Friday, October 15, 2021
Oct. 15, 2021

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Micah Rice: West Coast League baseball should be a hit

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By , Columbian Sports Editor
Published:

Vancouver nearly landed a minor league baseball team in 2011, but struck out.

So news that the West Coast League will expand to Ridgefield next year comes as a relief to Clark County baseball fans.

And while it might not be the home run that landing what is now the Hillsboro Hops would have been, the arrival of college-level summer baseball in Clark County should be a hit.

The still-unnamed team will play at the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex, a 53-acre sporting facility that is under construction and set to be complete in September.

Curious as to what fans can expect, last week I went to home games at the two nearest West Coast League teams, the Portland Pickles and the Cowlitz Black Bears in Longview.

What I saw was an on-field product that compares well to short-season single-A professional baseball and a fan experience that was family-friendly and enjoyable.

With Ridgefield, the West Coast League will have 12 teams in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The schedule and travel resemble the minor leagues, with roughly 60 games from early June until playoffs start in mid-August. Wooden bats are used.

Teams consist of college players, most of whom play for major programs. Many are underclassmen looking to showcase their talents ahead of their junior year, after which college-signed players become eligible for the Major League Baseball draft.

Though West Coast League rosters have players from across the nation, there is a heavy concentration of Northwest players. On Portland’s 41-man roster, 17 play for the University of Portland, Gonzaga, Washington State, Washington, Oregon or Oregon State.

That includes Clark County players Brody Barnum (Skyview/Washington State), Daniel Copeland (Skyview/Gonzaga) and Jace McKinney (Columbia River/Portland).

Prior to last Thursday’s game at Walker Stadium in Southeast Portland, both Barnum and Copeland said playing for the Pickles has been a thrill. Both said they relish the chance to play in a setting that resembles minor-league baseball and hone their skills ahead of next season, when Barnum will be a sophomore and Copeland a freshman.

Portland drew more than 2,600 fans three times last week, including a franchise record of 2,807 on July 3. That’s far above the typical West Coast League attendance, which is about 1,000.

“I’ve never played in front of this many people,” Barnum said.

Barnum and Copeland said players are encouraged to interact with fans, who for $10 can sit at picnic tables in the bullpen with players.

The Pickles, which were formed in 2015, benefit by having an engaged and enthusiastic ownership, which includes Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan.

The team has put a priority on being different and fun. A promotion last season included “Tackle Jon Ryan Night,” where kids under 12 tackled the punter on the field en masse.

Last week, a “Thirsty Thursday” promotion ($2 beer) drew a crowd that was, shall we say, festive on the grass berm down the left-field line, where my family sat for $7 per ticket. Concessions include deep-fried pickles. You might find a 7-foot-tall Pickle mascot named Dillon sitting in your lawn chair if you leave it unoccupied.

The crowd was smaller (about 500) the following evening at Story Field in Longview. There was still a full slate of between-inning entertainment for youngsters and specials from a Longview microbrewery for the adults. The game was highlighted by eight innings of stellar pitching from Cowlitz’s Zach Heaton and three defensive gems by third baseman Andres Sosa, both who play collegiately in Texas.

Though the West Coast League fan experience is fun, there are some elements of short-season Single-A baseball that can’t be re-created. Teams don’t have an affiliation with Major League clubs, so you don’t have the trill of following players through one farm system. You won’t have the buzz of a franchise’s top draft pick arriving in town.

The Hillsboro Hops are averaging 3,400 fans this season, have won two Northwest League titles in the past three years and have been a boon to businesses near the stadium.

One can only imagine the benefit to businesses on upper Main Street had local government not balked on funding a stadium near Clark College.

But when the Ridgefield team (please name them the Mashers) arrives, it will be a nice addition to the Clark County sports scene.

Southwest Washington is growing in population and sophistication. It’s great to see new projects take root.
In this case, the national pastime is a step into the future.

Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, micah.rice@columbian.com or via Twitter @col_mrice.

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