At times, during Bend Elks games, Michael Hirko cannot help but reflect.
It is not the in-game action that catches Hirko’s eyes, but rather the action between the action. A young batboy, decked out in a full Elks uniform and an oversized batting helmet, will race from the home dugout at Vince Genna Stadium to retrieve a bat at home plate.
It is a baseball tradition that Hirko reveres — and fondly remembers. That was his beginning with the Elks. Sixteen years before becoming the franchise’s 24-year-old general manager, Hirko was in that batboy’s cleats. Today, Hirko is in an unexpected, yet most welcomed, position.
“It’s cool to think that was me and seeing how far I’ve come,” Hirko says. “It’s wild. But it also seems forever ago.”
With the exception of two years when he pitched for the summer collegiate Klamath Falls Gems, Hirko, who graduated from Bend High in 2011, has worked for the Elks every summer since he was an 8-year-old batboy. Elks baseball is ingrained in Hirko’s life.
He became familiar with Genna Stadium and learned the business of running a franchise while working for previous Elks owner and general manager Jim Richards for more than 10 years. Hirko’s parents are longtime season-ticket holders and serve as a host family for Elks players. His older brother Johnny played for the team, and his older sister Katie was a stadium worker.
Michael met his fiancee, Elks director of marketing and sales Kelsie Marick, while she was an intern with the team in 2012. And Hirko’s soon-to-be in-laws, John and Tami Marick, are the current owners of Bend’s West Coast League franchise.
A history major and pitcher at George Fox before graduating from the Newberg university in 2015, Hirko was looking for employment opportunities that put his degree to work, perhaps at the local museum. He was interested in once again working for the Elks but never intended to find a full-time gig with the team. He was the assistant general manager last year for Casey Powell, who unexpectedly stepped away from the Elks just prior to this season. Now, Hirko, once a starry-eyed batboy, has taken the reins as the team’s GM.
“I think it’s just a happy coincidence,” the soft-spoken Hirko says, a brief grin peeking from beneath his trimmed beard. “I never saw this happening. … But it’s awesome.”
Hirko is at home at Genna Stadium. This season, he says, he and Kelsie have spent upward of 18 hours a day at the ballpark. Occasionally he will catch a quick nap on the couch in his upstairs office overlooking the field from the adjacent Bend Fieldhouse. But Hirko says he will make up for lost sleep during the offseason. He has a baseball team to help run.
And there may be no one better suited to do so.
“He’s been around that stadium for so long, he knows the ins and outs and has been involved in the WCL as a player (with Klamath Falls),” says Elks co-owner John Marick. “It just gives him the ideal background.”
“In terms of the nuts and bolts of the business, the operational part of it, he was well-versed on how the machine runs,” says Richards, who founded the Elks in 2000 and was the owner and general manager until selling the franchise in 2014. “He’s got the love of the game of baseball. He’s been around it his entire life. I would think there’s an automatic passion mechanism to want to see it (the Elks franchise) do well. He’s been around it for such a long time that it’s only natural he’d want to see it continue to thrive.”
Hirko says it is still odd to divvy up odd jobs among Elks employees. For so long, as he helped clean and maintain Genna Stadium from the turnstiles to the toilets, Hirko was used to receiving orders. He also never had to worry himself with filling out Elks rosters. Now, he collaborates with Alan Embree, the team’s coach and director of baseball operations, to recruit players.
During Elks games, Hirko can be spotted making the rounds at the stadium. He catches what he can of the games, even if only an inning or two from the window of a concession stand. He is always thinking of how to improve not only the on-field product but also the fan experience — such as shortening concession and restroom lines and making Elks employees more visible with brightly colored, matching polos sporting the team’s gold logo on the front.
“He knows a lot of the inner workings of the stadium and the Fieldhouse (the indoor practice facility, baseball equipment store and home to Elks offices),” Richards says. “From the day-to-day business aspect, they’re not going to miss a beat with him there.”
“We feel like we can trust him in that role,” says John Marick, assuring that there was no nepotism when it came to hiring Hirko as the general manager. “Because we’re completely hands off (as owners) and letting (Hirko and Kelsie Marick) run the whole organization, we needed to make sure there was somebody there that could do a good job. The fact that he will shortly be part of our family is great, but at the end of the day, we feel like he’s a great person for that role, as well.”
Hirko does not travel with the Elks on road trips. He stays behind, minding the organization, overseeing operations and working to make the stadium and its atmosphere more enjoyable for fans. The pay is decent enough, Hirko says of his full-time, year-round job. Nothing extravagant, but combined with Kelsie’s earnings, he adds, it is enough to get by.
But money is not a big issue with Hirko. All he cares about is being at Genna Stadium, wearing Elks attire, and helping run the franchise he got his start with 16 years ago as a batboy.
“It’s baseball. Baseball’s been my life,” Hirko says. “I get to work with it every day at a ballpark I grew up with. It’s kind of like a win-win.”
—Reporter: 541-383-0307, email@example.com.