Travel: Pro baseball in the Northwest

Slideshow: A visitors’ guide to minor-league ball in four states

Published Aug 17, 2014 at 12:13AM

EUGENE — When the Eugene Emeralds hosted the annual all-star game for minor-league baseball’s Northwest League on Aug. 5, the score was of little account: The game ended in a 10-inning, 0-0 tie.

What was more important, 50 professional players from eight teams in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia entertained thousands of spectators, who filled PK Park at the University of Oregon to watch not only fastballs and fielding gems, but also a celebrity softball game and an appearance by Reggy the Purple Party Dude, a nationally known, slapstick fantasy character with french fries for hair.

“We focus on the fan experience first, on wins and losses second,” said Mike Ellis, the president of the Northwest League. “Fans want to have a fun, family experience at an affordable price.”

That doesn’t mean it was all fun and games for the players, whose ages ranged from 18 to 24. After a lengthy pre-game autograph session, they toiled through three hours of scoreless ball in the hope of raising the eyebrows of major league scouts. Clearly, the pitchers were more impressive than the hitters.

Second baseman Travious Relaford of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, playing for the South in the Northwest League All-Star Game, cuts off a throw on an attempted double steal and fires home to catch a runner trying to score. The game lasted 10 innings and ended in a 0-0 tie.

Barb Gonzalez / The Bulletin

There are about 250 players in the Class A Northwest League. Maybe a dozen of them, and that’s a big maybe, will someday play major league baseball. A few may, indeed, become huge stars — as did Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Ozzie Smith, Mike Piazza and Felix Hernandez, all of whom started their professional careers in the Northwest in the past four decades. The vast majority will become high-school coaches. Or insurance agents, auto mechanics or wheat farmers.

For those just out of school, however, the Northwest League is a field of dreams. It’s a step above the 12-team West Coast League (WCL), the summer collegiate program of which the Bend Elks are a member: The best of the Elks’ players have their fingers crossed that they may someday be lucky enough to play in the Northwest League, if they are inked to pro contracts by major league programs.

Spokane second baseman Seth Spivey, one of the Northwest League's leading hitters (.350 through Aug. 11), awaits a pitch in a game at Salem-Keizer. Drafted this spring from Abilene Christian University, Spivey became a league all-star in his first year of professional baseball.

John Gottberg Anderson / The Bulletin

The “farm” system

The Northwest League is an eight-team “short-season” league with teams in Eugene, Salem, Hillsboro; Everett, Spokane and the Tri-Cities, Washington; Boise, Idaho, and Vancouver, B.C. It is a Class A league, playing a short, 76-game season from mid-June to Labor Day. So, too is the Pioneer League, which has another eight teams in towns across the northern Rocky Mountains, including Missoula, Montana, and Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The only other professional teams in the Northwest are in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, and they are linked at the hip. The Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers, playing in the 16-team, 144-game Pacific Coast League, shuttle their top players to the major league Seattle Mariners, a half-hour’s drive north.

There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball and more than 180 minor-league “farm” teams, located in nearly every American state. Each big-league organization has a working agreement with a half-dozen minor-league teams, rated according to the level of development of their players. There are 30 AAA teams, 30 AA teams, 60 long-season A teams, 30 short-season A teams, and a variety of rookie-league programs in the United States, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

After signing a professional contract, a young prospect is assigned to a minor-league team by the major league organization. The Seattle Mariners, for instance, might start a player with the Everett Aquasox in the Northwest League, and as his talents blossom, move him up in their system — to the Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings of the Class A Midwest League; to the High Desert (Adelanto, Calif.) Mavericks of the Class A California League; to the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals of the Class AA Southern League; and finally to the Tacoma Rainiers.

It often takes four to six years for a talent player to climb from the low minors to the major leagues. Along the way, they learn more than baseball.

Growing up

“Player development is much more than on the field,” said Matt Ellis, executive vice president of the Pioneer League’s Missoula Osprey and the son of Northwest League president Mike Ellis. “Our expectations are that they will be professional on and off the field. We want them involved in community activities outside of baseball” — including support of a variety of nonprofit community ventures, on-field and off.

Frank Gonzales, pitching coach for the Tri-City Dust Devils of the Northwest League, put it more succinctly: “Part of my job is to be a dad or a schoolteacher,” he told me in an interview. “A lot of these kids have never been away from home before. They have to learn to handle money, to budget, to make good choices in life. I have to reward them or teach them consequences.”

Sluggo, beloved mascot of the Eugene Emeralds, kibitzes with a hometown player before the start of the Northwest League All-Star Game in Eugene on Aug. 5. A giant, inflatable balloon of Sluggo greets visits outside the main entrance to the University of Oregons PK Park.

Barb Gonzalez / The Bulletin

I’ve been a fan of minor-league baseball since I was 11 years old, when I began going to Eugene Emeralds games in old Bethel Park. Before the stadium was demolished in 1969, I was able to watch many future San Francisco Giants cut their professional teeth there.

I retraced childhood steps last month in making a circuit of minor-league parks around the Northwest. League scheduling allowed me to attend home games in nine different parks in nine consecutive days.

In the Northwest League, I missed only Vancouver, B.C. But I added Tacoma and Missoula to my loop, which began in Eugene on July 25 and ended in Boise on Aug. 2. In between, I stopped into Salem, Hillsboro, Tacoma, Everett, the Tri-Cities, Spokane and Missoula, in that order. And I capped off my trip with a return to Eugene for the Aug. 5 league all-star game.

What follows is a personal visitors’ guide to 10 professional baseball parks in the Pacific Northwest.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com

Northwest League

Boise Hawks

Boise Hawks logo

I felt kind of sorry for the 8-year-old birthday boy who tried and failed, three times, to throw a pitch through the door of a dryer during a promotion. He could have won a year’s supply of laundry detergent, courtesy of Arm & Hammer. To me, that sounds more like a gift for Mom.

The city of Boise has talked about building a new stadium. It’s badly needed. Memorial Stadium is a bandbox, with three bleacher-style grandstands, two outfield tents and lots of wraparound netting. The field dimensions are standard, but it feels small, especially when a 5-foot-9, 18-year-old Venezuelan infielder, Franklin Barreto, could drill the third pitch of the game 400 feet over the center-field wall. He did it again two innings later.

That Boise is a farm team for the beleaguered Chicago Cubs is not lost on Hawks fans, who came clad in Cubs hats and T-shirts, singing “Go Cubs Go” as if they were at Wrigley Field.

Team contact: 208-322-5000, www.boisehawks.com. Affiliate of Chicago Cubs.

Stadium: Memorial Stadium, 5600 N. Glenwood St., Boise, Idaho. Seats 3,426. General admission $7, box seats $12 to $15, parking free.

Boise Hawks mascot Humphrey

Mascots: Humphrey Hawk, a too-cool-for-school dude who wears sunglasses at night.

Concessions: Look for Basque chorizo sausage at Garrett’s Grill.

Lodging: The league recommends the Boise Hotel & Conference Center, 3300 Vista Ave., Boise, Idaho; 208-343-4900, www.theboisehotel.com (rates from $69). My choice is the Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner, 1800 Fairview Ave., Boise, Idaho; 208-344-7691, www.redlion.com (rates from $96)

Eugene Emeralds

Eugene Emeralds logo

My visit to PK Park, next to Autzen Stadium in Eugene, rekindled many memories. They weren’t reflections on the $19 million stadium, as it only opened in 2010, but of baseball in Eugene in general. The press box, for instance, is named in honor of John Conrad, the late former sports editor of the Eugene Register-Guard, and an old friend.

Memorials to two Oregon baseball coaches of the 1960s and 1970s, Don Kirsch and Mel Krause, both of whom I deeply admired, stand side-by-side atop a concrete ramp that climbs to the concourse atop the right-field stands. I had to laugh that a Grateful Dead cover band had set up to perform beside them one evening. Neither man was a fan of rock music.

Team contact: 541-342-5367, www.emeraldsbaseball.com. Affiliate of San Diego Padres.

Stadium: PK Park, 2760 Martin Luther King Blvd., Eugene. Seats 4,000. Artificial grass with dirt infield. General admission $7, box seats $10, parking $3.

Eugene Emeralds mascot Sluggo

Mascot: Sluggo looks like a green Fozzie Bear from the Muppets. Sasquatch swings a fir tree as a bat on the logo.

Concessions: Thai ginger-chicken wrap, Reuben bratwurst on a pretzel bun, Humm Kombucha, Oakshire and Ninkasi beers.

Lodging: The league recommends the Holiday Inn Eugene-Springfield, 919 Kruse Way, Springfield; 541-284-0636, www.hieugenehotel.com (rates from $116). My choice is the Phoenix Inn Suites, 850 Franklin Blvd., Eugene; 541-344-0001, www.phoenixinn.com (rates from $69).

Everett Aquasox

Everett Aquasox logo

It was a tough night. The young woman singing “The Star Spangled Banner” began sobbing when she hit the high note of “the rockets’ red glare” and the crowd had to finish the national anthem without her. A concessionaire tossing T-shirts into the crowd put one into the press box, where he took out the wireless microphone of a not-at-all-amused public-address announcer.

I half-expected that a unique, 10-foot stutter in the right-field fence would cause a line drive to ricochet in an odd direction, allowing someone to stretch a double into a triple and perhaps win the game. Owned by the local school district, the stadium feels much older than 1989, the year it was built. Football and track fields are wedged against its right-field and left-field walls, and locker rooms are on the ground floor of an adjacent administration building.

Team contact: 425-258-3673, www.aquasox.com. Affiliate of Seattle Mariners.

Stadium: Everett Memorial Stadium, 3900 Broadway, Everett, Wash. Seats 3,682. Natural turf. General admission $8, box seats $12 and $14, parking $6.

Everett Aquasox mascot Webbly

Mascot: Webbly is a frog. He may not actually be able to stick his tongue out to catch fly balls, but he is very entertaining.

Concessions: Terracotta Red has Asian bistro cuisine. Many players, after batting practice, rush to buy chicken strips and garlic fries at a concourse window behind third base.

Lodging: The league recommends the Holiday Inn Downtown, 3105 Pine St., Everett, Wash.; 425-339-2000, www.hieverett.com (rates from $114). My choice is the Hotel Max, 620 Stewart St., Seattle; 206-728-6299, www.provenancehotels.com (rates from $139).

Hillsboro Hops

Hillsboro Hops logo

The beautiful new Ron Tonkin Field has been open for less than two years. The organist has adopted Pharrell Williams’ hit song, “Happy,” as a theme, renaming it “I’m Hoppy”: “Clap along if it’s what you feel, because ‘hoppiness’ is the truth.”

Baseball came to Hillsboro, a west Portland suburb of about 97,000 people, after the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers were sold in 2010 and moved to Arizona. During my visit, I was introduced to Keenan Longcor, who saved home plate from the last Beavers’ game and now displays it in the Hillsboro stadium. Longcor is the founder of an organization called Friends of Baseball, which promotes youth baseball in underprivileged communities.

Team contact: 503-640-0887, www.hillsborohops.com. Affiliate of Arizona Diamondbacks.

Stadium: Ron Tonkin Field, 4460 N.W. 229th Ave., Hillsboro. Seats 4,710. All artificial turf, including infield. General admission $7, box seats $14 and $16, parking $5.

Hillsboro Hops mascot Barley

Mascot: Barley is a giant hop. I wonder if he knows only female hops are used in beer.

Concessions: I had a banh mi (Vietnamese pork sandwich) and a lightly hopped Bridgeport Long Ball Lager. You can also get caprese salads and Philippine chicken adobo.

Lodging: The league recommends the Comfort Inn & Suites, 3500 N.E. Cornell Road, Hillsboro; 503-648-3500, www.comfortsuites.com (rates from $149). My choice is the newly renovated Sentinel Hotel, 614 11th Ave., Portland; 503-224-3400, www.provenancehotels.com (rates from $239).

Salem-Keizer Volcanoes

Salem-Keizer Volcanoes logo

Salem-Keizer is the only Northwest team whose games you can watch as you drive past the stadium on Interstate 5 — albeit for no more than a pitch, if you’re lucky.

The degree to which the Volcanoes work with the local community was apparent in a Ladies Night promotion on July 26. A young woman was picked from the crowd, supposedly at random, to throw out the first ball of the night. Her slightly errant toss was retrieved by a masked catcher, who returned the ball to her with an engagement ring and a wedding proposal. It was her boyfriend, who had gone to great lengths to surprise her. She said yes.

Team contact: 503-390-2225, www.volcanoesbaseball.com. Affiliate of San Francisco Giants.

Stadium: Volcanoes Stadium, 6700 Field of Dreams Way N.E., Keizer. Seats 4,252. Natural grass and dirt. General admission $10, box seats $14, parking $4.

Salem-Keizer Volcanoes mascot Crater

Mascot: Crater looks like a baseball-headed dinosaur relative with a poor complexion. I don’t know what he is supposed to be, but the kids seem to love him.

Concessions: Healthy Hut sells Southwestern chicken wraps, gyros, salads and pizza by the slice. Talk about healthy!

Lodging: The league recommends the Comfort Suites, 630 Hawthorne Ave. S.E., Salem; 503-585-9705, www.comfortsuites.com (rates from $125).

Spokane Indians

Spokane Indians logo

Eastern Washington’s largest city once flourished as a rail shipping center for the grain farms and lumber mills of the so-called Inland Empire, so it’s fitting the Spokane’s rail yards still sprawl just beyond the right and center-field stands at Avista Stadium. Every game, it seems, is at some point interrupted by the whistle of a departing Burlington Northern freight train. And within the park itself is The Depot, a special-events railcar diner with a full bar. It sits beside a cut right-field corner with a 296-foot home-run porch, the shortest in the Northwest League.

Children are special guests at every minor-league park, but Spokane has gone the extra mile with its elaborate Kids Zone amusement area, along with clowns, face painters and a live band in its outer concourse area. A dedicated wiffle-ball diamond is slated for expansion before the 2015 baseball season.

Team contact: 509-535-2922, www.spokaneindiansbaseball.com. Affiliate of Texas Rangers.

Stadium: Avista Stadium, 602 N. Havana St., Spokane, Wash. Seats 6,803. General admission $5, box seats $11, parking free.

Spokane Indians mascot Otto

Mascots: Otto and his female companion, Doris the Spokanasaurus, don’t miss a game.

Concessions: “The Heater” is an Italian sausage wrapped in fried bacon, topped with cheddar and jalapeno peppers, and served on a pretzel bun.

Lodging: The league recommends the Mirabeau Park Hotel, 1100 N. Sullivan Road, Spokane, Wash.; 509-924-9000, www.mirabeauparkhotel.com (rates from $76.50). My choice is the Red Lion Hotel at the Park, 303 W. North River Drive, Spokane, Wash.; 509-326-8000, www.redlion.com (rates from $137)

Tri-City Dust Devils

Tri City Dust Devils logo

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Gesa Stadium, financed by a local credit union, is the pair of legs that disappear over the right-field fence behind a medical facility’s sign calling upon patients to “Drop In!” It requires a double-take. Located amidst farmland, the stadium features field boxes that extend to within 20 feet of the foul lines behind first and third bases.

The Dust Devils, like the Spokane Indians, are owned by George Brett, a Hall of Fame third baseman who played from 1973 to 1993, and his brother, Bobby. Frank Gonzales, the Dust Devils’ pitching coach, said he encourages his players to be fearless like Brett while adjusting “to the everyday grind of the game.”

Gonzales’ own 22-year-old son, Marco Gonzales, leapfrogged rookie ball as a 2013 first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals from Gonzaga University. After pitching two major league games this summer, young Marco now pitches for AAA Memphis.

Team contact: 509-544-8789, www.dustdevilsbaseball.com. Affiliate of Colorado Rockies.

Stadium: Gesa Stadium, 6200 Burden Blvd., Pasco, Wash. Seats 3,700. Natural turf. General admission $7 and $8, box seats $9 and $10, parking $3.

Tri-City Dust Devils mascot Dusty

Mascot: Dusty is a friendly Dust Devil. You wouldn’t know it from looking at him.

Concessions: The usual options — burgers and dogs, pizza and burritos — are complemented by red and white Kiona table wines from nearby Red Mountain terroir.

Lodging: The league recommends the Red Lion Columbia Center, 1101 N. Columbia Center Blvd., Kennewick, Wash.; 509-783-0611, www.redlion.com (rates from $89). My choice is the Red Lion Hotel Hanford House, 802 George Washington Way, Richland, Wash.; 509-946-7611, www.redlion.com (rates from $117).

Vancouver Canadians

I didn’t make it to Vancouver on my Northwest baseball trip. The schedule didn’t cooperate, and I would have had a very long post-game drive to the Tri-Cities. Besides, this metropolis is much more attuned to hockey than to baseball, eh? The stadium was built in 1951.

Team contact: 604-872-5232, www.canadiansbaseball.com. Affiliate of Toronto Blue Jays.

Stadium: Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, 4601 Ontario St., Vancouver, B.C. Seats 5,157. General admission $12.50, box seats $16, parking $7.

Mascot: Bob Brown Bear is a kids’ favorite, named for Vancouver’s late “Mr. Baseball,” Bob Brown.

Concessions: There’s a pretty good chance the park sells poutine, that Canadian classic of French fries, smothered in gravy and sprinkled with cheese curds.

Lodging: The league recommends the Accent Inn Vancouver-Airport, 10551 St. Edwards Drive, Richmond, B.C.; 604-273-3311, www.accentinns.com (rates from C$108).

Pioneer League

Missoula Osprey

Missoula Osprey logo

How likely is it that a sports franchise will have its mascot living right in its facility, let alone in its natural habitat? In Missoula, an entire family of osprey lives in a nest box raised high above the right-field fence — Mom, Dad and three healthy chicks. Twice during the team’s Aug. 1 game versus Helena, one of the adults soared over the field, showing off a fish from the nearby Clark Fork river that it had clutched in its talons. “They can be real hams,” said Matt Ellis, the team’s executive vice president.

The team clings tight to its osprey image, from its white-feathered mascot, Ollie Osprey, to the words painted atop the dugout where visiting players sit: “Bird Food.” I would have bestowed that title upon the park’s Blackfoot Party Deck, which rendered the most out-of-tune, seventh-inning version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” that I have ever heard.

The right-field wall is only 287 feet down the foul line. But it rises 30 feet above the field, assuring that simple line drives don’t become home runs.

Team contact: 406-543-3300, www.missoulaosprey.com. Affiliate of Arizona Diamondbacks.

Stadium: Ogren Park Allegiance Field, 700 Cregg Lane, Missoula, Mont. Seats 3,500. General admission $8, box seats $12, parking $4.

Missoula Osprey mascot Ollie

Mascot: Ollie Osprey often gets his feathers ruffled.

Concessions: Nothing special, but they do have a veggie burger.

Lodging: The league recommends the Hilton Garden Inn, 3720 N. Reserve St., Missoula; 406-532-5300, hiltongardeninn3.hilton.com (rates from $119). My choice is the Red Lion Inn & Suites, 700 W. Broadway, Missoula; 406-728-3300, www.redlion.com (rates from $106).

Pacific Coast League

Tacoma Rainiers

Tacoma Rainiers logo

Majestic Mount Rainier rises beyond the right-field corner of Cheney Stadium, where baseball has been played from April into early September since 1960. As if to emphasize the peak’s presence, an animated version of the team’s reindeer mascot, Rhubarb, competes midway through the game in a video-game version of a “Race down Rainier” on snowboards.

Veteran manager Roy Howell, 60, said his team is “always developing and learning.”

“Just because it’s Triple A doesn’t mean they know how to play,” he said. “The Northwest League may be a little more hands-on, but the bottom line is execution. At our level, we may have to sacrifice something to give a learning lesson. That’s just the way it is in the minor-league system.”

Team contact: 253-752-7707, www.tacomarainiers.com. Affiliate of Seattle Mariners.

Stadium: Cheney Stadium, 2502 S. Tyler St., Tacoma. Seats 7,200. Natural turf. General admission $13.50, box seats $25.50. Parking $5.

Tacoma Rainiers mascot Rhubarb

Mascot: Rhubarb is said to be a reindeer, but he looks like a miniature version of the Mariner Moose, up the road in Seattle.

Concessions: Choices are disappointing for a Triple A ballpark, but you can still get a decent burger or hot dog and a beer.

Lodging: Teams and fans both stay at the Hotel Murano, 1320 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, Wash.; 253-238-8000, www.provenancehotels.com (rates from $189)

Next week: Seeking syrah in Walla Walla