Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Trip Ends Up Aces!

In 2009, the Reno Aces began play after relocating from Tucson. In the same season the Las Vegas 51s became Toronto's AAA team. So I'd had my eye on Nevada as a baseball roadtrip destination for the past two years, but the schedules had not matched favourably with mine. So when my brother told me he would be in Las Vegas for a conference in April, 2011, things quickly came together as both the 51s and Aces were to be at home during that time. That's how this trip got started and that's how it ended as I finished up with a long drive to Reno and two games in beautiful Aces Ballpark.

Las Vegas to Reno

I don't write much about the drives I take, because they are mostly boring interstates that get me from one game to the next as quickly as possible. But the route between Las Vegas and Reno is one of the more enjoyable drives and worth a quick mention here. From Las Vegas, you head northwest on US95 (also known as the Veterans Memorial Highway) which becomes an undivided highway a few miles out. Traveling through numerous small towns along the way, you can go at least 75 along the highway, passing slower traffic with little waiting. The main town on the route is Tonopah, which is a good place to stop for a break and get gas. Be careful driving through these tiny towns though, the speed limit drops to 25 in some places and this is where cops are waiting for the inattentive. I saw two cars get pulled over when they failed to slow in time, while there were almost no cops on the actual highway. The shot below is from Luning, one of the towns where I saw someone get stopped.

After about 6 hours, you reach Fallon, a larger town where you turn west onto US50/Reno Hwy and drive 25 miles before hitting I-80 to finish the trip. I found the drive through the desert to be very scenic with distant mountains, and nearby buttes and mesas most of the way. There's no radio once you leave Vegas, so I was fortunate to have XM with me, which enabled me to listen to an NHL playoff game as well as several MLB games during the 7.5-hour journey.

When I spoke to locals in Reno, though, they said the drive is boring and they absolutely hate it. So I guess it depends on what you are used to. If you haven't done it, give it a try someday.

Reno Aces

When I visited Fresno a week ago, I mentioned how the Grizzlies had moved from Tucson when the Arizona Diamondbacks began play in 1998. Coincidentally, the Reno Aces were the visitors in Fresno. Until 2008, the Aces were the Tucson Sidewinders, who had moved from Phoenix to become the Diamondbacks' AAA affiliate as part of a complicated ownership reorganization that involved the Grizzlies' move as well. The Aces franchise has been part of the PCL since the league's inaugural season in 1903, when they played in San Francisco as the Seals, and can boast of having Joe DiMaggio as one of their alumni. From San Francisco to Phoenix to Tucson to Reno - an interesting history that shows how minor league ball teams can get around, even if it takes over a century.

The Aces nickname came from a name-the-team contest and combines the city's gambling background along with a baseball connection. The eight letter combination ties for the shortest in minor league baseball along with Iowa Cubs and Orem Owlz.

Aces Ballpark

The Aces play in the appropriately named Aces Ballpark, located in downtown Reno. The park is the first of eight planned phases to renovate the area, some of which has fallen on hard times. In particular, there is a homeless shelter just on the other side of left field and the streets east of the ballpark are rather sketchy. So in an effort to revitalize the entire area, the owners of the Aces are using the ballpark as the centerpiece of a new entertainment district, much like has happened in Denver, San Francisco, and elsewhere. The whole project is expected to last for several more years but so far, it is off to a good start.

There is no general parking at the ballpark proper, but there is plenty on streets (meters are free in the evening and on Sundays) and nearby casinos and garages also have parking, although some may charge. I saw one lot with a $7 sign, but would suggest you find something for free on the street.

Aces Ballpark was built in just over a year and opened in time for the Aces' first home game in April, 2009. The park is bounded on the south by the Truckee River, which provides an interesting view from both outside and inside.

Before you even enter the ballpark, take the time to look at the features outside. There are three entrances, with the main one denoted by a large baseball sculpture above the gates.

This entrance is also where the Freight House District is located. There are four dining establishments, each with a different specialty, that comprise the district, named after an old building that sits next to the ballpark. You can visit any of the eateries without a ticket, although Bugsy's Sports Bar and Grill also has indoor and outdoor seating which does require a ticket.

Below is the view from the Sports Bar seats.

Tickets here are not cheap, running as high as $32 for the home plate box seats. However, you can get standing room/general admission tickets for as little as $6. These allow you to sit in the berm area behind the right field fence or to stand along the concourse. Usually I suggest that you buy the cheapest option and sit where you want, but that is not a good idea here. The Aces draw very well and there are not a lot of empty seats close to the field. As well, ushers are very strict and rarely let anybody by without checking their ticket. I found the standing areas along the baselines, which also have a drink rail, to be perfectly adequate but if you really want a good seat here, you'd better pay for it.

The park design is quite interesting. Although it may appear to be standard at first glance, with a single concourse atop the seating bowl (above), there are a number of features that are not as typical. For one, you can walk around the entire park which provides some good views of the downtown area behind home plate. Beyond left field there is a railroad track along which the occasional train goes rolling by, sounding its horn. However, the track is well below field level and is not visible from the seating bowl. As you wander, you will see a number of other party areas, such as the Coors Light Party Zone in the left field corner, which is a collection of picnic tables (below).

Just to the left of the bullpens, which are behind the right field fence, lies the Bullpen Deck, another party area (you can see it in the left of the picture below).

Beyond the bullpens lies the berm, which is a great area for families with room for the kids to play. Above that is Baseball Mountain, a seating area that is attached to a bar and provides a good view of the entire park (below). Note the white poles to the left in the photo with the PCL team logos on them - these light up during night games when the Aces score.

Given the higher elevation in Reno, the park is a bit bigger at 340 down right field, 423 to right center, 410 to center and 339 to left. Didn't stop the ball from flying out during the two games I saw there.

Another unique feature is the press box which is above first base, as the owners preferred to put suites on the upper level behind home plate. The press box, which also contains the video production room, is the leftmost, lighter area on the second level in the shot below. You can also see the parking garage behind the stadium.

The radio booth is still behind home plate, on the concourse level, which prevents you from seeing the action while you walk behind it. It is a bit strange to have the radio guys separate from the press box but that is the result of having suites behind home plate.

There is one other seating area, the Dugout Club, which are the two rows of seats that are below field level directly behind the plate (above). These are generally held by season-ticket holders and come with snacks and in-seat service. The view from these seats is below.

Given all the amenities here, the scoreboard is surprisingly basic, with a linescore beneath a video screen that shows player stats and fan cams. The pitch speed is also shown here. One funny feature was the Oblivious Cam, a pre-game bit where they would pick out a fan, put him on the scoreboard and run a timer until the fan noticed.

Overall, Aces Ballpark is a great place to watch a game. I like the variety of seating options and the standing areas, as well as the Freight House District. I would obviously prefer it to be a bit cheaper but can't argue with the pricing as the crowds here were the best on the trip. I'm really looking forward to returning to see the improvements around the ballpark. Reno is certainly a fine addition to a PCL roadtrip and I'll try to stay more than 24 hours next time.

Game 1 - Tacoma Rainiers 11 at Reno Aces 9

Kevin Mulvey started for the home team while Chris Seddon took the bump for Tacoma, Seattle's AAA affiliate. Mulvey was the starter in the aforementioned Fresno game and is good for giving up a run an inning, and obliged by allowing the Rainiers an early 1-0 lead when Matt Mangini singled home Matt Tuiasosopo in the first. But Reno replied with a 3-run shot from David Winfree in their half and that opened the floodgates as both teams scored 3 in the second to make it 6-4 Reno. The Aces added one in the third and then both hurlers settled down for a little while.

Mulvey was chased in the 6th after giving up a triple to DH Johan Limonta (above, before the game) who scored on a groundout, and then walking Sean Kazmar. But his bullpen was solid and when Reno added two in the 8th off Manny Delcarmen (below) to make it 9-5, it looked like it was game over.

I should point out two things here: the night before, Reno blew a 1-run lead in the 9th and lost 9-6; and it was extremely cold by this time, as often happens in early spring games in the high desert. So the bullpen was struggling and the fans wanted to get home. Not a good combination.

Daniel Stange had thrown a strong 8th and was kept in for the 9th. He got Kazmar for the first out and then walked Dustin Ackley (2nd overall pick in 2009 and Seattle's #1 prospect). Tuiasosopo grounded to short but Cody Ransom threw wild to put runners on second and third, and Mangini knocked both in with a single. It was 9-7 and the fans were suddenly very restless.

Stange was done and Jordan Norberto was called on to close things out. He promptly hit Carlos Peguero, threw a wild pitch, and walked Alex Liddi to load the bases. Limonta followed with a run-scoring single to get Tacoma within one and then Mike Wilson doubled to give them the lead as the fans threw up their hands in disgust. Kazmar added an RBI groundout to make it 11-9 as the Rainiers finished with a 6-spot.

Denny Bautista closed for Tacoma, getting Wily Mo Pena (above) to strike out leading off and ending the game on a double play. The whole affair took an agonizing 3:24; the ugly result is below, blurred because I was shaking from the cold.

Game 2 - Reno 10, Tacoma 8

The final game of the trip was played on a beautiful Sunday afternoon; yesterday's chills long forgotten. But that was about the only difference as another scorefest was on tap.

It was 4-4 after 4 when Kazmar doubled home Wilson to give Tacoma the lead in the fifth. But Reno responded with a big fifth frame of their own, plating six on just three hits to make it 10-5. In the 7th, Liddi hit his second monster shot of the game to close within 4. After Reno's Rafael Rodriguez pitched a scoreless 8th, Kam Mickolio was called on to preserve the win. Keep in mind, the Aces' bullpen had blown 9th-inning leads the last two nights.

Peguero singled to lead off and Liddi drew a walk and the fans groaned in unison as another 9th inning meltdown appeared to be underway. After Josh Bard flew out, Wilson and Limonta singled to bring the Rainiers within 2 and the fans to their breaking point. After Kazmar flew out, Ackley (above, earlier in the game) sent one deep to center and it looked like the tilt would be tied. But Cole Gillespie tracked it down and made the game-ending catch to send the fans home with a win and end my 3-week journey with the only home-team victory in Nevada.

Sean Burroughs on deck - note the pinstripes as the Aces have two home unis

David Winfree singles

After 20 runs on Saturday, another 18 on Sunday. Not an ideal way to end the trip but I'm glad to see the home team take the final game.


The Aces don't announce the starting lineups, which is a first. The only time the lineup is displayed is when the players take the field in the top of the first.

The 7th inning stretch here has an interesting feature. An inflatable baseball pops up above the centerfield fence and sings along with the fans.

One of the umpires for this series was Takeshi Hirabayshi (below), the first Japanese national to officiate in AAA. Would be good to see if he can make the majors and how the media here will respond, if at all.

Thanks to Aces' media relations chief Zak Basch for his assistance and answering some questions about the park and the team.

Next Up

I'm already back in Japan. I'll be attending a few NPB games this summer as part of my Stadium Journey work, but won't be reporting on those visits here. I'll also be working at a real job for a while as I don't want to risk my work visa like I did in 2009, so my travel will be limited for the next year if not longer. I'll still update the blog with other road trip ideas and commenting on sports in general, but it will be a relatively quiet 2011 with both the NFL and NBA likely to go through work stoppages. Regardless, check back on occasion to see what is happening.



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