By Ryan Clarke • The Bulletin

It was a historically bad 2018 season for the Bend Elks, who finished with a record of 12-42 in the West Coast League — the worst league record ever for Central Oregon’s summer collegiate baseball franchise. General manager Michael Hirko is optimistic about the future, though, as the Elks prepare to host the annual WCL All-Star Game next season.

“It was a rough year on the field, but it was a learning year from my perspective,” Hirko explained last week after the Elks completed their 19th season. “We did pretty well off the field and fans still supported us. It was a fun season, even though our record didn’t show it.”

The pressure to win is not immense in the summer wood-bat league, but Hirko said he is not satisfied with turning out a poor product. He said ticket and concession sales were up in 2018 despite the team’s lackluster record, calling that trend a sign that fans truly support baseball in Bend. For 27 WCL home openings the Elks averaged 1,077 fans per game, up modestly from 1,059 per game in 2017.

“It’s awesome. It shows the true small-town feel of Bend even though it’s growing,” Hirko said. “The town is supporting us and getting behind us, and that feels good.”

On the field, the Elks were paced offensively by Ty Holmstrom from Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky, who led the team with a .294 batting average, six home runs and 24 RBI. Bend’s lineup was supplemented by Collin Runge (University of Portland), Alex Pallios (Chico State) and Tristen Alvarez (Fresno Pacific) — a trio that combined for 125 hits and 51 RBI. Runge, a graduate of Redmond’s Ridgeview High, batted .282 with five home runs and a team-high 10 stolen bases.

Pitching was largely a struggle. Bend’s most frequent starting pitchers — R.J. Robles (Missouri Western) and Daniel Naughton (Gonzaga) posted lofty ERAs of 5.88 and 7.75, respectively. Second-year head coach Allan Embree had reason to be pleased with his relievers, however. Sam Boone (Marshall University) and Brennan Patterson (Northwest Nazarene) were steadying, veteran presences out of the bullpen. Notably, Hirko said Embree is “more than welcome” to come back as head coach next season, but that he had not yet spoken with Embree on the subject.

What stood out most to Hirko about the 2018 Elks team was its collective character. He said that is not always a guarantee during the summer.

“They were a nice group of guys, very kind and respectable,” Hirko said. “I didn’t run into any issues with them in the clubhouse or off the field.”

Recruiting high-character players is a priority for Hirko this offseason, the Elks’ second-year GM said, in addition to shoring up the talent. Oregon State sending almost none of its players out for summer ball after winning the College World Series in late June prevented the Elks from adding a couple of Beavers players to their roster. Hirko said he will continue to pursue difference-makers from the Pac-12.

A full year at the helm allowed Hirko to examine what it takes to win in the West Coast League, and also what kind of ballplayers he wants around the clubhouse.

“When I look for a player in the future, there’s some key characteristics I’ll be looking for,” he said. “This was the first year that I’ve built a team. Last year’s was built by (former general manager) Casey Powell, so I’ve started to think more and more about my approach.”

Thankfully for Hirko, during a hectic and often stressful summer, he had his wife, Kelsie, by his side running marketing and sales for the team. When Kelsie’s family — parents John and Tami Marick — bought the team before the 2015 season, Hirko anticipated that he and Kelsie would be spending all of their time — at work and home — together.

“We haven’t regretted it since,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a lot of fun working with (Kelsie) — she’s so supportive, and she’s a lot more organized than I am.”

The Hirkos reported no troubling issues behind the scenes this season. Every year something will break or shut down, Michael said, but this year the team was lucky enough to avoid such misfortunes.

Next season, Elks management hopes its fortunes on the field improve as well. The community continues to show strong support, but most would agree that winning is always more fun to watch.

— Reporter: 541-383-0307,