Matt Driscoll

How dancing on Cheney Stadium’s roof could cost the Rainiers nearly $60,000

Climbing the long ladder leading up to Cheney Stadium’s roof last summer, I had a lot running through my mind.

I was thinking about the next performance I’d be a part of, tasked with introducing the beloved Epic Sax Gorilla to the crowd.

I was thinking about how the Rainiers mascot, Rhubarb, made climbing the metal ladder look easy – which it wasn’t – even with the reindeer’s oversized feet.

And I was thinking about how on earth I’d put all of this into words the next day for my profile of Casey Catherwood, the Rainiers’ creative director.

What I certainly wasn’t thinking about — at least at the time — was how this silly assignment, which I’d dreamed up months earlier, would end up costing The News Tribune $2,100 in fines from the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Even more, what I never could have fathomed — in a million years, in fact — was that the same silly assignment would eventually lead to nearly $60,000 in fines being levied against the Rainiers.

But months later, after a series of mildly ridiculous interrogation interviews, at least one threatened subpoena, and a thorough review of all the incriminating photo and video evidence — which, of course, we’d proudly published on social media, in our paper and on our website — that’s exactly what happened.

There are lessons in all of this, I suppose, though I’m still not entirely sure what all of them are. One of them certainly has to do with how seriously L&I takes workplace safety.

And, if we’re being honest, another probably concerns the way even well-meaning regulatory oversight can careen into comically absurd territory faster than Old Uncle Hot Dog can unload a paper bag full of wieners to a hungry minor-league crowd. (We have implicating video of that, too.)

First, however, it’s worth noting that the stunt in question, performed after the final out of the eighth inning on a warm July evening at Cheney Stadium, went off without a hitch.

I successfully introduced Epic Sax Gorilla, managing not to flub the few lines I had, and then we danced from the roof. News Tribune photographer Joshua Bessex captured it all, while the Rainiers’ video team projected the awkward gyrations onto the stadium’s big screen scoreboard for fans below to enjoy.

I’d put all of this behind me when, a few weeks later, I received an unexpected visit from the human resources department. For anyone who works in the newspaper business, you can probably imagine how terrifying a surprise visit from HR was.

Luckily, I was not being laid off. Instead, I was being investigated by L&I.

So were the Rainiers.

The height of the roof — later estimated by L&I investigators to be “approximately 75 feet” — was potentially a problem, I learned.

Or, more accurately, the fact that Bessex and I hadn’t utilized fall protection — in other words, a harness or tether that would have prevented us from falling to our premature deaths had the Epic Sax Gorilla performance gone horrible wrong — was likely a violation of state law.

An investigator with L&I wanted to talk to me, I was told.

Naturally, I cooperated.

A month later, I found myself sitting at a small table in a small interview room, across from Taylor Slaughter, an intimidatingly named L&I investigator.

Was I on the roof at Cheney Stadium, Slaughter asked? Indeed, I was.

Were Bessex and I using fall protection, Slaughter pressed? Indeed, we were not.

Did these pictures — blown-up photocopies of the ones The News Tribune had published, which Slaughter pushed across the table like a weird episode of Law and Order — depict what had happened?

Indeed, they did.

It didn’t stop there. Slaughter would need to talk with my editor, Adam Lynn, she said, and she’d need to interview Bessex as well.

I provided contact information for both, learning only later through public records requests that scheduling with Bessex — a busy photographer — proved so difficult that L&I had prepared a subpoena, just in case, complete with instructions about how to properly serve it.

For me, the last — most intriguing part — was trying to learn how all of this happened. Had someone from L&I read the story, or watched the video, and reported us? What kind of person sees a gorilla dancing on Cheney Stadium’s roof and immediately alerts the authorities?

Slaughter would say only that they had received a complaint.

But buried somewhere in the pile of public documents I eventually obtained, a single email — from a single individual — helped provide a fuller answer.

“The Tacoma Rainiers baseball team in Tacoma WA performs the stunt below,” it reads in part. “Perhaps it is OK. It seems horribly unsafe. … They have done this skit for years.”

L&I agreed, deeming the violation “serious” in the final, damning report against The News Tribune.

The agency came down much harder on the Rainiers, citing a total of three violations, with the most costly being the $56,000 it levied against the team for failing to “ensure that safety devices and means reasonable to prevent fall hazards were used in that at least three employees were exposed to falls measuring up to approximately 75 feet while performing on the roof of Cheney Stadium.”

According to team Rainiers President Aaron Artman, the team believes the complaint originated from “a disgruntled season ticket holder that dislikes our creative director.” The team has appealed the citation.

Reached by The News Tribune, the individual who made the complaint declined to comment.

As to the future of Epic Sax Gorilla appearances on the roof, Artman said they’re “over for now.”

“I think if we can figure out a way to do it safely, and not get fined by the state to an unbelievable extent, we would love to get the gorilla back up there,” he added.

So what is one to make of this? As a columnist, I guess this is where I’m supposed to provide thoughtful insight.

At press time, here’s what seems certain:

If you find yourself heading up the ladder that leads to the roof of Cheney Stadium, definitely make fall protection one of the things you’re thinking about — because failing to do so could be incredibly costly.

And — if you don’t — at least know you might get a pretty decent follow-up column out of it.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.