Only one brand-new ballpark is opening in Minor League Baseball next season, as the newly rechristened Omaha Storm Chasers
are playing their inaugural season at Werner Park.
But three other franchises will be operating in ballparks that are as good as new: the Tacoma Rainiers, Reading Phillies, and South Bend Silver Hawks. Though the combined age of these teams' facilities is an ancient 134, a bevy of improvements to each will result in a 2011 season characterized by rebirth and renewal.
This edition of "Minoring in Business" takes a closer look at the work being done at Cheney, FirstEnergy, and Coveleski Stadiums (in Tacoma, Reading and South Bend, respectively). Tight construction schedules have resulted in an offseason of cramped and often stressful working conditions, but in all three cases such inconveniences are well worth the hassle.
A total overhaul
The most extensive renovations taking place in Minor League Baseball are at Cheney Stadium, as Pacific Coast League stalwarts the Tacoma Rainiers are in the midst of a $30 million project.
"To call it a renovation doesn't do it much justice; it really is a total overhaul," said Rainiers president Aaron Artman. "The seating bowl and the field have been left intact, but other than that it's a completely new facility."
Improvements include a new concourse, concessions area, restrooms, suites, front offices and a club-level restaurant. Views from the stadium's new fourth level include both Mt. Rainier and the Olympic mountain range, surely one of the most picturesque surroundings in all of Minor League Baseball.
The extent of the renovations has resulted in a very tight construction schedule, to the point where the Rainiers were forced to play all their postseason games on the road en route to winning the Pacific Coast League championship. But perhaps that's appropriate, since Cheney Stadium was built over just a three-month period in the winter of 1960.
"It's been very stressful, but it's a good stress," said Artman. "Everything is running on all cylinders, and it's an impressive thing to see."
The renovations are largely being financed by a bond approved by Tacoma's City Council, in tandem with a new 30-year lease signed between the team and city this past spring. These developments had always been a goal of Artman and the Schlegel Sports ownership group (which took control of the team in 2006).
"For a long time there had been a recognition that something needed to be done, but I don't know that the team had been as relevant as it should have been," said Artman. "We have put the onus on getting the fans back, and creating a product that makes sense to both the business fan and the casual fan. Once we started to do that, attendance increased and positive word of mouth increased. ... The fan base was feeling the love we were putting into our operation. And, as we became more relevant, then the onus was on all of us to get this done and get this done now."
Indeed, the Rainiers have broken attendance records in each of the past two seasons.
"Our Achilles' heel with [the increased attendance] was that there were more lines at the restrooms and concession areas," said Artman. "With that being the case, I think what I'm most excited about is that now people can go get a hot dog and a beer, or take their kid to the restrooms, and not miss an entire half-inning or more."
But despite these and many other improvements, some things will stay the same.
"Our seating bowl is old school, a real steep pitch, and we kept that intact," said Artman. "So when you're sitting there, it's still the same view you would have had 51 years ago. It's a way for us to keep that nostalgic feel and something we're very proud of."
Reading, Pa., is known as "Baseballtown" and for good reason. The blue-collar Pennsylvania city often leads the Double-A Eastern League in attendance, thanks to a creative front office and long-running symbiotic relationship with the parent club (Reading has been a Phillies affiliate since 1967, and Philadelphia purchased a controlling interest in the R-Phils in 2008).
FirstEnergy Stadium (originally known as Reading Municipal Memorial Stadium) has been a constant throughout this enduring relationship, as the facility first opened its doors in 1951. A charming old-time atmosphere has long been part of the R-Phils experience, but at the same time the team has been clamoring for more room in which to conduct its operation.
These wishes are now coming true, thanks to a $10 million renovation jointly funded by the state, city and team. The R-Phils have made it a point to update fans every step of the way, posting numerous videos and photo galleries on their website in addition to conducting ballpark tours.
"There's been a lot of buzz about it -- people are excited, and we want to keep them in the loop," said R-Phils director of media relations Tommy Viola. "I think what people are going to be most excited about is the team store, I really do. That's something we've never had before, just a souvenir stand. But now people will be able to come into a climate-controlled store, open year-round and with TVs. So if a game's going on, you won't miss anything."
The store is indicative of the renovation's overall goal, which is to increase the area in which the team has to work. Ticket, concession and parking areas have been greatly expanded, with a key aspect of the renovation being the "VIST Financial Plaza." The plaza includes a concession area four times the size of what had been available previously, with the centerpiece being a performance stage.
"The stage area means we can have more bands, more concerts and more community acts," said Viola. "The community aspect is a big part of it."
Expanded player clubhouses are another prominent part of the renovations, but one of the more idiosyncratic aspects of the FirstEnergy experience will remain intact. In order to get to the clubhouses from the dugout (and vice-versa), the players must walk through the concourse.
"We didn't want to take that away, because that's one of our staples," said Viola. "It's a hallmark of the Reading Phillies experience."
A new era for "The Cove"
A relative youngster when compared to Cheney and FirstEnergy Stadiums, South Bend's Coveleski Stadium has long been in need of an upgrade nonetheless. Though a tight economy has slightly scaled back what was originally a $10.2 million project, the 24-year-old facility (affectionately called "The Cove") is still in the midst of an impressive array of upgrades.
"I think the most necessary improvement is the new playing field, because in the past, drainage was a serious issue," said Silver Hawks vice president and general manager Lynn Kachmarik. "The field had basically imploded on itself, we hadn't had any drainage for years. That greatly affected playability and increased our number of cancellations."
After an extensive nationwide search, the Silver Hawks opted to install an artificial playing surface.
"We had 10 companies bidding on this project -- it's really amazing the stuff that's available now," said Kachmarik. "[The artificial turf] is shown to cut down on injuries, and now we can still have a game even if its pouring five minutes before it's supposed to start."
Other important features include new dugouts, a new video board, a 360-degree concourse, a tiered picnic area, renovated suites and a centerfield entrance.
"The [entrance] we have right now backs up into an old train station. It's totally safe but a little iffy in some people's minds," said Kachmarik. "But this new outfield entrance opens right into downtown [South Bend]."
Taken together, the improvements represent what Kachmarik deems a "new vision" for the franchise.
"We've been able to increase our number of interns as well as hire new front-office positions," she said. "We now have a director of productions, which we didn't need before because we didn't have a video board.
"[The renovations] are going to allow us to be so much more creative in how we operate. It's just what we needed and something we're all really excited for."