On the Road: On the Cusp of a Historical First in Hillsboro
My last stop on this West Coast road trip, and in 2013 overall, was Hillsboro, Oregon. This marked the first time that I visited Oregon since way back in, well, 2012, when I stopped by Eugene and Salem-Keizer on my way into Washington and, eventually, the foreign soil of Vancouver, Canada. But I had a reason to return to this area so quickly, as Hillsboro is home to 2013′s lone new team: the Hops of the Northwest League. The Hops are the franchise formerly known as the Yakima Bears, whom I also visited last season, and while the primary owners and much of the front office staff remained intact these two baseball environments have virtually nothing else in common. Go ahead and contrast this post with the Yakima dispatch linked to above and you’ll see what I mean.
The Hops fill the Portland-area professional baseball void that has existed ever since the Pacific Coast League Portland Beavers departed for Tucson following the 2010 season, and as such the fledgling franchise can draw on a deeply-engaged and (perhaps more important when it comes to long-term success) deep-pocketed fan base. Intel and Nike both have headquarters in Hillsboro, and visible from the stadium are construction cranes working on Intel’s multi-billion dollar research facility. It boggles the mind, really — just a few days ago I had been in Stockton, a city that had recently declared bankruptcy, and now here I was in an environment surrounded by construction projects with 10-digit price tags.
Hillsboro Ballpark is a city-owned facility built within a pre-existing parks and rec complex, and as such the acreage is vast and the parking ample. When I pulled into the lot, the parking attendant would not take my “I’m a member of the media” claim at face value, and waited until I was able to extract a pass from the detritus on the passenger seat floor.
“Okay, that’s good,” she told me. “I had to check, because you could’ve just been a blogger.”
Thanking her for her diligence, I pulled into my space and took in the view.
My first impression was that the structure seen in the above photo was Hillsboro Ballpark. But that impression, like most of the primary variety, was erroneous. That structure was a football field, with Hillsboro Ballpark situated just behind it.
The above two facilities have a symbiotic relationship with one another. The Hops’ primary concession stands — which we shall see in a bit — are located in the football stadium, facing outward toward Hillsboro Ballpark’s third base side concourse.
Getting to the stadium from the parking lot was a bit of a hike, but whimsical signage insured that my spirits remained high throughout the journey.
My walking Cramps dissipated after seeing the ballpark’s Lux Exterior.
Said exterior included this interactive public art project, entitled Barometer.
Per sculptor Devin Laurence Field, Barometer “takes the overall triangular form of the baseball diamond held aloft by columns and illuminated with color changing, sound activated LED lights….Around the sculpture are various ‘instruments’ people can play, a giant horn, a rattle roller, drum sets and chimes that together form a symphony of sounds. When no one is at the park there is no colored light, when there is noise it lights up — the louder the noise, the brighter the light. The art is a veritable Barometer of excitement for the ballpark.”
Soon after arriving I embarked upon a ballpark tour with Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher, who re-located with the team from Yakima. K.L., he’s a serious guy.
On the concourse, K.L. and I soon ran into team owners Laura and Mike McMurray. To say that they are enthusiastic about their new locale would be an understatement. Mike told me that after 13 years in Yakima, Hillsboro seemed like “heaven.”
As mentioned before, Hillsboro marks the return of professional baseball to the Portland area after a two-year hiatus. The below display preserves some of the “final” items in Portland Beavers’ history, thus serving as a bridge to the present.
K.L. told me that while suites were part of the original stadium design, the club instead opted for open air party decks. The Hops’ status as a short-season team played a major role in that decision.
“The weather here from mid-June through September is just awesome, some of the best in the country,” said K.L. “During this time of year, people don’t want to be enclosed.”
The view from the top, game day employees in day-glo.
At this juncture game time was imminent, with Dust Devils and Hops alike gathering in anticipation.
And, hey, look! It’s Barley, the Hops’ mascot. Due to the prohibitions of my gluten-free lifestyle, I had to keep my distance.
Barley is a hop, and the Hops are called the Hops because of Hillsboro’s proximity to some of Oregon’s most bounteous hop farms. (Worth noting, and a bit ironic, is the fact that the Hops’ former home of Yakima was even more plentiful in the hop department.)
It was “Breast Cancer Awareness Night” at the ballpark, and this led to a cool moment. K.L.’s mom, Bev, is a 13-year breast cancer survivor and earlier that day she had been told that she had been selected for first pitch duties. She got a big round of applause, led by her son, prior to delivering the pitch and it was a heartwarming and truly spontaneous moment.
Heartwarming then gave way to plain ol’ adorable, as this young fan swept home plate.
Manager-Umpire relationships are volatile and subject to change at any moment, but at the exact moment in time in which this picture was taken everything was copacetic.
The Hops’ players were more than ready to take the field, save for the guy on the far left who was more into perfecting his Eminem impersonation.
“Come to gluten,” says Barley.
With an ominous cloud looming overhead, Barney and his less-glutenous ballplaying friends stood at attention as we honored our country through the singing of our National Anthem. (The flags were at half mast that day, in honor of a firefighter killed in action in Albany, Oregon.)
The completion of the “Star-Spangled Banner” means that it’s time to play ball. So, with Class A Short-Season Northwest League action as the backdrop, I took a lap of the facility.
One of the first areas that I encountered was Hot Dog Nation, a presumably sovereign entity with non-existent border security. At said nation a standard-issue hot dog costs $3.75, and specialties include the Foot-Long, Hoppin’ Jalapeno, Philly Dog, and Chicago Dog.
The Hops name, when it was first announced, drew acclaim from beer drinkers nationwide. Ale aficionados and IPA artisans alike allowed themselves to imagine Hillsboro Ballpark as some sort of beer drinking mecca, with baseball as the centerpiece of a thriving micro-brew scene. For now, however, the beer selection is modest as just three are on tap.
Two of these three beers are provided by the local BridgePort brewing company: Hop Czar and Long Ball Ale. That latter brew, a light and citrus-y summer ale, was sold exclusively at Hillsboro Ballpark and, as such, is the official team beer. The gentleman working the “Brew Pen” taps was, not surprisingly, biased toward BridgePort products. I repeatedly heard him explain the merits of both the Hop Czar and Long Ball Ale in detail, and then follow up those descriptions with a tossed-off “Or, of course, you could have the watered-down American lager.” (Also known as Coors Light.)
I’ll have more on Long Ball Ale in Part Two of this post (oh, yes, there is always a Part Two), but this lap around the perimeter of the ballpark wasn’t going to walk itself. Time to keep on movin’ on.
A cool feature of Hillsboro Ballpark is that, despite limited room to work with in certain areas, the Hops went out of their way to make the concourse of the 360-degree variety. The right and center field berm area is very narrow, before opening up into a more traditionally vast expanse in left field.
I admired this father and son duo, who were sticking it to the man by watching the game for free from beyond the fence.
The bullpen denizens don’t pay to watch the game either.
As mentioned, more traditional bermage can be found in left field.
At this point I was introduced to Tony Hendryx and Tim Watters. The former, on the left, is regional vice president of Ovations food services. The latter, on the right, is an Ovations operation manager. (Or would that be a “Hoperations Manager”?)
If there’s one thing I learned this season while on the road, it’s that food and beverage guys are way more enthusiastic about their jobs than the average person is about his or hers. These guys were no exception, and Hendryx, an Oregon native, spoke excitedly about how the Hops’ mid-June through September season matches Oregon’s growing season and, therefore, the team makes sure to use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. (“If we can keep it out of the freezer, we do,” said Hendryx.”)
At this point in the blog post you have probably become accustomed to me introducing the “designated eater.” (You know, the individual recruited to eat the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits). But, in this case, “designated eating” was largely eschewed in favor of highlighting two of the Hops’ gluten-free options.
The salmon burger was made of locally caught (never frozen) fish glazed with a brown sugar and garlic powder marinade then grilled and served with fried onions. I wish I had taken a close-up pic of just the salmon, as it was sweet and succulent and one of the best items I had at a ballpark this season. But you get the idea.
And here’s the Cobb salad, with Hendryx explaining that the chicken was from Carlton,Oregon, the hazelnuts grown in the Willamette Valley, the cranberries grown in local bogs and the blue cheese from Rogue River creamery of Central Point, Oregon.
Not that there is all that much competition, but I am going to declare this the best salad currently served at a Minor League ballpark. If you disagree, then get in touch and I will be happy to give your dissent a public airing.
I wasn’t totally alone in my culinary consumption, however. Meet Hops marketing intern Erik Knutsen, who was recruited to serve as a designated eater should the need arise for some designated eating. Knutsen was the most unenthused and underused designated eater in Ben’s Biz history; here he is with a Long Ball Ale that he was wary about drinking given that he was on the job.
“It tastes really good,” said Erik in a deadpan monotone. “Party.”
This party was cut short, however, as I had been recruited to participate in a between-inning contest. The beer, it was abandoned.
Erik and I headed down to the visitor’s dugout area, where I was equipped with a helmet, blindfold, and kneepads. I don’t know the exact name of this game I was going to play, but it bore a strong similarity to that which I made a fool of myself doing in Wisconsin. Basically, an object is placed on the field and I, through the crowd’s “hot” or “cold” exhortations, had to find it.
The sting of Wisconsin-based on-field failure was still fresh in my mind, and I was ready for some Oregon-style redemption.
Except, no. My shot at redemption was postponed due to unforeseen circumstances.
What unforeseen circumstances, you might ask? Well, here’s my answer to that question:
All will be revealed in Part Two of this Hillsboro saga, which, sadly, will be 2013′s final “On the Road” post. We’ll always have the memories.