No longer the new birds on the block, the Ridgefield Raptors are entering their fourth season with a newfound sense of stability.
After debuting in 2019, the collegiate wood bat baseball team was thrown a nasty curveball when the COVID pandemic wiped out the 2020 season.
But the Raptors overcame that adversity, reaching the West Coast League postseason in 2021 and then beating the Portland Pickles in a first-round playoff series last year.
That success and stability has Raptors general manager Gus Farah eyeing a more refined product on the field and off in 2023.
“What I told the staff at the beginning of this year is that we’re out of the desperation mode of survival and now we’re into finesse and details,” Farah said. “What does that mean? We need to make sure we’re putting on the best game.”
Ridgefield opens its season June 1 by hosting an exhibition game against the Cowlitz Black Bears at Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex. The Raptors then embark on a 54-game WCL season beginning with a six-game homestand against Corvallis, the defending champion, and Edmonton.
A non-league game against the Redmond Dudes is also scheduled for June 5, meaning Ridgefield plays its first eight games at home.
At the ballpark, Farah said fans will notice a few changes befitting a more-established franchise.
On busy nights, food trucks serving gourmet tater tots and county fair-style food will operate on the left-field pavilion with the goal of reducing pressure on the main concession stand.
The Raptors will also debut a larger, sturdier merchandise store on the third-base concourse. That will replace a tent that sometimes struggled when the evening summer wind would perk up.
The Raptors will also be easier to watch for fans not at the ballpark. The team has installed an upgraded camera system for live-streaming games, including a vantage point from the center-field batter’s eye.
Ridgefield will also bring back some of its most popular promotions. Those include Value Tuesdays ($3 general admission, concessions and domestic beer) and Sundays where kids under 12 get in free.
On the field, Farah said Ridgefield will benefit from the trust it has earned among college programs over the previous three seasons.
“The relationships are starting to solidify to where we’re now going back to the same schools and asking for not only players, but hopefully some of their better players,” Farah said.
College coaches try to pair their players with summer teams that offer the best setting for growth and development. But chasing wins is secondary to making sure players aren’t overstretched during a summer where 60 games are scheduled over 67 days and road trips last up to a week.
“More than just are you winning, it’s how are you treating my kids,” Farah said. “Are they going home healthy? Are they being taken care of and are their needs being dealt with during the summer? They get tired. They get emotionally fatigued. They’ve been playing baseball since January or February.”
Coaches Chris Cota and Nick Allen are back, having held those jobs since the franchise was formed.
The Raptors are also set to bring back a few key players from last year. Trent Prokes (Modesto College) will return after leading the WCL with a .415 batting average. Jake Tsukada (Portland) is also back after hitting .333 and earning second-team all-WCL honors.
Among those returners will be newcomers, some from smaller schools, who are looking to make the leap to Division-I programs. That was the case for former Raptor Mikey Kane, who now starts at shortstop for Oregon State after two seasons playing for Cota at College of the Canyons near Los Angeles.
“This league is all about development,” Farah said. “For us it’s getting our eyes on guys that we think have room to develop. Maybe they show up from a school that isn’t well known. But we really believe that they’re gritty, they’re tough and mentally ready.”