Thursday is opening day for the Tacoma Rainiers, who kick off the season with a four-game set against the Simpsons-inspired Albuquerque Isotopes. The News Tribune recently chatted with team President Aaron Artman about the upcoming season and what fans can expect when they visit Cheney Stadium this year.
Question: The Rainiers have checked a lot of boxes in recent years. Ownership has stabilized, Cheney Stadium has been renovated, and the team’s ties to the Mariners are solid. What’s next on the to-do list?
Answer: I think to keep growing. And particularly, I want to see how we can grow early-season attendance, April particularly. We need to see how we can get bigger crowds. I know weather is an obvious objection, but one great thing about coming to early-season games — that’s when you get to see some of the really great prospects. Mike Trout’s a great example. You could see right away that he was a special talent that was on a different level. And those guys don’t stick around as long.
Q: Will fans see any new promotions this year?
A: This is the 20th season that we’ve been known as the Rainiers and been affiliated with the Mariners. So on opening weekend, tickets will be the same price as a single-game ticket back in 1995, which I think was $8. We’re giving away a Ken Griffey jersey T-shirt on Friday, April 4.
We’ll have a throwback weekend in May (May 2-4). That’s where we go and we actually wear the old jerseys and hats — Tacoma Tigers and the old Rainiers logo, teal, the mountain on the hat. That now has become throwback. And we’ll do the Tigers again, because everybody loves it when we break out the green and yellow. Those nights are fun.
Q: Here’s one everyone wants to know – what about beer night?
A: Every Thursday night that we’re home is $2 beer night, so that is still alive and well. We’ll still have fireworks every Friday night, and opening as well, so (tonight). And then Wednesdays we’ll still do Northwest Brew Wednesdays. We’ll feature a different craft brewery each time — $5 for a 20-ounce craft beer.
Q: Any changes or new offerings to concession menu?
A: Not any major changes. Ivar’s did an awesome job last year. We made them our total food-and-beverage partner. They’ve been great to work with. Last year, believe it or not, we sold more fish and chips than any ballpark in the history of the world. We sold fish and chips 2-to-1 compared to hot dogs. This year, we’re actually taking one whole concession stand and making it a hot dog-only stand. A great hot dog, a great brat, a bacon-cheese hot dog. It’ll be the third-base side concession stand, a pure hot dog stand, so that’ll be exciting. People need hot dogs when they go to baseball games. We’ve actually been testing hot dogs for the last two weeks.
Q: What about changes to the stadium itself. The renovation is fresh, but what else is new this year?
A: We’re doing a minor improvement out in left field, outside the foul pole, just beyond the bullpens. One, it’s a group area for groups that want to rent their own area. The other part is completely for single-game fans — any group can go out there and catch home runs, just beyond left-field fence. It’s kind of like what they’ve got at Safeco Field. We’re just breaking ground now, and by early June we should be done. We’re calling it the Bullpen Party Decks.
Q: Parking can be a bit of a chore at the stadium. Any upgrades on that front?
A: The parking lot was redone as part of a city project to create the green streets. That job just got completed two weeks ago. I think we were only able to add 20 to 30 spots, if memory serves. But it’s much prettier – it’s a much better experience. You’ve got landscaping out there now and two new entrance signs, 27½ feet tall.
That’s a really important project. People don’t know how to get to the ballpark. They can see it, but they don’t know how to get there — we’re finally going to have big major entrance signs. For a while, the park just sat out here, and there wasn’t much signage. The city has done a great job of dressing up the entrances. I think it just helps people. Having those grand entrance signs helps accomplish that. The signs should be done by Opening Day.
Q: What’s the president’s job? What do you do all day?
A: My main role is to oversee the business and the fan experience. So it’s unique in a sports role in that I don’t control the product on the field. We try to make sure everything around the field and in the field is the best it can be. It’s more of a business role than a sports role, yet it’s a sports venue with a sports team. So you get all the fun parts without the headaches of worrying whether a guy is hitting below .200 or not.
Q: You talked about drawing fans in April, when it tends to be drippy. How do you do it?
A: In 2009, we had a bunch of sunny (April) days. We haven’t had a rainout in two years. What we get is mist. I’ve lived in the Northwest my whole life — I don’t think about it except when I have to think about it. But it is pretty common. The fans still show up, but not as much as June. We sit around here sometimes when it’s pretty nasty out, and you want to go out and say “thank you” to everybody.
Q: Fans of minor-league baseball tend to cite the intimacy of the experience, the closeness of the game compared with the big major-league venues. Is that a priority for this organization?
A: The coolest thing about the (stadium) renovation is what didn’t change. We kept the exact same seating bowl with the same configuration. Most parks these days are built out really gradually. This is one of the few that still has a vertical nature. It’s cool. It provides a much better view and experience than many of the new parks that have a new style of seating bowl.
Also, there’s finally enough restrooms, and there’s finally enough concession stands and things. In the old days, you might miss an inning if you went to get a hot dog or go to the restroom. That’s probably the best part of the renovations. I don’t know if you call it amenities or if it’s just the basics are all there and there’s more of them.