BY Art Thiel 07:00AM 05/02/2011

THIEL: Fine day at the Tacoma ballyard

Event connects city’s history with its splendid ‘new’ ballpark, stirring memories for players and former hot dog consumers.

TACOMA – Asked by longtime broadcaster Bob Robertson what his memories were of his brief stay on the 1968 Tacoma Cubs that concluded his professional baseball career, Don Larsen squinted into the sun on the most sublime weather day of the year and snickered into the stadium microphone.

“Not many,” he said.

I suppose so. In 1956 the then Yankee pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. Half a century later, he is still hauled up and celebrated for it. For him, Tacoma baseball was the end of the road.

But Tacoma baseball is at a new beginning. Larsen was invited to a celebration that connected the past and future.

A modest event, called Fan-Go-Round, billed as a salute to the heritage of baseball and softball in Tacoma and Pierce County, drew hundreds of fans Sunday afternoon to the splendidly remodeled Cheney Stadium.

The Tacoma Athletic Commission and baseball historian Marc Blau wanted to celebrate the game with no game. No tickets or parking charges either.

A cross-section of those with a Tacoma connection – women softballers in their 80s, town-team stars in their 70s, a pitcher who made it big (Gaylord Perry), and a hitter (the wonderfully monikered A.J. Zapp) who in 2004 sent a ball 505 feet to clear for the first time the stadium’s legendary center field Half-Dome wall – gathered from around the country to be given a simple acknowledgement of their long-ago deeds in a town that has renewed its vows with baseball.

They came for laughs, autographs and memories. They came to a place that was a beginning for many, a way station for others, and a final home for a few.

But for Tacoma, the Pacific Coast League’s longest-tenured franchise has never been more rooted.

*After bouncing among six previous major league parent clubs, the Rainiers have been the Triple-A farm team of Seattle Mariners since 1995.

*The decaying, 60-year-old stadium underwent a $30 million renovation that has created one of baseball’s best minor league parks. A three-story grandstand includes suites and restaurants that have a Northwest lodge look. There’s field-level bleacher and berm seating, a bigger concourse, more restrooms and concessions, bullpens off the field and comfortable clubhouses.

*A guy who went to Curtis High School and Washington State, who swept the floors of his father’s University Place drug store, is the team owner.

The lease is 30 years. The guy who signed it, Mikal Thomsen, became wealthy through the wireless communications industry starting with the McCaw empire. He became a baseball fan long before that, and the Rainiers majority owner over the past winter.

Don’t know the man, but I knew the ballpark back when it cost him, and the other bleacher rats, 50 cents to enter – when we didn’t sneak in.

Long before the Mariners’ arrival in 1977, Cheney Stadium was the hub of ball for Puget Sound.

It was where I learned to keep score, assuring, I believed, entry into a secret world.

It’s where I met the player who had the coolest name in the world, Dusty Roads, only to discover he misspelled it to Dusty Rhodes.

It’s where I ate six hot dogs, still a nine-inning record for Park Avenue Elementary School.

It’s where I fetched my first foul ball, after it flew over the grandstand to the concessions concourse, where it hit a woman in the neck. She wasn’t hurt, but I’m still guilty about not giving her the ball.

It’s where I sat with my dad and his friends and listened to them crack on one another.

It’s where I obtained, long ago, Perry’s autograph. Sunday, I recalled the moment.

When he handed me back my autographed program, I told him, “It was wet.”

The major leagues’ greatest purveyor of spitball mythology laughed: “Payback’s a bitch.”

I’m sure there were championships, but I don’t remember them. Even though I was among that generation of kids who fell asleep at night next to the transistor radio listening to play-by-play, somehow the experience was less about the outcome than the engagement. All sports have it to some degree. Baseball makes a living there.

As with any stadium project, there’s been controversy over the renovation’s funding and the bidding, laments about its roofless design in this climate, and complaints about ticket and concession prices.

Perhaps all have some legitimacy. But Sunday, with the gathering from the past looking upon a secure and nearly limitless future for splendid nights at the yard, the Tacoma baseball vows were so strong, the world had no choice but to hold its peace.

Follow Art on Twitter at @Art_Thiel


YourThoughts

  • Bill Ogden

    The Fan-Go-Round at Cheney Stadium was one of those “feel good” events that seemed to resonate with everyone who came out to the ballpark get together with some old friends.

    Some of the fans wore retroTacoma baseball jerseys, caps, and jackets and appeared to be “in their glory” hanging out at the new Cheney Stadium in the sunshine…they seemed to be home again.

    It was great to see Stan Naccarato, Ron Zollo and other members of Baseball Tacoma in attendance and working the crowd like they did in the “old days”.

    Bob Robertson and you…Art…did a great job with the interviews.

    The fans loved them along with the pictures and videos.

    It was one of those afternoons where all the elements came together….old friends, great memories, and the sunshine….to make for a memorable afternoon.

    Congrats to Marc Blau and the TAC for job well done.

    Bill Ogden