Rainiers ready for last season in old stadium

With an overhaul of Cheney Stadium on the horizon – work on razing and rebuilding the ballpark will begin in September – Tacoma’s 51st consecutive season of Triple-A baseball figures to be both a glimpse of the future and a celebration of the past.

As 2010 is looming as a summer unlike anything Tacoma fans can recall, how better to acknowledge the Rainiers’ season opener on Thursday than with a party?

“We thought it was a good way to build some excitement,” Rainiers media development manager Ben Spradling said as some 300 season ticket holders gathered Tuesday in a ballroom at the Hotel Murano.

Modifications to the team’s uniform were unveiled. (Teal is out, a road-cap logo with a “T” emerging out of Mount Rainier is in.)

Rainiers manager Daren Brown held a question-and-answer session, noting how the team hopes to build upon its momentum from last year, when Tacoma surged to the playoffs after making up 71/2 games in the standings over the final 17 days of the schedule.

Most of all, the reception was an opportunity for fans to wipe the sleep from their eyes after the long, cold, lonely winter, and welcome back baseball.

“It was a big hit,” said emcee Mike Curto, the team’s radio play-by-play broadcaster. “The fans cheered everything. I mean, they even cheered me, and how often does that happen?”

The new ballpark wasn’t the featured theme of the evening, but as artist’s illustrations of the project were on display throughout the ballroom, the notion that the Rainiers are on the cusp of the future was difficult to miss.

“The renovation is great for the city of Tacoma and great for fans,” said starting pitcher Steven Shell. “But our focus has to be one day at a time. We can’t think about the future, and we can’t think about the past.”

Said Brown: “Tacoma will have a lot to be proud of when the new stadium opens, but as the manager, my responsibility won’t change. The task is to get these players in position to contribute to the big league club. There’s some excitement going on in Seattle, and there’s not a guy in our clubhouse who isn’t ready go and help.”

Brown wasn’t inclined to reveal the Rainiers’ starting lineup, as he hasn’t been able to meet individually with every player.

“My philosophy has always been: No surprises,” he said. “I don’t want guys to be surprised by anything we do, and I don’t want to be surprised by anything they do. The first few days will be a feeling-out process. Before long, they’ll be familiar with their roles, and what’s expected of them.”

Some familiar faces on the roster include first baseman/designated hitter Mike Carp, outfielder Michael Saunders, infielders Josh Wilson and Chris Woodward, and pitchers Luke French and Garrett Olson.

Each played a part in the 2009 season with the Mariners. Between them and such other big league veterans as infielders Brad Nelson (Brewers) and Tommy Everidge (A’s), starting pitcher David Pauley (Diamondbacks) and reliever Jesus Colome (Nationals, Brewers) more than half the roster – 14 players – logged some time last season in the big leagues.

In any case, 2010 will represent the last Cheney Stadium experience for both the big league veterans and such newcomers to Triple-A as 22-year-old outfielder Ezequiel Carrera, who won the Texas League batting championship last season while hitting .337 at West Tennessee.

“I’ve always liked Cheney Stadium,” said Shell. “I’ve been around the minor leagues, and when we came here as visitors, we had a good clubhouse attendant and nice, clean locker rooms. We had our own individual shower rooms – that was pretty neat – and the park was always good for pitchers. The ball doesn’t fly out to center, and the grass is thick, so ground balls don’t get through the infield as quick.

“I played at Salt Lake City in a new stadium – a sweet place. Except the ball would shoot off the bat there. So this is real nice for us.”

Cheney Stadium will be all that much nicer in 12 months. Meanwhile, for Shell and his Tacoma Rainiers teammates, the focus isn’t 12 months into the future.

Beginning Thursday, the focus will be on the here, and on the now.