John McGrath

Been-there, done-that: Chilly Rainiers home openers and a Triple-A roster with experience

Charlotte O’Mara, 2, splashes in a puddle as she waits with her mom, Kaitlin Torbergson of Tacoma, during a rain dealy before the game.
Charlotte O’Mara, 2, splashes in a puddle as she waits with her mom, Kaitlin Torbergson of Tacoma, during a rain dealy before the game. toverman@theolympian.com

The marketing campaign for a minor-league baseball team typically relies on some variation of “See Tomorrow’s Stars Today.”

It applied to the Rainiers in 1995, when 19-year old shortstop Alex Rodriguez was being groomed for a soft landing in Seattle, and again in 2005, when pitcher Felix Hernandez, also 19, spent half a season in Tacoma before his inevitable promotion to the Mariners.

The Rainiers club that opened its season Thursday night at Cheney Stadium had no such teenagers with precocious potential. Of the 24 players on the roster, 19 had Major League experience.

“We have some familiar faces, some guys with experience,” manager Pat Listach pointed out the other day. “Most of the team we’re opening with has been to the big leagues, at least for a cup of coffee. These guys can step right in.”

The been-there, done-that theme begins with the pitching rotation. Christian Bergman, the 29-year-old right-hander who took the mound for the opener against Sacramento, has appeared in 66 big-league games, 23 as a starter.

Fellow starters Erasmo Ramirez, Rob Whalen and Max Povse also were participants in the 2017 Mariners’ revolving-door scheme to survive. Results were checkered, some good days and some bad days, which is why they were at Cheney Stadium on Thursday instead of shivering with the big club on its polar express road trip.

It’s fun to follow fast-track prospects – kids are the lifeblood of minor-league baseball – but experience has its benefits.

Take Povse. He’s 24, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound right hander whose three brief call-up stints in the majors last season produced a 7.36 ERA, mirroring his 7.39 ERA with the Rainiers.

“I expect him to be better than he was last year, given that he has another year of experience,” Listach said. “He got some big-league time last season. He went up and down a couple of times, hopefully he learned from it.

“His numbers weren’t great, but we know that other organizations are calling about him. He’s a valuable commodity.”

Overseeing the volatile machinations of a Triple-A roster can be a grind, but it’s a job ideally suited for the easy-going Listach.

“You manage the players that you have,” he said. “You can’t pick the players and you can’t pick the timing of injuries. We handle it. We prepare the players to play, and we prepare them to win.”

Listach also prepares them to deal with the kind of uncomfortable weather conditions that put a damper on Opening Night. Listach broke into the majors, in 1992, as a Rookie-of-the-Year shortstop for Milwaukee, long before the Brewers moved into their retractable-roof stadium.

“Would you rather be in Tacoma, Washington, or Yankee Stadium, where they just had five inches of snow? It’s gonna be cold in the big leagues, too,” said Listach. “It’s cold in Detroit, it’s cold in New York, it’s cold in Chicago. You’ve got to learn to play in it in April. That’s baseball.”

Cool temperatures in April (and May, and June) are associated with Tacoma, the Pacific Coast League’s oldest, continuously operated franchise. A harsh spring climate should be presumed.

The weather for early-season baseball in Triple-A is stubborn and embedded. The rules? Not so much.

New this season is a process to expedite conclusions to those tiebreaker marathons that stress out a bullpen. When the game extends to extra innings, a runner is assigned to second base.

While Listach does not endorse significant rules changes, he also realizes changes were made without MLB commissioner Rob Manfried specifically requesting his feedback. He’ll roll with it, same as he rolls with a roster that could look different next week.

“We do a pretty good job of mixing and matching, putting our players in situation where they can succeed,” he said. “They’re ready.”

Most of Listach’s players have gotten the cup of coffee call-up to the big leagues.

A cup of coffee, steaming hot, might be the best way for Cheney Stadium fans to enjoy watching tomorrow’s stars make good on their second chance.

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