John McGrath

Architect of Cheney remodel takes in his work during Triple-A All-Star game

Pacific Coast League Tacoma Rainiers first baseman Dan Vogelbach (20) greets teammates during introductions before the start of the Minor League baseball AAA All-Star Game against the International League, Wednesday, July 12, 2017 in Tacoma.
Pacific Coast League Tacoma Rainiers first baseman Dan Vogelbach (20) greets teammates during introductions before the start of the Minor League baseball AAA All-Star Game against the International League, Wednesday, July 12, 2017 in Tacoma. AP

When Cheney Stadium’s 2011 makeover was still a project and not a prize-winning renovation, David Bower, its principal architect, and Rainiers president Aaron Artman got into a few arguments.

Or, as Bower clarified Wednesday afternoon, “discussions.”

On one occasion, Bower had a vision he shared with Artman.

“Look, it’s a beautiful ballpark,” Bower said then. “But what I really care about is how beautiful the ballpark is when it’s full of people.”

Bower got that opportunity at the Triple-A All-Star game, where a standing-room crowd of some 7,000 made Cheney Stadium as radiant as the midsummer sun.

For an event so long anticipated, the crowd was on the small side. That was part of the blueprint.

“This is one of the first ballparks that started a trend for the size of seating in Triple-A,” Bower said of a park with 5,000 permanent seats. “In the old days, 10,000 typically was the standard. We addressed what the market was doing, and the market is not so much seating. The market is socializing.

“ ‘Thirsty Thursdays’ had always been a good deal for the club,” Bower continued, “but those fans needed a view of the field, and we capitalized on that.”

The principal architect of Populous, a firm that specializes in sports venues, the 62-year old Bower makes his home in the Kansas City area. He traveled to Tacoma to savor the atmosphere of Cheney Stadium, among the 30 stadium designs he’s directly overseen since he got into sports architecture business in 1988.

“I’ve never really grown up and left baseball,” he said. “I don’t play anymore, but I’m still a fan. I kind of fell into ballpark design.”

A 1977 graduate of Kansas State’s School of Architecture, Bower sensed the path his career would take when he was in high school.

“My next-door neighbor was a structural steel draftsman,” he said. “I used to go over after school and watch him drafting in the basement – he worked out of his home – and found myself thinking design and structural steel go together.”

Decades later, he finds minor-league baseball parks providing three thrills for those who conceive them as projects on paper.

“One is completing the design itself,” he said. “The second is when you see children walking through the gates for the first time. They’ve got their baseball gloves in their hands and their jaw drops.

“The third is being able to come back to events like this and being able to see how well they’ve taken care of the place. The ballpark always had a lot of things going for it. We just turned it a little around and pushed it in the right direction for the standards and trends of minor league baseball. I’m very excited about the way it ended up.”

The $30 million face-lift of Cheney Stadium, built in 1960, was named 2011 Renovation of the Year by Ballpark Digest. The publication cited the architectural accomplishment of rebuilding exclusively with local materials, such as Douglas Fir glu-lam beams.

Artman was so impressed with Bower’s work that he was hired to design the more recently completed “R Yard” deck behind the left-field fence.

Bower had a ticket Wednesday that gave him a chance to watch the action from a VIP seat. But his plan was to circulate around the park, eager to hear fans talking about the Cheney Stadium ambiance for the first Triple-A All-Star game in Tacoma.

But he wasn’t about to tout how he coordinated a restoration that took 2 1/2 years, from intrigue at first sight to pride at a job well done.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s all about Aaron and his people, the operation, all the things they’ve done. When a ballpark project is finished, we like to kind of fade into the background, watching people enjoy it.”

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