now land for spectators positioned in the heart of the party.