Reno to begin newest chapter of pro ball

RENO " Dwight Dortch watched the Reno Silver Sox play in the Class A California League in the 1970s at rickety Moana Stadium with its old wooden bleachers and peeling paint.

Since then, he's seen one team after another come and go in the "Biggest Little City in the World," from the Western Baseball League's Reno Chukars to the Golden Baseball League's Reno Silver Sox, which departed last year.

Dortch, a city councilman, served as general manager of the last version of the Silver Sox " a team like those before them that struggled to draw locals and tourists alike away from the area's casinos.

But he's confident those days will be nothing but a memory when the newest incarnation of America's

pastime returns to town Friday night with the home opener of the Reno Aces, the Pacific Coast League's Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"I've seen back to the original Silver Sox and the challenges they had with an aging stadium and then the independent teams," said Dortch, the Aces' director of corporate partnership.

"But now we really have a true baseball venue," he said. "It's incredible."

The $50 million Aces Ballpark on the edge of Reno's downtown casino district is a 6,000-seat stadium with a brick facade. It sits along the banks of the Truckee River, which babbles past a concession plaza in right field within 100 feet of the foul pole. The left field wall rises 20 feet high, reminiscent of Fenway Park's 37-foot tall "Green Monster."

Fans enter at street level and descend 22 rows to the front-row seats along the natural grass field sunken below.

One of the fan-friendly features is a drink rail that rings the back row of most the seating area " including left field " where anyone with a $7 general admission ticket can stand with a hot dog and drink and watch the game.

Like rival Sacramento's stadium 140 miles west, Aces Ballpark has a grassy berm beyond right field where fans with the $7 ticket can sit with a blanket or lawn chair. They also can make a full circle within the ballpark to check out various views or saddle up to the refreshment rail.

"I think it's going to be a tremendous success," Dortch said. "The response has been amazing. They sold out opening night tickets in a half hour. That tells it all."

Rick Parr, the team's general manager, admitted he encountered skeptics when he arrived in Reno.

"'I'll believe it when I see it.' I get a lot of that," he said last fall.

The Reno Gazette-Journal asked in an April 5 editorial, "Is Reno really the lousy sports town that people say it is?"

Mason Smiley, 65, was among the Reno old-timers who told the newspapers that it is.

"This is a train wreck waiting to happen. Reno goes on fads a lot," he said.

The newspaper noted that except for the original Silver Sox who were in Reno for 45 years in various forms, no pro sports team has lasted more than a few years.

But "no one should confuse the Reno Aces with one of those teams," the editorial said. "This is a team of guys who are a step away from the major leagues. ... If any professional team could ever succeed in Reno, the Aces are it."

The team is owned by Stuart Katzoff " the team president who is an equal partner in SK Baseball along with his father, Jerry, who owns a chain of East Coast Italian restaurants " and Herb Simon, a leading mall developer and owner of the NBA's Indianapolis Pacers.

They bought the franchise in 2006 and announced last year they were moving it from Tucson, Ariz., to Reno. They also plan to build a neighboring outdoor plaza with retail shops and restaurants.

Parr thinks the result will be similar to the business districts that sprang up after new ball parks were built over the past 20 years in places like Baltimore, Denver and Oklahoma City.

"Coors Field did it in Denver. Bricktown in Oklahoma City did the exact same thing," he said.

"It was so similar to the situation in Reno. There are downtown areas that are really hurting and then all of the sudden these ballparks come in and completely rejuvenate things, change the face of downtowns."

Parr spent the last few days scrambling to complete last-minute tasks he called "major, little things," like overseeing installation of weights and training tables in the clubhouses and making sure the laundry facilities work.

"I got a call today from someone who said they forgot we've got to have vacuum cleaners," Parr said Wednesday. "The details are important. This home opener is such a historic deal you want the players to feel special,too."

The fickle spring weather on the edge of the Sierra Nevada remains a concern after it snowed on Tuesday and temperatures dipped into the 30s. But the forecast for the 6:05 p.m. opener against Salt Lake City calls for clear skies and a high of 68.

"I've been praying every night that this would happen," Parr said. "If it does, I think it will be a home run."


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