Baseball’s top emerging talent convened in Tacoma this week for the Triple-A All-Star Game at Cheney Stadium. The event brought the best players together from the Pacific Coast League and the International League to compete in a game nationally televised by the Major League Baseball (MLB) Network.
It was the first time the Triple-A All-Star Game was held in Tacoma in the event’s 30-year history, and it offered the team the opportunity to show off Cheney Stadium to a wide audience following a $30 million renovation in late-2010 and early-2011.
All-Star Game festivities began on Monday, July 10, with a Home Run Derby that pitted six of the biggest sluggers against one another (three from each league) for a friendly competition that left fans looking skyward and following the arcs of towering fly balls that sailed past the outfield wall and onto Clay Huntington Way and R Yard at Coors Light Landing. In the end, two players were left vying for the home run title – Pawtucket Red Sox outfielder Bryce Brentz and Tacoma Rainiers first baseman Daniel Vogelbach. Brentz, 28, and Vogelbach, 24, hit 20 and 19 home runs, respectively, in the first two rounds, eliminating the other players from competition. But Brentz pulled away in the final round, hitting 18 home runs against Vogelbach’s eight long-balls.
“The first two rounds were fine,” said Vogelbach on Tuesday during Media Day, a chance for reporters to interview players and coaches from both teams. “Then he came out and hit 18 home runs to start. That was pretty impressive. I was trying to catch him. It was a great time. It was fun to watch Bryce hit.”
Vogelbach said he was honored to be chosen for the All-Star Game and to play with the “best of the best in the minor leagues.”
He also was pleased Cheney Stadium was selected to host the competition. “The fans are great every night we play here,” said Vogelbach. “This ballpark is fun to play in. They take really good care of it. The playing surface is awesome. I’m happy that it’s in Tacoma.”
The Tacoma Rainiers franchise is often the last stop for baseball players who aspire to break into the big leagues with the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners have called up Vogelbach during the past two seasons: eight games in 2016, and seven games so far this year. Could an All-Star appearance ease his return to the big leagues? “There are some things I can control,” he said. “When I get called up isn’t one of them. But how I come to the park and prepare is.”
Veteran relief pitcher Jean Machi, 35, was the only other Tacoma Rainiers player selected to this season’s roster. Machi played for the San Francisco Giants in 2014, when the team won the World Series. He said he also aspired to return to the big leagues.
“I’m working for it every day, the chance to go up to the major leagues in Seattle again,” said Machi. “I’m looking for the next opportunity.”
For Jared Sandberg, manager of the Triple-A Durham Bulls and a member of the International League’s All-Star team coaching staff, visiting Cheney Stadium this week was a homecoming. Sandberg, 39, has a long connection to the South Sound. He was born and raised in Olympia, graduated from Capital High School, and lives with his wife, Julie, and kids, Evan and Clara, in Olympia during the off-season. He also runs the youth-focused Sandberg Baseball Camp in Olympia, a venue that teaches local kids how to play baseball.
“That’s a joy for me,” said Sandberg. “To give back to the community, and give kids a nice, safe haven after school.”
Sandberg spent parts of three seasons (between 2001 and 2003) playing third base for the MLB Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was named manager of the Durham Bulls in 2015. Baseball fans are likely familiar with the name Sandberg; Jared’s uncle is Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg.
The Durham Bulls are in the International League, while the Tacoma Rainiers are in the Pacific Coast League. That means Sandberg doesn’t make road trips with his team to Cheney Stadium during the minor league baseball season. But it wasn’t his first visit to the stadium. “I played here in 1995, when Capital High School played Lindbergh High School in the state championship,” he recalled. “We lost, but I hit a double to right-centerfield.”
On Wednesday, a sold-out crowd of 7,024 fans filled Cheney Stadium to watch the main event. Ben B. Cheney’s son, Brad Cheney, threw the ceremonial first pitch under clear skies and a comfortable temperature of 77 degrees.
Tacoma Rainiers co-owner, chairman, and CEO Mikal Thomsen welcomed fans to the stadium. “This is for Tacoma and the South Sound,” he said. “We finally got this game and we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Fans witnessed a game with plenty of action. Batters for both teams combined for 10 runs, 21 hits, and four home runs. Pitchers for both teams threw a combined 16 strikeouts. Machi pitched the fourth inning and allowed two runs on three hits, striking out two batters. Vogelbach batted in the sixth inning, but struck out on three pitches. In the end, the Pacific Coast League beat the International League by a score of 6 to 4.