Last weekend I was up in Seattle for the Microsoft Puzzle Safari, but I also had a side goal of trying to go stalk Brian Sweeney. I'd noticed a few months ago that he and Luis Jimenez were on the Rainiers, and this particular weekend both the Rainiers and Mariners were in town, so I figured that one way or another I should be able to catch them.
(Brian and Luis both played for the Fighters when I lived in Japan, see. Brian was there for several years, even, through two Japan Series runs, and I used to talk to him fairly often, and once his family even joined me and my friends in the outfield cheering section. Brian is without a doubt the nicest guy I've ever met in baseball. Luis was only around for half a season, but he was also really nice when I met him.)
Anyway, the last time I went to a game in Tacoma was at least 5 years ago, maybe 6. I used to try to make it to a few games a year in both Tacoma (Rainiers, AAA) and Everett (Aquasox, short A) when I lived in Seattle, so I could see what the newest and oldest minor-leaguers in the Mariners system were up to. At the time, Cheney Stadium was a fairly typical minor-league park: slightly run-down, full of a 1960's flair of sorts, kinda campy, but the kind of place you go to because watching minor-league ball is fun and cheap. And who can beat Dollar Dog Thursdays and deals like that?
Well, about two years ago they renovated the crap out of the place, quite literally. I showed up and even from the highway, I could tell that it had completely changed. There's a whole new front facade, mostly because there's a whole structure full of luxury suites and apparently a restaurant seating area and all kinds of new stuff. To be honest, I'd bought a ticket a few days before coming to Seattle, because it looked like the Sunday game was almost sold out at that point! It's crazy, but between season tickets, the renovated stadium, fan-friendly events including an autograph booth before the game, and the way they're promoting, the Rainiers seem to be doing pretty good business for themselves.
However, thanks to all the new stuff, I wasn't entirely sure how the lines and entrances and such worked now. My seat was on the 3rd base side, so I lined up at the 3rd base gate, around noon, for a 1:35 game, where the gates apparently would open at 12:30. It was slightly rainy, and I was getting concerned by the fact that people kept lining up on the 1st base side, but not so much on the 3rd base side. So finally I turned around and asked the older guy standing behind me in line, "Hey, what's the deal with the gates? Am I in the wrong place?"
"Yeah," he told me, "This side is for season ticket holders. The middle part there's for the dugout club and suites and all. The other side is for general admission."
"Oh crap," I said, "I haven't been here in about 6 years, and there wasn't a system like that back then as far as I remember."
"Well, that's okay," he said and winked, "You're with us, right?"
He turned out to be a season ticket holder for many years with his kids, so when I started babbling about coming to watch Felix, and Hunter Brown and all, he started telling me about all the renovations to the stadium and so on.
Anyway, eventually we got into the stadium. And my seat, which was in the front row of section D, a single seat available there, turned out to be between two season ticket holders. (No wonder. But the number of season ticket holders seems pretty impressive nonetheless.) I went down to the dugout in the hopes of catching Luis or Brian, and I basically stayed there for an entire hour until game time.
See, it was Sunday, so there was no batting practice. Some players were coming out to stretch or run or throw in the field, but it wasn't mandatory. A little boy down the row from me got several of the players to sign his ball, and then the guy standing next to me asked, "Do you have any idea what Stephen Pryor looks like?"
"Not really, why?" I replied.
"Well," he explained, "I was at the combined no-hitter game, and then went to the game where they gave out posters commemorating the game. And then a week or so ago Tom Wilhelmsen was doing a signing at Fred Meyer, so I went there and got him to sign the poster. And I saw Stephen Pryor got sent down to AAA so I thought maybe I could catch him here. And then after that... well, maybe if I'm lucky sometime I can catch the other guys in the bullpen. I'm pretty sure I can recognize Brandon League, and maybe if he saw what I was doing he'd help me get Furbush and Luetge. The problem is going to be Kevin Millwood."
"Yeah," I agreed, "Millwood's tough. I mean, I still remember seeing him throw a no-hitter for the Phillies like ten years ago too. Guys like that are hard to catch... but I don't think it's impossible, there's always spring training, or minor-league rehabs, or maybe he'll be a coach someday? Alternately you could try going to one of the early opening days for season ticket holders, if you know anyone who's a season ticket holder? I got half the bullpen to sign a poster for me at one of those several years ago..."
Anyway, I explained to him that I was there waiting for Brian or Luis, and we stood around by the dugout talking for a while. I looked at his poster and kinda tried to memorize Pryor's face; I was pretty sure I hadn't seen him go by. A photographer came by and saw this guy holding the poster and said he'd see if he could pass the message on to Pryor, and sure enough, around maybe 10 minutes before game time, Pryor came out and signed it for him! That was pretty cool.
I waited around some more, feeling kinda confused, like "Why haven't they come out yet?" Other players came out; the starter Andrew Carraway walked by us, a bunch of infielders like Carlos Triunfel and Nick Franklin and Mike Carp went to warm up. For the record, Carp didn't even turn his head at all when the little boy down the row for me asked for a signature, but Triunfel and Franklin both said they'd sign on their way back in, and did. I prefer photos to signatures, honestly, and I had the sense to ask Nick Franklin if I could get a photo with him, which he was fine with and even smiled for. What a nice guy! I guess this is what happens when players are coming up through the system rather than going down. Also, no, I didn't see Danny Hultzen anywhere.
Anyway, I finally did get to talk to Brian for all of 2 minutes before the game started. It was a little weird because I wanted to tell him how I'd been following his games this year, and hope he'll get called up to Seattle at some point, and how the Rainiers came to Sacramento a few weeks ago and he was the starting pitcher on a Sunday afternoon then but it was 106 degrees out and I was kind of sick at the time. And so many other things, like how I'm just happy he's still in baseball since so many guys come back from Japan and have nowhere to go, and I wondered how his family was doing and all. But, our conversation was more like "OMG HOW ARE YOU I HAVEN'T SEEN YOU IN FOREVER!" At least I showed off how this time I wore a Fighters shirt -- last time I saw Brian was 2 years ago and I had a Marines shirt, and promised to wear a Fighters shirt next time I saw him. Pretty crazy, really. He said he'd be pitching on Tuesday, unfortunately, so I wouldn't get to see him pitch this time.
I got to talk to Luis a little bit too, congratulate him on being part of the Triple-A All-Star team, things like that. At least Luis was in the starting lineup as DH, so I'd get to see him play.
And I got a photo with both of them. It was kind of frantic, but it's so cool that they're both on the same team! I showed the photo to a bunch of my Fighters friends back in Japan, and they're all basically like "OMG SWEENEY AND HIME-CHAN! PLEASE CHEER FOR THEM FOR US!" Everyone was really excited to hear that they were still playing baseball and doing well and looking happy.
On my way to my seat, I passed by the guy who'd gotten the Pryor autograph, and he was like "I saw Brian and Luis come out and talk to you! Awesome that you got to see them!" So that was good.
I spent the first 2 innings in my actual seat, and then joined up with my friend Jeff (no, not the LL one) for the rest of the game. We'd actually made plans to meet up at the game, but I was coming down from Seattle and he was coming from further out in Tacoma, so it just worked out this way. Jeff and I used to go to Rainiers games waaaaay back in the day, and he hadn't been back there since the last time we went to a game together either (since I went to Japan for a few years and he moved to California for a few years). So we got to sit together and reminisce and watch the game and all.
I also spent a half inning wandering through the stadium just taking photos of the various things there like the Tacoma Hall of Fame, the concession stands, the concourse, and so on. It was nice to really appreciate how the stadium had been completely remodelled. The concessions are really crazy, though I ended up just getting a hot dog because I was in a hurry.
Oh, and I did watch a game. Rob Scahill started for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, and Andrew Carraway for the Rainiers. It was a fairly close game all the way, with each team scoring a point here or there, but no huge innings. The Rainiers went up 1-0 in the 2nd when Nick Franklin walked and was singled around by Catricala and Triunfel. Then the Sky Sox tied it up 1-1 in the top of the 4th as Andrew Brown singled, moved up on Matt McBride's single, moved to third on a bunt by Charlie Blackmon, and scored on a sac fly by Brendan Harris. But Nick Franklin walked again in the bottom of the 4th, stole second on Vinnie Catricala's at bat, moved up on Catricala's fly to center, and then scored during a wild pitch to Carlos Triunfel, 2-1. The Rainiers made it 3-1 in the bottom of the 5th when Darren Ford reached on a throwing error by short, stole second on Trayvon Robinson's at-bat and moved up on his groundout. Then he scored when Luis Jimenez hit a single to left! Yay! The Sky Sox made it 3-2 in their half of the 6th, with McBride walking, moving up when Harris walked, then scoring on a hit by Chad Tracy.
I had to leave by around 5pm in order to get to the airport in time for my flight back to San Francisco, but everything seemed fine going into the 9th, at 4:15 or so. Scott Patterson came out to pitch the top of the 9th, and the very first pitch he threw was sent over the left-field wall by Tommy Field, to make it 3-3. Oops.
Sky Sox made it 4-3 in their top of the 10th on a double by Blackmon and another by Tracy. But then the Rainiers tied it up 4-4 on a Luis Rodriguez pinch-hit homer over the right-field wall in the bottom of the 10th.
Normally I *hate* to leave a game early -- I'm always showing up to the park way before the game and leaving way after -- but missing my flight would really suck, so I packed up after the bottom of the 10th and left. I stopped in the Rainiers Team Store on my way out of the stadium, to get a shirt, and while I was buying it, we saw on the TV screens in the shop that Charlie Blackmon had just hit a 3-run homer to make it 7-4 Sky Sox, which is what the final score was.
I shouldn't feel too bad, I guess -- I did watch 10 innings and 3.5 hours of the game, after all.
Anyway, here's my photo set from the day, of Cheney Stadium and many Rainiers. And as usual, a sampling in my post...
Nick Franklin! 1st-round pick in 2009 and already up with the Rainiers.
Tacoma Baseball Hall of Fame, featuring plaques for Gaylord Perry and such, and of course Ben Cheney, the businessman who brought baseball to Tacoma in the first place.
Look at this crazy treehouse... I mean grandstand full of suites and restaurants all. Hard to believe this is Cheney Stadium.
Rainiers starter Andrew Carraway.
Mike Carp (check out that tattoo)
Sky Sox starter Rob Scahill.
Renovated scoreboard looks good, and looks better with Hime-chan on it!
Luis Jimenez at bat!
Nick Franklin slides into third base!
Score when I left the game.
I have no idea whether I'll make it to another Rainiers game at all this year -- maybe when they come to Fresno, we'll see. The Mariners don't come back to Oakland until the end of September, and I may be in Japan then.