(Normally in this space I would be doing the “About Last Night” piece but I was only able to sort of half pay attention to the game because I was at Cheney Stadium learning all about the 2017 Rainiers. I have never been this close to so many (almost) professional ballplayers so forgive me this one indulgence as I share with you what I learned.)
I don’t know if it was the combination of a beautiful spring day or knowing that real Mariners baseball was just hours from starting, but I don’t think I’ve seen Cheney Stadium look lovelier. The AAA All-Star game is being held there this year, and the staff is investing a lot of time in making sure the grounds look picture-perfect. Everything is being given a little tszuj, as Carson Kressley would say. The 2017 Rainiers flew in this weekend to spend some time getting acclimated to their new ballpark and Tacoma before they head out to begin their season this Thursday, with a five-game road trip at Sacramento. I’m sure some of the AA guys will be excited to get to fly to their games instead of long bus rides down I-16. The home opener is Tuesday April 11, against PCL champions El Paso.
- To this date, only two batters—A.J. Zapp and Shin-Soo Choo—have ever hit homers over the top of the 30-foot batter’s eye in centerfield. According to Brett Gleason, communications and media manager for the Rainiers, one of Tyler O’Neill’s first questions was about how many people had hit one over Tacoma’s “Green Monster.” Sounds like Tyler has his next goal in mind.
- Speaking of focus, Daniel Vogelbach is hitting angry. It was just a relaxed batting practice, but he was absolutely demolishing baseballs all over the field. I almost feel bad for the pitchers in the PCL.
- Noted Gonzaga alum Cody Martin was absent, perhaps dealing with a case of spring training arm. I prefer to think he hung around in Arizona to watch the championship game.
- Jean Machi is hilarious. He was running all over the place shagging fly balls, making a big show of making catches and demanding his fellow pitchers’ approval. He was also really excited by the appearance of shrimp (CAMARONES!) on the buffet.
- Speaking of the buffet, holy hell baseball players eat a lot. There’s definitely a distinction between the more seasoned MLB vets like Chris Heston and Mark Lowe (who was looking extremely fit and dapper) and the guys who have been pretty clearly living on a Double-A diet of peanut butter sandwiches and fast food.
- The Rainiers have an interesting mix of players. Between the guys who have been with the organization for a while, guys who have been together at other organizations (like Machi, Heston and Beckham), the young guys who have never been to AAA, and the newcomers to the organization, things could feel kind of disjointed, but the overall vibe was very laid-back and non-cliquey, with guys moving from table to table to chat.
- Emilio Pagan is still rocking his WBC blonde. In fact, there is a lot of intense coiffure on the club as a whole. So. Much. Product.
- It was pretty interesting to watch the team watch the Mariners game. Attention wavered in and out, but Dylan Unsworth had a laser focus on the game the whole time. So would I, if I knew that Nick Vincent was all that stood between me and a major league roster. Vogelbach, sitting at a table with some of the coaching staff, also kept one eye firmly fixed on the M’s game, and the other on the NCAA championship game.
- The coaching staff in Tacoma is awesome. Pat Listach is magnetic. Players hovered around him wanting to say hello, and he went around and greeted each one. Lance Painter is a super straightforward, no-BS type, and it’s easy to see how he gets results out of his pitchers.
- James Ramsey looks like Tyrion Lannister’s younger, taller, less drink-addled brother in person.
Last year’s Rainiers were good, but they weren’t exactly young and fun. This year, with an infusion of new prospects and players wanting to prove they’re MLB-caliber, Tacoma is gearing up to take another run at the PCL title. Tacoma is also playing host to the Triple-A All-Star game this year. Tyler O’Neill is most likely going to be in the home run derby (July 10) and maybe Vogelbach too, and Tacoma will certainly have multiple representatives at the All-Star Game itself on Wednesday, July 12th.
Remember how much fun the Jackson Generals were last year? The Rainiers are poised to be that this year, and if you live in the Seattle area they play right in our backyard. Even if the big club struggles, Tacoma is as close to a guarantee for a good time as you can get in baseball. I’ll definitely be making the drive down to Cheney a lot this year (on the stretch of highway I’ve nicknamed the Cody Martin Expressway) to watch some baseball while sitting in the grass on a warm summer night. I hope to see you there, too.