Recent generations in Reno have cheered on the Blackjacks, Chukars, and Silver Sox. When the Aces take the field in April, however, a whole new ball game begins.
For nearly two decades, local fans have watched independent league teams unaffiliated with any of the 30 Major League Baseball teams. The Reno Aces are a Triple-A franchise - the highest level of baseball in Reno history - meaning the players are one step away from the big time. "The kind of level they played before and Triple-A are so different," says longtime Reno Gazette-Journal sportswriter Steve Sneddon, who recently retired. And thus, after a 17-year drought, a new chapter begins for professional baseball in the Biggest Little City.
Professional baseball first came to Reno in 1947 with the formation of the Class C Sunset League. The Reno Silver Sox, a charter member and affiliate of the New York Giants, finished its first season at 69-69. The club placed fourth in the six-team league under manager Thomas Lloyd.
The following season, Reno bested its instate rival, the Las Vegas Wranglers, in a best-of-five championship for the league title - after finishing just third in the regular-season standings. Earlier in the season, the team experienced a different type of excitement when they were stopped at the Mexican-American border en route to a May 8 game in Mexicali. By the time immigration questions were resolved, the game had to be postponed until the following day. In 1949, Reno faltered in its title defense, placing next to last. The following spring, the Silver Sox joined the Far West League as an independent club and lasted just two seasons.
Professional baseball returned to Reno on July 1, 1955, when the Channel Cities Oilers relocated in the midst of a horrid season and took on the Silver Sox moniker. While local baseball nuts celebrated the city's midseason acquisition, they were bewildered by the team's dismal last-place finish in the Class C California League - 63 1/2 games out of first with a 40-106 record.
Fortunes changed in 1956 as the Sox posted a winning record playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system. The following season, Francis Boniar ended his 1957 campaign with a .436 batting average, a California League record.
At the turn of the decade, it looked as if Reno was on the verge of establishing a dynasty. In 1960, the Silver Sox ended the regular season with a 14-game lead and the league's best record (89-51). The club was propelled by the pitching of California League MVP Robert Arrighi - whose untiring arm threw in a league record 69 games - and Rookie of the Year Thad Tillotson (19 wins). Meanwhile, outfielder Lowell Barnhart led the league in runs (116), hits (185), and RBIs (109).
The Sox outdid themselves in 1961, finishing 97-43 and outdistancing the competition by 15 games. Reno celebrated its second MVP in as many seasons, shortstop Don Williams, who topped the league in every hitting category, including a .363 batting average and 144 RBIs. Meanwhile, Rookie of the Year Dick Nen provided power with a league-high 32 home runs, and Bruce Gardner bested the competition with 20 wins and a 2.82 ERA. Little did anyone know that these would be the brightest years of Reno professional baseball for the next three decades.
In the final seasons before Reno faded from the California League in 1992, the Silver Sox plummeted into mediocrity. A perennially average squad, the team's only championships came in 1975 and 1976 as an unaffiliated franchise.
Reno experienced an unfortunate run of playing in unsuccessful minor-league farm systems. From 1964 to 1974, the cellar-dwelling Cleveland Indians served as the parent club, followed by the San Diego Padres from 1977 to 1987 - a team that salvaged a winning record only three times during that span. "The crowds were usually small," remembers Sneddon on covering the Silver Sox. "The best crowds were when there was a promotion of some kind, giving something away. The Silver Sox were just taken for granted, being there since 1947."
Despite the losing, there were bright spots. "Quite a few prospects came up in the California League," Sneddon says. "That was the best part, seeing some of those guys move up. In [Single-A] ball, when somebody is not winning, it's not the Major Leagues. The idea is to produce players."
Playing professionally from 1988 to 1992 as an unaffiliated team in the California League did not help the Silver Sox. Continued losing and low attendance forced the franchise to move and become the Bakersfield Blaze. Over the next 15 years, independent teams placated fans. All the while, Reno sought a return to the ranks of a major-league farm system. At the conclusion of the 2006 season, there came a light at the end of the tunnel.
Despite on-field success in the Pacific Coast League, the Tucson Sidewinders (Triple-A affiliate for the Arizona Diamondbacks and PCL champs in 2007) struggled to attract fans during the Arizona summer heat. In a short time, Tucson's follies became Stuart Katzoff's fortune. Seeking to buy a professional sports team, Katzoff headed a group dubbed SK Baseball, LLC, purchased the Sidewinders, and turned to Reno for relocation. "As I learned more about Reno, I realized it was a sports-hungry town with no professional sports," says owner and managing partner Katzoff. "Reno is passionate about its sports, like University of Nevada, Reno basketball and football. We only had two main concerns: weather and population."
But a market without any professional teams in a city on the rise was too good to pass up. Katzoff resolved to move the Tucson ball club north following the 2008 season, bringing a storied lineage along with it. The Aces trace their roots to San Francisco in 1905, when the Seals became inaugural members of the Pacific Coast League. The Seals moved to Phoenix in 1958 when the New York Giants moved to San Francisco. Aside from a six-season stint in Tacoma, Washington, the team remained in Phoenix through 1997 until the Diamondbacks arrived, forcing a relocation to Tucson.
Now, thanks to the hard work of SK Baseball - which recently purchased Reno's NBA Development team, the Bighorns - and city officials, professional baseball is back in Reno. While bringing back the Silver Sox moniker was tempting, SK Baseball chose to establish a new identity. Starting with a clean slate, ownership held an online name-the-team contest; they received more than 3,500 entries and 1,100 unique submissions during May 2008. In the end, one name stuck out: the Aces. The nickname touts a regional connection with the gambling industry, and, in the realm of baseball, an "ace" is the best pitcher on a team's roster - something Reno will need in 2009 to reverse Tucson's last-place woes in 2008.
Aside from providing a source of entertainment, the Aces - and the team's new $50-million ballpark - represent the key ingredient to revitalizing the Freight House District, the area immediately east of the downtown casino district. Built at the northeast corner of Evans Avenue and East Second Street, Aces Ballpark will hold approximately 9,000 - two-and-a-half times the capacity of Moana Stadium. With tickets ranging from $6 to $29, fans can choose from 6,500 fixed seats (including party decks along the left-field line and center-field bullpen) or a grassy berm behind right field that holds an additional 2,500 people. There will also be a Kids Zone beyond center field.
Plans for the ballpark district include a wide range of retail, three restaurants, three nightclubs, and an outdoor events plaza to ensure the area remains a hotspot for locals even during the offseason. "Being the major professional sports team in Reno, we should treat it like a Major League franchise," Katzoff says. "That's how we went about creating the stadium and logo." The Aces will visit the Salt Lake Bees on April 9 in their inaugural game, then return to Reno for the franchise home opener on April 17.