John McGrath

John McGrath: All-Star game a chance for Tacoma to strut its stuff and take a bow

The MLB Network will broadcast the July 12 Triple-A All-Star game from Cheney Stadium, but consistent with All-Star tradition, baseball is only part of the three-day show.
The MLB Network will broadcast the July 12 Triple-A All-Star game from Cheney Stadium, but consistent with All-Star tradition, baseball is only part of the three-day show. Staff file, 2015

With everything in place for the Triple-A All-Star Game but the assurance of a gorgeous sunset — no guarantees, but you’ve got to like the odds — Rainiers president Aaron Artman sees the event as a reflection of Tacoma’s renaissance.

“People would have laughed about Tacoma hosting the game 10 years ago,” Artman said Friday, as a sell-out crowd was settling into Cheney Stadium for baseball and fireworks. “They would have said this is too small of a market, and the stadium’s in bad shape. They would have asked: ‘Is there even going to be Triple-A baseball in Tacoma?’ 

As a national television audience will find out on July 12, Triple-A baseball is alive and well in Tacoma, thanks to a $30-million ballpark renovation and a beefed-up sales department. When Artman was hired a decade ago, the Rainiers front office could have fit comfortably into a car with two doors.

There are now 35 full-time staffers, challenged to promote the family-friendly quirks of minor-league baseball in a market that ranks among the smallest in Triple-A.

As Ringo Starr once sang, it don’t come easy.

Look around. To the south, Portland no longer has a Triple-A team. To the north, in British Columbia, Vancouver no longer has a Triple-A team. To the west, Spokane and Boise couldn’t cut it.

Colorado Springs, with a population twice the size of Tacoma, will transform into a short-season team in 2019, when its Triple-A owners relocate to San Antonio.

The City of Destiny, meanwhile, keeps on keeping on as the Pacific Coast League’s oldest continuously operated franchise. It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride since the Giants changed their PCL affiliation from Phoenix to Tacoma in 1960, but the coast is clear.

“We don’t think of ourselves as a Triple-A baseball team in a city with major-league teams,” Artman told a media gathering Friday. “We think of ourselves as the boutique hotel of pro sports. We’re smaller, but we try to be better. We try to offer a different experience. We try to wow our fans with entertainment and amenities that, quite frankly, I don’t think you can find at Safeco Field or Century Link.

“We try to deliver it with more soul than anybody, because one of the things we believe in is that this park should be a beacon of cool, of hope, of growth and of change for the city of Tacoma, which is on a huge upsurge right now.”

When wireless communications executive Mikal Thomsen bought the Rainiers in 2011, the Curtis High graduate identified a Triple-A All-Star Game at Cheney Stadium as a priority. Franchises in the PCL and International League annually alternate as hosts, and there was an opening for the event in 2015.

But there were attention-span concerns about a 2015 summer sports schedule highlighted by a golf tournament at Chambers Bay — something called the U.S. Open — and the Rainiers made the astute call of waiting until 2017.

“No one is dying to do it,” Artman said of submitting a successful bid. “It’s a lot of work. It’s expensive. My staff probably would tell you, for them, it feels like this a whole other season, even though it’s only three days of events.

“Because you want to make sure is a showcase for all the other executives. We want to one-up what was done in Charlotte last year, and Omaha the year before that.”

The MLB Network will broadcast the game on a night no other sporting events are scheduled — the big leaguers are off July 12 — but consistent with All-Star tradition, baseball is only part of the show. Tacoma is awaiting what amounts to a three-day Triple-A convention.

“It’s a perfect time,” said Artman. “Tacoma is on such a surge.”

Preparing for a “season within a season” is not so much a job as a labor of love. Artman noted some Rainiers’ staffers were exploring other employment opportunities when Tacoma was granted host rights last summer.

The notion of Cheney Stadium unveiled as baseball’s national centerpiece found them saying, as Artman put it, “ ‘we’re staying for that.’ They’re proud.”

And exhausted.

“What they’re most excited about,” he said, “is the postgame party at the Murano.”

Although there’s no betting line on an exhibition game between the best players in the PCL and the best players in the IL, this much is clear:

Tacoma is a heavy favorite to one-up Charlotte.