On the Road: Arriving at the End of an Era in Yakima
Stop three of my latest (and therefore greatest) road trip brought me to Yakima, by far the easternmost location on this otherwise close-to-the-coast Oregon-Washington-British Columbia excursion. But as out of the way as it was, I considered a visit to Yakima to be an absolute must. This is, after all, the last season for the hometown Bears. In 2013 the team will set-up shop in Hillsboro (a suburb of Portland), thereby bringing to an end a 23-season run in Yakima.
It’s hard to argue with the rationale behind the move — the Bears rank last in the league in attendance and play in an outmoded facility, while Hillsboro taps into a fertile market that has gone without Minor League Baseball since the Portland Beavers moved to Tucson following the 2010 campaign. But no matter what the reasons, it is always a bittersweet (if not outright sad) occasion when a team leaves town. My visit to Yakima was motivated by the desire to get a sense of the Bears game experience, so that I could document it for those who may have never had the opportunity or inclination to see it for themselves.
It sure took me a while to get there! The (beautiful!) drive from Salem took a good four hours, and will be documented in a future post. And then, once I finally got to Yakima proper, I realized that the address I had was not for the stadium but for the Bears administrative office. Next door to this Bears business hub was a building with office space for rent and, in these offices, inappropriate relationships between employees won’t just be tolerated — they’ll be encouraged!
I was momentarily flabbergasted by this signage, but recovered in time to ask a coveralls-wearing local how to get to the stadium. He told me that it was on his way home, so I might as well follow him. Five minutes later, he had guided me to the proper destination: Yakima County Stadium. (Chalk up another point in the “kindness of strangers” category. I find that while on the road and here in NYC, people are much more inclined to be thoughtful and decent than any behaviors to the contrary.)
Located beyond the stadium are what I, being from the Northeast, would call “mountains.” But to those in the Northwest, they are simply “hills.”
The first order of business was to conduct a few player interviews with the trusty FlipCam, and this time around the victims were pitcher Blake Perry and outfielders Joe Loftus and Michael Lang.
Lang’s interview apparently suffered from poor audio quality, to the extent that it was not posted on MiLB.com. But he’s got a great story — played collegiate ball at Rutgers, went undrafted, joined a local semi-pro team, contacted every independent team in search of a job and then, finally, landed a spot on the roster of the Sioux City Explorers after all of their outfielders got married in the offseason and decided not to return. He hit over .400 in Sioux City, and was eventually signed by the Diamondbacks organization and sent to Yakima to begin his professional career. You gotta root for the guy:
Loftus had a great story as well, and that one did get some play on MiLB.com. Read all about it, and then check out all of the additional road trip content in the sidebar! But if you’re not inclined to do so, here’s the jist of it: after a poor start to the season, Loftus finally hit his first professional home run in Salem-Keizer on July 14th. The ball was retrieved by a traveling couple from Illinois who, after doing some research, discovered that it was Loftus’ first home run. They then sent him the ball, along with a photo and a nice note (all of which Loftus keeps in his locker).
After the barrage of interviews I embarked on a short stadium tour with general manager K.L. Wombacher. K.L.’s time with the club dates back to a 2001 internship, and from there he worked his way up to the top spot (and, along the way, met his wife, Lauren, now the team’s director of merchandise). He and his family will be making the move to Hillsboro to launch the franchise there; these waning days of the 2012 season are truly the end of an era for him as well.
But anyway, I seem to be especially verbose in this post and for that I apologize. “Nice pics!” is the number one comment that this blog receives, and I’ve gotta dance with who brung me. So here ya go – pictures! About 45 minutes before the first pitch, this was the scene in the picnic areas.
While, out on the field, the scene was much more sedate.
The press box? In addition to being sedate, it offered a prime
mountain hill view.
We soon returned to ground level, where signs of life were observed both in the dugout and on the field.
Also observed: dimensional quirks! At Yakima County Stadium, it is only 293 feet down the left and right field lines. Over in right field, a member of the visiting Boise Hawks was looking at the fence and making¬† gesture which I interpreted as “293 feet? Are you kidding me, bro?”
In left field, the same deal.
Wombacher explained that the short porches were simply the result of having to shoehorn the stadium into a tight location. A horse racing track used to be located beyond the outfield fence, and the short porch isn’t the only reminder of those days. A water tower peeks up over the right-center field fence, and when races were going on a track employee would climb up the ladder in order to signal to the umpire to call time until the horses came around the bend (out of concern that a home run ball would injure one of them).
While it would seem that 293-foot fences would automatically qualify a stadium as a hitter’s park, this isn’t really the case. The fences jut out to more established professional distances with utmost rapidity, so save for the odd cheap shot down the line Yakima County Stadium doesn’t offer any real advantages to those swinging the lumber.
“It gets out to 340 [feet] in a hurry, and the power alleys are 360-plus,” said Wombacher. “This is a pitcher’s park, no question about it. The [Yakima single-season] home run record is 16.”
At this point the fans were filing in and the players were in the dugouts, more or less ready to go.
What could drag these creatures of habit out of the dugout but this, the National Anthem?
Boomer: a proud American bear.
And now what was left to do but play another nine innings (or more!) of our proud American game? The next post will cover the events that ensued over the following three hours and 16 minutes in front of a crowd of 1,681, the ninth-to-last regular-season home game in Yakima Bears history.