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On the Road: Dust Devils apply sun block

In the Tri-Cities, an extreme climate evoked an extreme response
August 19, 2016

It rains so rarely in Pasco, Washington, that the hometown Tri-City Dust Devils don't even keep a tarp on the premises. Team president Brent Miles said that in the 12 seasons he's been with the team, there has been exactly one rainout.

A tarp-free existence is something that most Minor League front offices can only fantasize about, a pipe dream on par with regular off days and robust daily local media coverage. But this doesn't mean that the Dust Devils, Class A Short-Season affiliate of the San Diego Padres, have been free from meteorological misfortune. In addition to the occasional dirt whirlwind referenced in the team name, the Northwest League franchise has had to deal with a foe capable of doing severe damage from approximately 93 million miles away: the sun.

The Dust Devils' home of Gesa Stadium, built in 1995 with home plate facing south, originally offered no solace to those situated on the third base side of the stadium.

"It's a desert climate here so it's really hot. One hundred-degree weather," said Miles, a part owner of the franchise. "When we got here [in 2005], half the stadium was basically unusable for the first three or four innings, when the sun was setting here, just pounding on [the third base side] of the stadium. You're staring right at the sun. And it was bad for the third baseman and left fielder, too. We couldn't sell season tickets or groups. Ninety-nine percent of the fans were at home plate or first base."

The Dust Devils, like Mr. Burns in a particularly memorable episode of The Simpsons, found they could not destroy the sun. But could they do the next best thing and block it out? In 2007, using their portion of a $7 million grant distributed by the state of Washington to its five Minor League teams, they set out to do just that. Their partner in this solar-stifling endeavor was SCM Consultants, based in Kennewick (which, along with Pasco and Richland, is one of the three locales referenced in the team's "Tri-City" name).

"We wanted to design a way to bring shade to all the seats in the stadium," Miles said. "Originally we were thinking it would just be some kind of roof structure, but once they did a sun study, they found the roof would have had to lean out over home plate to actually provide the shade. So I think the architects were pretty stuck on what to do.

"The story is, late one night they were in their office and they're trying to figure out the sun issue," Miles continued. "I think they'd had a couple of beers, and someone went to close the blind on a window. And it kinda dawned on them. 'Oh, like a window!'"

So that's how the Dust Devils came to install what is, in essence, a giant set of window blinds. This hulking steel structure, 56 feet high and approximately 152 feet across, towers above the first base grandstand. It provides shade to fans (and players) throughout the ballpark, rendering habitable areas that had once been a semi-apocalyptic sun-scorched wasteland.

"There was confusion at first," Miles said of the sunshade. "Some people didn't really know what it was. And still, people come from out of town [and say] 'What is that?' But once you see it and see where the sun sets, [they say] 'Oh, that makes a lot of sense.'"

Other Minor League teams -- particularly in the Western portion of the country -- could benefit from a similar initiative. Before the 2015 season, the Boise Hawks attempted to tether a blimp over the ballpark to serve as a sunshade, but it was largely ineffective and the team abandoned the idea shortly after its implementation.

"If you're writing a check yourself as a Minor League Baseball team, that's going to be a tough task," Miles said of installing a sunshade similar to the one that exists at Gesa Stadium. "But with the state's help, that allowed us specifically to be able to do this."

"It's more than a sunshade. It changed our business."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter