While there was no formal 10th-anniversary celebration for the Tacoma Rainiers in this COVID- impacted season, winning the Triple-A West Division title, the club’s first league title, has made it a season to remember.
And in many respects, the 2021 season for the franchise and the ownership group put together a decade ago by Mikal Thomsen to buy the team he had followed since boyhood was a season of accomplishment worthy of marking an anniversary year. And providing an occasion for reflection.
Less likely to be memorable is major league baseball’s decision to have a 10-game post-season “Triple-A Stretch” in which all 30 teams in four AAA divisions, including the West Division, that Tacoma won, will play into October.
As Major League Baseball’s website explained, “among all 30 clubs, a single 2021 Triple-A Final Stretch Winner will be crowned across both leagues based on highest overall winning percentage during a 10-game schedule immediately following the originally scheduled championship season.”
When I suggested it seemed a rather strange AAA finale, Thomsen offered, “I’ll take the regular-season crown, happily.”
The Rainiers are at Round Rock (an Austin, TX, suburb) for five games starting this week and then home for five games against Salt Lake, starting the 29th
As Thomsen explained, “we have two weeks of games that do not count towards any title but will both pay the players more money and provide a place for all MLB teams to have their top prospects play another two weeks as we missed out on April games this year due to COVID.”
Thus the season didn’t actually begin until May and social distancing mandates were in place for May and June. But in July and August attendance and revenue were, as Thomsen explained, “within spitting distance of the same months in 2019.”
Reviewing how this 2021 season unfolded, Thomsen offered a particular focus on rookie manager Kris Negron, “a thirty-something guy who played for the Rainiers in 2019 and this team playing with verve and gusto.” And, much to the team’s family focus, Negron, Thomsen said, took paternity leave mid-season (something not likely to be said about many baseball managers, even in this era).
Thomsen said of the fans, who returned in respectable numbers by season end, “They are buying R hats and munching on the Best Hot Dog in Baseball as they cheered on the first place Tacoma Rainiers.”
But as indicated earlier, this Harp is not so much about the success of a minor league baseball team, albeit the key minor league relationship for the Seattle Mariners, as it is a reminder of what may be the most appealing story in all of baseball.
It’s a story that began in 1960 when a three-year-old went along with his father to the first professional baseball game in 55 years in Tacoma to watch the then-Giants, the new Triple-A farm team of the San Francisco Giants.
As I wrote in a column six years ago, that first game ignited a life-long affection of a kid, then a man, for his hometown baseball team. And though he grew up to make his name and fortune over two decades in the cellular-wireless industry, Thomsen's "dream come true" is played out each year.
That’s how he first described to me what it was like to become CEO and, with his wife, Lynn, the major investor in the Tacoma Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League baseball.
The Thomsens put together a team of investors prior to the 2011 season to join them in owning the Rainiers. The ownership team that may be unique in Major League Baseball includes his sports “boss” in a sense, John Stanton, the CEO and majority owner of the Mariners, and his wife, Terry. But, of course, Stanton is also his business partner in Bellevue-based Trilogy Partnerships.
”I spent a good portion of six months during the fall and winter of 2010-2011 deciding to make a bid and then raising the equity and debt to close the sale,” Thomsen recalled when I asked him about seizing the opportunity to buy the franchise.
“That was finalized at the end of March of 2011, just in time to open the baseball season and open in a revamped Cheney Stadium which had undergone a nearly $30 million public-private makeover. The stadium was beautiful, a significant upgrade from the one where I had spent significant parts of my summertime youth running around during the ’60s.”
Thomsen’s father died a couple of years before the purchase of the team but he said “Most of our last conversations were about baseball. I wish every day that he had been,” he said, relating to the possibility that his father would have still been alive then.
“We did hold my Mom’s 90th birthday party (they were married for 57 years) at Cheney Stadium earlier this month, though,” he added.
I asked Thomsen for this column if it still feels like a dream come true.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he replied. “I continue to have fun with it, and I genuinely look at it as a public trust. We own it for a while, as did others before us and as will others after us. But keeping it going for the community is the key aspect.”