Results tagged ‘ Pacific Northwest ’

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.

An endangered species

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.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: Idiosyncrasies Amidst a Somnabulant Sunday in Salem

I’ve been at this “gig” for quite a while now, and therefore have at least a rudimentary idea of what sort of ballpark atmosphere is to be expected at most Minor League locales. It’s my job to know such things.

But there are still some teams out there that, for whatever reason, I’ve had very little contact with through the years. The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, your Class A Short-Season affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, are one of them.  So when I pulled into the parking lot at Volcanoes stadium, I had very little idea what to expect. Who were these “Volcanoes,” and what were they about?

From the outside, my first reference point was that of fellow short-season entity the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. For, like the Scrappers, the Volcanoes’ stadium is located within a vast expanse of consumer-catering big box entities. Asphalt, asphalt everywhere.

But on the inside, it was not Mahoning Valley that came to mind. My interior reference point was High Desert’s Mavericks Stadium; for, like High Desert, Volcanoes Stadium is sun-bleached and a bit older-seeming that its actual age (the facility opened in 1997). There is an open concourse (I estimate that it is about 315 degrees, allowing access to all but center field) and both regular and bleacher seating abounds.

And while the view from the front is dominated by asphalt, behind the stadium lies a desolate farmland frontier.

During my attempts to document this beyond-the-outfield environment, I was approached by a pair of “broadcast assistants” from the visiting Vancouver Canadians. That’s Jeremy on the left and K.P. on the right.

It was the first road trip of the season for both of them (a “reward,” more or less, for a job well done), and to celebrate this momentous occurrence they taped an interview with me in which I hyped my impending visit to Vancouver. I’m not sure if this interview ever materialized online, but if it did it was no doubt enjoyed by a couple of people. Several, even.

After my brief brush with recognition, I commenced my pre-game wanderings. While not quite reaching High Desert “Sky Box” levels of utilitarianism, Volcanoes Stadium offers a decidedly no-frills atmosphere. But who needs frills, anyway?

This is the kid’s area, one of very few I’ve ever seen to be inflatable-free:

Down the left field line one finds the Lava Lodge, from which emanated the intricate Parisian prog-rock stylings of Magma (not really).

The dugouts, meanwhile, are veritable craters.

My pre-game wandering also yielded sights such as the “baseball garden” and “the world’s largest Volcanoes jersey.”

My wandering then reached heroic proportions, as I fearlessly ascended the stairs to the stadium’s second level.

Many of the suites were decorated according to the whims of the season ticket holders who had paid to occupy them.

Meanwhile, down below, the hometown team met with local Rotarians in a pre-game receiving line.

They then retreated to the right field line to engage in pepper games.

I made my way behind home plate for the singing of the National Anthem…

And then, finally, it was time to, as the umpires say, “Play Ball!”

Vancouver Canadians announcer Rob Fai was there to narrate all of the action, live and direct from this sepulchral concrete chamber.

I soon came across this affable intern, who was wheeling what has to be Minor League Baseball’s most idiosyncratic souvenir cart.

All of the souvenirs were $5, and I was informed that this year’s number one seller is the Mohawk Wig (complete with flashing LED light display). But, being nine years old in spirit, I was particularly enamored with this.

Despite the rampant availability of the above item, not once during the ballgame did I hear the sweet sounds of simulated flatulence. To the children in attendance on this beautiful Sunday evening: I am disappointed in you.

But anyway. My encounter with the idiosyncratic souvenir cart directly segued into an encounter with a most idiosyncratic mascot. Meet Crater.

I didn’t have much time to interact with this red-eyed baseball-headed mythical beast, due to other social obligations. An individual named Jared Ravich had arrived at the ballpark, with his wife Aquilla and two young children. Jared is a Senior Technical Producer for MLB Advanced Media, and, more specifically, he’s MiLB.com’s man behind the scenes. (Jared knows coding like the back of his hand, which he sees a lot of since his job requires him to be in front of a keyboard.)

When I caught up with Jared, he and his son Cal were inspecting a foul ball that had been tossed to them by relief pitcher Matthew “@Texecutioner” Graham.

But this thorough examination of Northwest League president Bob Richmond’s signature was interrupted by the appearance of three charismatic young vendors. As they made their way toward our spot in the right field berm, I heard the gentleman on the left make the following sales pitch to fans seated in the bleachers nearby: “Cotton Candy! It doubles as a pillow and is good for your soul.”

Amused by their antics, Jared called them over for a bag of Cracker Jacks. In exchange for this purchase, they offered to perform an a capella rendition of either “My Girl,” “Lean on Me,” or “a rap that we wrote.” As we had just heard the rap performance from the bleachers, we went with “My Girl.”

These guys were great, and, really, I should have gotten video (it was a bad day for my FlipCam, as well as reportorial initiative in general. I was off of my game).

So if you read this, teenaged vendor triumvirate: send me a video of your various routines and I would be more than happy to post on the blog. But, anyway, more than a bag of Cracker Jacks was going to be needed for our nine innings of sustenance. The Volcanoes concession options were surprisingly varied, all things considered.

But the area that seemed to be the most popular was the “Dog House,” featuring the so-called “Killer Kielbasa.”

pre-condiments

Such an item is now off-limits to me, because of celiac disease, but Jared had volunteered to be the evening’s “designated eater.” Here he is, about to take a gluten-filled bullet on my behalf. And with grace and dignity to spare:

Jared’s take on the Killer Kielbasa: “Oh, man, this is so messy and juicy. The relish is a necessary component, as it works as a lubricant and counteracts the saltiness. I’d give it a B to B+, but it’s the saltiest kielbasa in the world and too greasy for an A.”

I meanwhile, had some B to B+ garlic fries — heavy on the garlic!

Our seats offered a prime view of the home bullpen, where some rookies were getting ready to warm up.

The bullpen idiosyncrasies didn’t end there — this is a team that goes out of its way to protect its players from wayward foul balls.

As the sun set, the Ravich clan exited the ball park in order to start the long process of putting the young ones to bed. I, meanwhile, meandered slowly back toward the home plate area.

And it was from that vantage point that the game ended. The Volcanoes, suffering from a severe case of erupt-ile dysfunction, fell quietly by a score of 3-0.

I then observed local superhero “Blanket Man,” as he silently oversaw a post-game Run the Bases.

And, with that, it’s time to put a lid on this post.

Oh, wait…nevermind.

Then how about this?

Signing off from a sleepy Sunday evening in Salem-Keizer, with a song in my heart and sunshine on my shoulder.

I remain MLBAM’s most idiosyncratic blogger.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: A “Pre”requisite Postscript to an Evening in Eugene

The first installment of our riveting two-part Eugene adventure ended just before the gates opened for Saturday’s game. Fans were lined up outside, in order to receive one of the bobbleheads contained within this intimidating stack of boxes:

But who was the evening’s honoree? What, exactly, was in the box? A significant clue soon appeared in the form of this distinguished guest, seen here posing with a local on-air personality who was in the employ of the evening’s media sponsor.

That’s Neta Prefontaine, older sister of track and field luminary Steve Prefontaine (a highly-influential and record-setting University of Oregon superstar who died in a car accident in 1975 at the age of 24). As you can see, Neta was decked out in a shirt and hat honoring her brother. And, of course, it was Steve Prefontaine who was the evening’s bobblehead honoree.

But the “pre”scient among us could have already “pre”dicted this.

Here’s another pic (provided by the team) which offers a better sense of scale as well as a view of PK Park’s artificial playing surface.

As part of the evening’s festivities, the scoreboard featured the following display throughout the game (“Stop” were the opposing Salem-Keizer Volcanoues and “Pre” were the Emeralds).

The scoreboard graphic is a nod to the famous “Stop Pre” t-shirts, which were made in response to the legions of fans who yelled “Go Pre” at every race (and often wore “Go Pre” t-shirts). It’s all a little confusing, as the “Stop Pre” shirts were worn by fans of other runners but, also, by irony-adept Prefontaine fans (as well s Prefontaine himself).

The on-field MC (whose name, I want to say, was Alex) was certainly in the Prefontaine spirit.

Fear thy pen-holding fist!

Neta Prefontaine, a most exuberant woman, threw out the first pitch. (The successful delivery thereof was a cause for celebration.)

Sluggo’s embrace came just after he had made his first on-field appearance, following an intro video that had something to do with his contentious relationship with a tree (really).

Another notable on-field character was the 11-year-old son of Ems manager Pat Murphy — I am having trouble finding his name anywhere in my notes, but as you can see he is quite at ease amidst the professional baseball environment. This kid (who at the time this picture was taken was talking about how he’d one day have his own San Diego Padres bobblehead, in which he’d be “pimping” a home run) has style to spare.

Too much style, perhaps. For shortly after this picture was taken his father (a legendary head coach at ASU before entering the pro ranks) declared that the flamboyant bright green shoes seen above had earned him a “Johnny Junior College” fine. This is the Ems version of kangaroo court, in which those who have earned the manager’s ire must differentiate themselves on field during the National Anthem by standing ahead of the rest of the team.

Johnny Junior College offenders: 31, 4, 27

And, wow — it took me 1500+ words over the span of two posts, but we’ve finally made it to the ballgame’s first pitch! Things slowed down from here on out, as evidenced by the fact that I missed the first inning and a half in order to drive back to the hotel for my “back-up” camera (the original was running low on batteries). When I returned I was pleased to find that a robust crowd had settled in, and that the Minor League antics we’ve come to know and love were in full swing.

Uh, what?

The view from the press box was even better.

I’m running the poorly-composed photo seen below only because I want to make a quick note of the gentleman on the right. That’s official scorer George McPherson, who played for the Emeralds from 1974-77 (the team won the Northwest League championship in each of those first two years). If I’d been in Eugene for longer, I surely would have made McPherson the focus of a story. Very few people could be provide that sort of first-hand knowledge, regarding the immense changes that the franchise has gone through over the past four decades.

Another interesting press box denizen is a new addition this season: Jonathan Bilenki, organist.

Bilenki plays a Roland organ from the mid-90s, which is  in wedged sideways at the far end of the press box. He plays throughout the top (visitors) half of each inning, and ends his evening at the seventh-inning stretch. Bilenki, a Eugene-based music teacher, explained to me that the music that he plays falls into four categories: clapping prompts, short riffs, long riffs, and songs. He was hired by general manager Allan Benavides prior to the season, and while it was a bit awkward at first due to the difficulty of coordinating PA announcements, pre-recorded bits and the organ music, on the evening I was there it was a smoothly-functioning operation.

I am of the belief that more teams should do this — the organ helps create an old-time ballpark ambiance , serving as a nice counterbalance to the barrage of sound effects and pop music hits that are now such a huge part of the Minor League experience.

Alright, you knew it had to happen eventually: dinner time! At the suggestion of Benavides, I decided to visit a stand run by Hole in the Wall BBQ, which has locations in Eugene and Seattle. Here’s a horrible photograph I took of the stand earlier in the evening.

While sandwiches are off-limits for me due to (all together now) celiac disease, a nice sampler platter was arranged featuring pulled pork, brisket, cole slaw and potato salad. I can’t say for sure that this was all gluten-free, but let’s hope so. I must admit to a bit of laziness as of late on that front, as bun-avoidance has constituted the bulk of my ballpark eating strategy.

But anyway, here are the eats!

Getting set to dig in and, for whatever reason, looking more feminine than usual while doing it.

This was a fine plate of food, but not transcendent. The pulled pork was tender and altogether wonderful, but the brisket was a little tough and, overall, everything was a bit on the bland side. I wanted more bite, more spice, more tang. Benavides, a California native who has never been west east of Cleveland, told me that the Ems made a great Philly-style cheesesteak. I was all for documenting such an item, and swiftly appointed him the evening’s designated eater (meaning he who eats the foods that I, stricken with celiac disease, cannot).

The cheesesteak, which looks pretty good for a Philly-emulating product in the Pacific Northwest:

The general manager chowing down, as cartoon t-shirt Prefontaine looks on (those shirts, which featured the word “Eugene” in Ems font below Pre’s face, were worn by the staff and got a great fan response. Perhaps another batch will be produced?)

Okay, enough with the food. Let’s move on to the next order of business.

The following photo is the worst one in the post thus far, and Lord knows that’s saying something.

That was Salem-Keizer’s Stephen Yarrow, just after striking out. He was the ballgame’s “beer batter,” and as a result of his strikeout 14 ounce beers would be $3 for the next 15 minutes. A stampede ensued, and soon this was the scene at the beer stands.

Say what you will about Eugenians, but they sure love their discounted beer!

Eugenites (I’m pretty sure this is the name of a book in the Old Testament) are also engaged and knowledgeable baseball fans. There was a pulsating energy at the ballpark all evening, and a palpable sense that those in the stands actually cared about the game’s events (this is not always a given in Minor League Baseball, as many of you know).

Engaged partisan alert!

These fans saw a home team victory, which was followed by  little “closest to the pin” launch-a-ball action.

Good game, guys. Good game.

And, with that, a long day in Eugene finally came to a close. It’s time to go home, guys. It’s time to go home.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

On the Road: “Pre”lude to a Ballgame in Eugene

My current Pacific Northwest swing began in the city of Eugene, a college town with no shortage of cultural activities, natural beauty and eccentric characters. It’s the sort of place that almost immediately makes me think to myself that ‘Hey, I could be happy here.”

Instead of spending all of my time obsessing about the minutiae of Minor League Baseball, I could occupy myself in so many other ways. For instance, I could join Bagman in his noble (if not inherently self-hating) quest to rid the Earth of the scourge of plastic bags.

Or spend time in deep thought, listening to Father Yod on the headphones while interpreting the meaning behind psychedelic murals.

Or I could just say celiac disease be damned, and gorge on some of the most decadent donut creations known to man.

Froot Loops and Bacon

I’ll have more on all of the above Eugene attractions in a future post, as well as all sorts of stuff not even included in the above. But the whole point of this long and winding intro is not to prevaricate, it’s just to say that Eugene is great and, therefore, I was in a good mood when game time rolled around on Saturday evening. For on top of everything else, Eugene is a Minor League Baseball town. That’s the whole reason that I was there — to see Minor League Baseball! What a complete and total deviation from the norm.

The team in question is the Northwest League Emeralds, the Class A Short-Season affiliate of your (or someone’s) San Diego Padres. The Ems, as they are colloquially referred to, have undergone some major changes in over the past three years. In 2010, they moved from their longtime home of Civic Stadium (a now-crumbling edifice located in Eugene’s south side, more on that in aforementioned future post) in order to play in the shadow of this hulking behemoth:

That’s Autzen Stadium, which hosts University of Oregon football. The University’s sports teams are known as the “Ducks,” and as such you end up with signs such as this.

But where is the fan’s “bill” of rights?

The University added a baseball program in 2010, and a crucial component of this athletic initiative was the construction of a new stadium to accommodate these webbed denizens of the diamond: PK Park. This facility is also used by the Ems, who are in year three of a $2 million, 20-year lease agreement. (This agreement stipulates that the Ems receive access to the facility on June 1, although that didn’t quite happen this season.)

PK Park is located more or less next door to Autzen — the Medlar Field to its Beaver Stadium, if you will. (That analogy is 100% apt, as Eugene is indeed a very comparable situation to that which exists in State College.) And, even though I had hours in which to take a decent photograph, this is somehow the best exterior shot that I was able to take of the facility. (I have failed you, as I am wont to do. I won’t do it again, until I do):

The box office is located to the right of where this shot was taken. This area doubles as the Emeralds’ team offices as well.

And inside those offices, this was the sight that greeted visitors. If you’ve ever wanted to see what 1000 bobbleheads look like when they’re stacked in boxes on a ping-pong table (Lord knows that I have), then you’ve come to the right place.

Consider the above photo a “pre”view of what’s to come. And in addition to towering stacks of cardboard boxes, in the team offices one could find plenty of memorabilia related to past promotions as well.

But as for those mysterious boxes of bobbleheads — people were lined up outside of the park hours in advance of the gates opening, just so that they could procure that which was contained therein. I’m sure their enthusiasm contributed to a strong ticket “pre”sale.

See that dude in the middle of the line? He’s shirtless, and lying on his back directly on the asphalt. Like, “Well, if I’m gonna be waiting for this bobblehead than I may as well get some rays.” But I had no time for such lounging, instead opting for a short stadium tour with Ems GM Allan Benavides. The first picture I snapped on said tour was of one my favorite ballpark areas: the mascot changing room.

We then wandered into the Ems locker room, immediately after one of the worst attempts at “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” that the world has ever seen.

The training room was plastered with pictures of heartthrob reliever Matthew Chabot.

I later asked Chabot why his photo was so prevalent, and he explained that it was a “joke gone sour.” The gist of it was that he had jokingly (?) told an Ems employee that he had the prettiest face on the ballclub. In response these photocopied head shots were taped all over the stadium (including in some unlikely places), so that his teammates had as many opportunities as possible in which to appreciate his prettiness. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

I spoke with Chabot (now chagrined) on the field, as part of an informal “pre”-game chat. The scene:

From the field, I proceeded upward in order to procure photographs from various stadium elevations.

The line out front continued to grow.

Not everyone was on the outside looking in, as several hundred fans were inside PK Park as part of a group picnic for local healthcare employees.

I went downstairs for a closer look at the festivities, passing lounging players along the way.

I also perchanced to notice that the 1000 bobbleheads had migrated from their ping-pong table environs. In keeping with the sense of mystery that I have inexplicably tried to cultivate regarding these bobbleheads, please ignore what’s written on the boxes.

At the picnic area, the six players recruited to sign autographs for the assembled guests weren’t getting much attention.

12 o’clock, guys!

Sluggo (who, I learned, got his name because there are a ton of slugs in Eugene), will help you carry your beer.

Separated by a balloon

These sort of signs are common at ballparks nationwide, but I appreciated the creativity of “first base” being one of the destinations. You know, I’ve found myself in a lot of life situations where first base wasn’t nearly that close at hand.

We’re nearly 1100 words into this thing, and the gates haven’t even opened yet (yes, I am aware that I am consistently writing the lowest-stakes narratives to be found on the internet). You know what that means, right?

Right?

It means that this one is going to be a two-parter. Stay tuned for much more from Eugene (and then Salem, and then Yakima, and then Tacoma, and then Everett, and then Vancouver). I’m going to be writing about the 2012 Minor League season for the rest of my life, in other words. Could someone please fetch me a Pulitzer?

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

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