We don’t need the big preface about 2020 being weird. You already know all that. What you don’t know is how this year looked from inside the gates of Cheney Stadium.
From enthusiastically stampeding into the new year with aspirations for the best year ever at R House, to the country’s very first sporting event without fans; reawakening Cheney Stadium after its long summer slumber, to saying goodbye to a legendary member of the Tacoma Rainiers family.
Even without Rainiers baseball and just one Tacoma Defiance home match that saw fans in the seats, there’s a story to be told from Central Tacoma’s friendly confines. So, to tell that story, we called on Seattle Mariners top prospect Jarred Kelenic, Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto, team president Aaron Artman and some of the lucky few who got through the COVID screening checkpoints and into Cheney Stadium.
R Year in Review is a 4-part series. Next, check out Part II, where Kelenic and company will take you behind the scenes of their dreaded quarantine struggles when sports, like the world, were on pause.
January 6, 2020 – Cheney Stadium’s offices reopen for the New Year
Nick Cherniske, We R Tacoma Asst. GM (NC): As soon as that New Year clicks, it feels very fast paced. Everybody’s frantically running around the stadium trying to get everything in place for opening day.
Casey Catherwood, We R Tacoma Creative Director (CC): We were coming off of what had felt like a really, really strong offseason. But we hadn’t really pulled our foot off the gas in the 2019 offseason, we were just go-go-going. So it felt in parallel with how the rest of the world was charging forward blindly, not realizing that there’s this invisible beast lingering over the next hill.
NC: Every year grows on the one prior. So we had high anticipations of more crowds than ever before.
Aaron Artman, We R Tacoma President (AA): It gives me such reason to smile but such sadness. This is my 13th year at the helm. This was by far the single best season I think we would have had. I never felt like the staff was more aligned culturally and having more fun. This might have been the year we crushed the attendance record.
Megan Mead, We R Tacoma VP of Marketing (MM): Our brand was in a really good place. We were having fun with it and we were connecting to the community in new ways. We were looking forward to how we were going to bridge those pieces into baseball.
Dave Clark, Tacoma Defiance Broadcast Analyst (DC): For Tacoma Defiance, there were two themes. First, we had these cool maps and the journey that the players would take would emphasize them going around the West Coast and sharing Tacoma’s vibrancy with the world. And then the flags that we’d wave when we welcome them home.
CC: We were hiring, we were brainstorming, I was buying gigantic pepper mills and adult baby costumes. I had an eagle costume, like I was getting geared up.
March 6, 2020 – Tacoma Defiance plays its opening match, 5 days before the first sports leagues are suspended
AA: Early 2020 doesn’t feel like the same year to me. You might as well be talking about some piece of romanticized folklore from five to 10 years ago. It is not nine months ago.
NC: There was a small piece of me that anticipated that the news might come our way, just understanding what was going on in China. The scale and how quickly that radically modified over the next few days was dramatic.
CC: We made a joke about coronavirus at the only Defiance halftime show. We didn’t even know it was gonna be a big deal. I was doing this bit where the higher ups were nervous about what we were going to do on opening night for halftime. So they had this phone installed on the dugout so that they could provide feedback in real time. I was doing this game show where the contestant was going to win an all expenses paid cruise. And then once I announced the cruise is happening, and obviously cruises are being canceled all over the country at this point, I get a call on the dugout. I said, “turns out the cruise has been canceled, but not for the reasons you would expect.”
DC: I think that I was one of the more wary people in the group. I was like, we’re gonna be wearing masks for months. Although, I didn’t think it was going to be December.
Let’s take a quick detour. While the coronavirus started to spread throughout Washington, the Seattle Mariners and Major League Baseball were continuing Spring Training in Arizona.
Lauren Smith, Tacoma News Tribune sports reporter (LS): At that point, everything in Arizona still seemed relatively normal. We were going about daily business. The clubhouse would be open in the morning, you got to talk to players and [Seattle Mariners Manager] Scott Servais would talk in his office.
Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners outfielder (JK): The staff were talking about how there had been a couple games in Florida that were getting canceled.
LS: It slowly started to trickle in. Scott would get questions about it. ‘Hey, are you keeping up with what’s going back in Seattle?’ and it slowly started to impact things as people started to realize the scope of what was going on.
JK: And then I remember they called us into the clubhouse, and we had a meeting with the players and the front office. They said, “Spring Training has been canceled. We don’t know how long this is going to take. It could take a week, it could take a month. We had no idea what this virus was.” Then they said, “as of now, everyone is going to stay in Arizona.”
LS: There was a point where we weren’t going into the clubhouse anymore.
Kristopher Negrón, former Tacoma Rainiers player and current Seattle Mariners Asst. to the Director of Player Development (KN): I call my wife to say we don’t know exactly what’s going on and we’re just on standby. Maybe we’ll stay here but do things in smaller groups. And then an hour later, we get a phone call.
JK: I called my parents and I’m like, they just canceled Spring Training. As I was on the phone with them I got a text in our group chat with everyone in the big league camp asking how fast everyone can get back to the stadium. I already knew what that meant. I bought my flight right then.
LS: I had gone up to Las Vegas for the PAC-12 Basketball Tournament. After Wazzu’s first game they said in the arena that they’re not going to let people in tomorrow. It was just a snowball effect. So at that point, I’m thinking, I need to get back to Arizona. Because if they’re going to shut this down, if we’re in a situation where we have one more opportunity to talk to anyone, then I need to be back down there.
LS: I was staying with a friend down in Phoenix. And so I had to come back and and say, “this is crazy. I know I’m not supposed to leave for another two weeks, but I have to go home. I have to try to get there while I can.”
March 11, 2020 – Gov. Jay Inslee announces that Pierce County cannot have gatherings of more than 250 people. Because San Diego Loyal is already in Tacoma, Defiance and Loyal play the nation’s first professional sporting event without fans due to the coronavirus.
Tacoma Rainiers official statement regarding Gov. Inslee’s announcement to indefinitely suspend all public events of greater than 250 people in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties due to concerns regarding COVID-19: https://t.co/pDBrrkx9OC pic.twitter.com/V7wA8qkaJe
— Tacoma Rainiers (@RainiersLand) March 11, 2020
AA: Clearly the definitive moment was the fact that we were the first team in the country to host a professional sporting event with no fans.
MM: I don’t think I have a COVID-19 memory prior to March 11. I remember going through our crisis control list: we’re going to put it on social media and the website, we’re going to email everybody, and we’ve got to make sure that our internal team knows what’s happening.
DC: What was awesome about Defiance at that time is they had just sent three players over the past season to MLS Cup. Opening the season at home is always good. Everybody wants to do that. That gives you that moment to build towards.
NC: There were a lot of calls to individual staff members about what the news is and how the match is going to be operated.
DC: That game should have been awesome. Seven of the players that took the pitch for Defiance were on the Seattle Sounders 2020 MLS Cup roster. San Diego Loyal were a brand new team to the league. Landon Donovan, the best American soccer player, possibly up until Christian Pulisic, is their head coach.
In response to the announcement made by the Governor of Washington earlier today, tonight’s match against @SanDiegoLoyal will be closed to the public.
FULL STATEMENT ➡️ https://t.co/ZBFJFkY6bn
— Tacoma Defiance (@TACdefiance) March 11, 2020
NC: Think about the simple metrics of a soccer match, where we get to host 10 to 12 youth from the community that get to be around the field or be ball retrievers. And now instead of 10- to 12-year-olds spread around the pitch, we had security guards acting as ball retrievers.
DC: It was kind of cool to think about broadcasting a closed door game. How do you change the microphones? That was one of the decisions. How do we talk about it? Myself and Andrew Harvey, the play-by-play voice, had that discussion. What would it do for the players to just have no one there?
CC: I obviously remember the president making his announcement that some international travel would be halted.
MM: All of us were sitting in the MultiCare 1882 Club and hand sanitizing like nobody’s business.
DC: And then that evening, we were sitting in the Bob Robertson Broadcast Booth. Probably about 15 minutes or so before our kickoff, we see this notification that the Utah Jazz doctor pulled every single player for both teams off the court.
CC: Mark Cuban is in the stands like ‘what is going on?’
CC: I remember the match starting and helping the players get out on the field and being like, this is kind of spooky and weird, and the air that night was cold and foggy.
MM: It was like Halloween foggy.
NC: I recall being literally the only person seated in the seating bowl, and how I could hear every single word that was being said on the field. And how bizarre it was.
MM: You could hear the thud of the players kicking the ball. And you hear them talk to each other in ways that you don’t normally hear.
NC: Without fans, the players are still are going out and trying to get the result out of the match. So their level of energy and drive was still there.
NC: I enjoyed the first half sitting there in the stands because typically I don’t have the opportunity to sit and enjoy the games. So I remember enjoying the experience for the first 45 minutes. Then around halftime I looked around and I just had an empty feeling. It was eerie.
DC: By halftime of our game, we were the last sporting event going that evening. And if we’d known it at the time, we probably would have had a more significant sign off. But in the end that match was kind of a historic moment.
DC: As the day wound on, we were the only soccer team to kick off and play that evening in the United States.
AA: That’s a weird piece of history that’s going to end up in Trivial Pursuit someday, because we literally were the first one.
March 12, 2020 – MLB breaks from Spring Training, players and staff return home. USL Championship announces a 30-day suspension of play.
Statement from Major League Baseball: pic.twitter.com/0bWS5VTRPu
— MLB (@MLB) March 12, 2020
NC: I was in conversations with Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and we had liaised with them about how we were going to operate a second safe match after March 11.
NC: My immediate intuition about it was that it was going to be a very short term experience, and it would affect a small amount of soccer matches in March. No part of me thought that this would be something that would have lasted longer than two, maybe three weeks.
MM: We made the decision to work remotely starting the following week, so we casually told the staff to take a couple days to gather their stuff. Make sure you bring your laptop home, but it wasn’t like everybody go right now! Knowing what we know, we would have said ‘wear a mask, check your temperature and only two people are in there at a time.’
NC: It was already real. It was evident with how we had to keep our gates closed. But over the next 24 to 48 hours it sunk in deeper.
LS: So it was just get home and then figure out what’s next. And what was next didn’t come until almost July.
It’s clear that hindsight is NOT 2020, but looking back at the year from within the gates of R House shows that, even in our quiet homes, we stayed connected and lived a story worth telling.
Always Together. We R Tacoma.
About the Tacoma Rainiers
The Tacoma Rainiers are the Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Tacoma has been a member of the Pacific Coast League since Cheney Stadium opened in 1960, and has been a Mariners affiliate since establishing the Rainiers moniker in 1995.
The most up-to-date news and notes about the Tacoma Rainiers and Cheney Stadium can be found at WeRTacoma.com, or by following the Rainiers on Twitter (@RainiersLand), Instagram (@tacomarainiers) and liking the team on Facebook.
We R Tacoma Team Store
The We R Tacoma Team Store is currently closed until Monday, January 4, but is always available online. Grab your Rainiers gear, your Defiance ‘fit, and follow the team store on Instagram and Twitter.