Turning The Big 2-0

By Stephen Hunt

In 2001, media conglomerate Mandalay Entertainment purchased the Double-A Shreveport Swamp Dragons baseball team in a partnership with former Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks. 

After the 2002 season, Shreveport moved to Frisco, becoming the RoughRiders, the Rangers’ new Double-A Texas League affiliate.
On April 3, 2003, the RoughRiders played their inaugural game, drawing 10,685 fans to what was then Dr Pepper Ballpark. 
 Frisco lost that night, but over the past two decades the RoughRiders have delivered great baseball and quality family entertainment to millions of fans who have passed through the turnstiles at the stadium now known as Riders Field. 
“It is hard to believe it’s been 20 years,” said Scott Burchett, the current RoughRiders general manager who is in his 19th season with the club. “It’s been a ton of fun. We’re just scratching the surface of what we can do as we continue to grow our presence in DFW, inside and outside the community.”
Over the past 20 years, fans have seen 187 ‘Riders players reach the big leagues — 135 of them as Texas Rangers. Memorable former players include infielders Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler, key parts of the Rangers’ back-to-back World Series teams in 2010 and 2011, as well as Mitch Moreland. 
 Fans have also seen current big leaguers recover from injury with the ‘Riders, such as former Ranger pitcher Yu Darvish, who pitched in Frisco in 2016 while recovering from elbow surgery. RoughRiders fans can watch future and current big-league stars play and can interact with them by getting an autograph, photo or both. 
“It’s cool (for fans) to see the guys they’re hoping will be the next group that is going to do something for this franchise,” said Ty Walker, lifelong Ranger fan and co-host of Diamond Talk, a long-running, award-winning Rangers postgame show that airs on SportsRadio 1310 AM The Ticket. “To have that located so close to the big ballpark is great.”
When the RoughRiders came to Frisco, they were the first team to establish roots in what would later become Sports City USA. 
Construction on Comerica Center, now home to NBA G-League basketball team the Texas Legends, began in 2003. The NHL’s Dallas Stars relocated their headquarters to Frisco several years later. In August 2005, FC Dallas opened Pizza Hut Park, and the Legends arrived in 2006 while the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and PGA of America headquarters followed more recently.  
 The RoughRiders came to a ballpark with wide-open spaces between it and Stonebriar Centre, an area that has since been developed. 
“When I first started, the (Dallas North) tollway ended a few miles south of the ballpark. Just cool to see what’s happened to Frisco — a testament to the city leaders, their vision,” Burchett said. 
“We’re starting to see multiple generations of fans come to the ballpark. Kids who grew up coming to ‘Riders games are now bringing their kids. We’ve become a fabric of the community. We’re incredibly proud and grateful for that.”

 Tuned In

Scott Garner is a longtime sports broadcaster who jumped at the chance to be the RoughRiders’ first radio play-by-play man, a position he held through 2009. 
“I grew up a Rangers fan and to broadcast for the franchise you grew up cheering for was an incredible experience,” Garner said. “We would have 10,000-plus (attendees), sometimes 12,000 on a Friday (or) Saturday night. For a minor league team, that was unheard of, particularly 20 years ago.”
Garner’s broadcast partner for the 2003 season was Texas Radio Hall of Famer Mike Rhyner, a co-founder of The Ticket. 
 A lifelong baseball fan, Rhyner was then-co-host of a popular show, The Hardline, which ran from 3-7 p.m. weekdays. Rhyner only worked home games and called the fourth through sixth innings since his show didn’t end until 7 p.m. — a schedule that occasionally saw him arrive in the broadcast booth at the last minute. That pairing worked as Garner and Rhyner were named the second-best announcer team in 2003 by the Texas Association of Broadcasters.

“Most announcers get to the ballpark probably five hours before first pitch. You’re scrambling to get as much information as you can to make the broadcast as good as it can be,” Garner said.

“There were a couple of times where it’s the bottom of the third, we’ve got one or two outs and I’m going, `There’s no way (Rhyner is) going to be here.’ Sure enough, he would come diving into the booth. I’ve never done a broadcast like that. It had to have been uncomfortable for him, but he always managed to get through it.”

That first year, RoughRiders games aired on the Ticket’s 1700 AM signal, which originated from the Sherman-Denison area, which made hearing the games nearly impossible for fans in the Metroplex. 
 Since radio broadcasts were not yet available online, a group of diehard Frisco fans took matters into their own hands in order to hear the ‘Riders play on the road. “We had fans who would go up to Sherman to listen. … They would find a park, get a glass of wine and listen to the broadcast,” Garner said. 
During his long tenure with the RoughRiders, Burchett has overseen the more than $8 million in improvements to Riders Field, which included the 2016 opening of the Lazy River, a 174-foot manmade water attraction in right field where fans can tube in or sit by the pool and watch a game. 

A Look Ahead

It’s been a great first 19 seasons for the RoughRiders, who have won two Texas League titles, most recently in 2022. But what is planned for the team’s 20th anniversary?
 Fans can expect great promotional nights such as Bark in the Park, when man’s best friend will be welcome on the stadium lawn, countless giveaways, fireworks, and an It’s Pretzel Day appearance from actor Leslie David Baker, who played loveable curmudgeon Stanley Hudson on the American version of The Office. 
“I’ve always viewed Riders Field as a summer gathering place here for Collin County,” Burchett said. “Of course, we’re nowhere close to being done. We are celebrating 20 years but we’re looking forward to the next 20 and beyond.”
Stephen Hunt is a longtime Frisco resident who loves minor league baseball.
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