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July 3, 2003

Breaking Balls

Down on the Farm

by Derek Zumsteg

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I went to check out a Pacific Coast League game Tuesday in Tacoma, where the Tacoma Rainiers hosted the Portland Beavers. Both teams may not exist in a few years. The Beavers play in PGE Park and don't draw as well as the supporters of major league baseball had hoped. Their fairly new stadium has been determined to be inadequate for expansion to support a minor league team, which means it's not going to be torn down right away. Still, they face the same fate the Phoenix Firebirds did when the Diamondbacks came to town (the Firebirds moved to Fresno, California). If Portland gets baseball, the Beavers will be on the move in a hurry, forced out by economics and MLB's system of territorial rights.

The Rainiers announced on June 27th that "Fun Entertainment LLC" (formerly Unsmiling Consolidated Industries AG, incorporated in Dusseldorf, Germany) signed a letter of intent to buy the team from owner George Foster, who's been trying to get rid of them for years. While the team is tied to a lease through 2005, Cheney stadium is pretty run-down and the owner has been fighting for years for wide-ranging improvements. If the new ownership doesn't get a sweet deal, they'll start looking for places to move. Tacoma's a beautiful industrial town, as much as any city has personality in modern times, where strip malls with the same stores and the vast parking lots of Wal Mart determine as much local geography as the character of the region a hundred years ago. Tacoma's also poorer than Seattle, and with the whole northwest economy in shambles and Boeing self-destructing, it's going to be hard for the city to come up with a couple million dollars to support minor-league baseball, and it's even more unlikely the state would help.

The difficulty in building a minor league stadium in Tacoma demonstrates a side-effect of the way minor-league baseball works. Triple-A isn't a step down from the majors any more, where the most-talented players work out the final kinks in their game before they head to the Show. Today it's largely a collection of emergency-emergency older veteran players stashed away in case the big club contracts some particularly virulent STD all at the same time and has to go on the 60-day DL. It's frequently harder to get myself to go see AAA games in Tacoma when I have a choice between one and a short-season Everett Aquasox game, because I can see draft picks and hyped international signings debut in Everett while in Tacoma there are few players I feel I need to eyeball one more time.

This means that there's not much opportunity to market the teams (well, at least honestly): they're not the Mariners of tomorrow, they're not kids. There are rarely stars that fans can go out and see hoping they'll be able to get an autograph from while they can still handle the crowds. There's little to market in the players, or the game, so many minor league teams aren't competing with the major league team an hour up the highway, they're competing against the bowling alley and the movies, trying to offer family entertainment or a pleasant evening outside. Which they do by using children as revenue generators. For instance:

This the daily "Round the Kids Into the Hot Dog Maker" promotion. Note the security guards standing around to make sure the children don't run off, and note the clear complicity of Rhubarb the team mascot, the large guy in white with the antlers and helmet, keeping the kids happy and calm as they run off to be turned into meat product.

Later in the game the grounds crew abducts several children from the stands and forces them into the back of a cart. The cart's then driven around the infield at increasingly high speeds until the parents meet the team's ransom demands.

Only scouts arrive early, more of them as the trade deadline approaches. You never know who's going to get thrown into a deal. The scouts show up one by one at the stadium and form packs to separate the tasty prospects from the pack where they can be forced to run 40-yard dashes over and over.

Cheney Stadium is old and neglected. The field itself doesn't look so bad: in center's a tall wall that no one's ever hit a ball over during a game (it is rumored Alex Rodriguez, among other monster hitters, did it in batting practice).

The turf has lighter-green circles in it, as if it's a little mossy. The cement dugouts are badly cracked and patched, the seats have some standard ballpark plastic seats, but also small folding wooden chairs and metal bleachers suitable for a high school field. Cheney was build in 1959 in three months, 14 days, for under a million dollars. The lights and those wooden seats came from Seals Stadium, previously the home of the giants, you can trace much of Cheney Stadium back to the thirties.

As a point of reference, the Kingdome in Seattle started construction in 1972 and the town blew it up to make way for Seahawks Stadium in 2000. While it has been upgraded, it doesn't have a retro feeling to it, and the different seating sections seem slapped together recently. Here you can see the plastic seats (green), wood seats (blue), bleachers (gray), and in front of the bleachers, if you squint a little, are the fake-wood plastic picnic benches.

The press box is a trailer they put on top of the concrete overhang with a crane with some windows put into one side. It wobbles badly when people walk around and I'm frequently worried the whole thing's going to snap, tossing the trailer into the infield in a cloud of concrete dust and corroded steel.

You'll note that the press box is secured to the top of the concrete overhang by what appear to be pieces of wood

This what the Rainiers bullpen looks like:

Those are the stackable $4 plastic patio chairs you can get on sale at Target.

PCL baseball offers a talent level that feels like watching the two worst teams in baseball play each other on a travel day. The prices aren't so hot anymore: at Tacoma, the worst tickets cost as much as the worst tickets at Safeco, though the best seats are much cheaper ($10 to $40 for rows behind the dugout), beer's a little less outrageous, and concessions are a little cheaper. So what can you sell: "80% of the talent for 70% of the price?" To make things worse, with teams dependent on their parent organizations for the roster, it's hard to get the community around a winning team when their connection to the players is transient. And as a result, it can be hard for a city to justify a new park, because they don't have the same kind of magnet arguments major league teams throw out.

Baseball should free the minor leagues for the good of the sport. Teams aren't seriously interested in most of the players in the system. They should sign the talent they commit to and then assign them to partner clubs on different levels. Each minor league club gets to develop a front-office staff, and crazy ideas can be tried and evaluated. Each newly freed club (say, Tacoma) can sign whoever it wants and play quality baseball, so they could take undrafted local boys, or even pay up for foreign talent. With improved competition and vitality, they could be economically viable. The PCL plays in some great markets today: Portland, Sacramento are among the best candidates for Expos relocation, and Tacoma's in a large metro area. They could build fan bases, get better media deals… I realize why baseball's never going to do this.

I headed to Tacoma to check out a couple of players in particular. On the Beavers, the Padres AAA team: Mike Bynum, tonight's starter, because I love pitchers with trick pitches. The Lobster Grip? Buy me a ticket and save me some kettle corn. Khalil Greene, coveted shortstop

And on the Rainiers: Rett Johnson, tonight's other starter, because he's got nasty stuff and one of my friends saw him in San Antonio and said "I'm so impressed with Rett Johnson, I'm giving him my full endorsement."

As a bonus, though, if you go to any AAA game you get some interesting side stories.

I got to see J.R. Phillips playing first base. J.R. Phillips has a chance to lead the PCL in home runs a decade apart, in 1993 (27) and 2003. Phillips was once going to be the replacement for Will Clark, and was a reason the Giants (stupidly) felt they could hardball Clark on his desire for a longer deal. Phillips didn't have a lot to recommend him in that position: a decent 1991 A+ ball campaign in Palm Springs (.248, 22 doubles, 20 HR, 57 BB, 144 K at age 21) but the team kept pushing him up the ladder. After his failure to take over in 1994, Phillips got some cups of coffee but never stuck, and in AAA every year would hit some doubles, some home runs (usually 20ish, but 41 in Colorado Springs in 1999), and strike out a lot. At 33, out of the game, the Tacoma News Tribune guy told me Phillips was working construction before the M's gave him a deal. Phillips wore number 33, which likely isn't a coincidence (he wore 17 the last time I saw him in a Giants uniform). Phillips has to know he's not going to get the call from the Mariners, but he put down whatever he was working on and got on a plane to come play baseball again.

In a similar way, Pat Borders is catching for the Rainiers at 40. He's been a major league regular, and now he's spending another season in Tacoma, hanging out with his kids on the field before the game. These guys aren't playing because they want to impress chicks, or make big money, they're playing for the same reason I, or anyone else who loves baseball, puts on cleats and walks onto the field. In a way, that makes it easier to identify with the players on the field: few of them appear amazingly talented in a way that makes a fan feel powerless even though they're still better athletes than anyone I've ever known, and they don't live in the insular world of major league players protected by a billion dollar club with an immense amount of unseen political and social power.

Which reminds me. Ladies and certain men: If you're interested in landing yourself a long-term relationship with a professional baseball player, it's a good idea to find and marry them early. Here's how you pick up minor league baseball players:

  1. Be an extremely hot woman (or man).
  2. At the stadium, scout where players are. In Cheney Stadium, for instance, players have to walk the concourse from the clubhouse to the batting cages, alongside all the fans.
  3. Go to that location.
  4. Wait.
Yes, it's just that easy. If you're impatient, you can add Step 5, which would be "ask player to sign item or body part."

Rett Johnson looked great. He struck out the side in the second, and when he was taken out after the sixth (having thrown only 78 pitches) on account of shoulder soreness (noooooooooooooo), he had given up only two hits and a walk and struck out eight. Here's Rett Johnson's pretty delivery including his look after he's struck out the last batter of the inning:

If he doesn't get injured, that last one's going to be something we see a lot of in a year or two.

Bynum was decent, but I didn't see the kind of amazing stuff I'd heard he had a couple years ago. He went five and a third, allowed three hits, three walks, and struck out three. Still, I was at Cheney once and saw Matt Wise throw a spectacular game against the Rainiers once, and I've seen future major leaguers have bad days too.

Khalil Greene didn't get a hit (he was robbed on a bloop single up the middle when Rainiers second baseman Mickey Lopez made a beautiful charging dive to scoop the ball), and his throws from the hole were strong, but high and on a pressure play, he threw way low and caused an error. Sometimes you go to see a prospect and he puts on a clinic, like Rett did. And sometimes it's FO-4! GO6-3, GO4-3, K.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Rainiers had men on first and second and Kevin Kalal, Rainiers' Assistant General Manager-Baseball Operations walked out of his booth, where he sat with the PA announcer, and said "double steal, first pitch." We laughed, but first pitch, Ruben Castillo and Chad Meyers both took off. Kevin has seen many Rainiers games. He came back out and we applauded him. Then Castillo on third scored on a single by Adrian Myers (the Rainiers have Meyers in center and Myers in left, and yes, it drives Mike Curto, the Rainiers broadcaster, nuts), and Meyers, on second advanced to third.

Kenny Kelly (who sure looks like he should be a good baseball player) hit into an inning-ending double-play and still got an RBI, something I'd never seen before. Kelly hit a long sacrifice fly to left fielder Mark Quinn. Meyers tagged up and ran for home, and Quinn decided instead to throw to second and nail (by a couple of feet) a late Myers, who had tagged and ran for second. The home plate umpire signaled the run had scored before the out at second was made.

A benefit of only having 3,195 fans at a game is that you can hear the arguments pretty well. Certainly the shouting--"No way! No way!" yelled Rick Sweet as he came out to argue with a remarkably calm home plate umpire, and managed to calm him down enough to prevent an ejection.

Cheney Stadium's an old field. There's not much of a price advantage. But when I was sitting out in the sun, looking out at the simple outfield walls, plastered with ads, listening to the pop music station blare over bad speakers as players warmed up, I felt comfortable in a way I almost never feel in bigger, newer parks. I don't know how the Rainiers are going to manage to stay in town after 2005, but I hope it happens.

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