Friday, July 14, 2017

Eugene Emeralds 5 at Hillsboro Hops 6 (Northwest League) - July 13, 2017


One of the first minor league road trips I took was back in 1992 when I drove from Vancouver to Yakima, Washington to see the Bears of the Northwest League. I don't recall much about the trip, other than getting lost trying to find the stadium (in those pre-Internet days, there wasn't Google Maps to help you). It was my third minor league venue and first in the United States, a milestone I did not think much of at the time. Fast forward 25 years, and I have now attended games at 172 minor league ballparks, with all but five of those in the USA. And number 173 would be the same franchise that got me started on road tripping. Unfortunately for Yakima fans, the team recently moved to Hillsboro, Oregon, but that was good news for me as I was able to add a new venue to the list.



Hillsboro is a suburb of Portland, which lost the Beavers after the 2010 season, making it the largest market without a professional baseball team in the country. There were discussions with a few municipalities to see if a new stadium could be built, and Hillsboro eventually came through with Ron Tonkin Field, opened in 2013. Like Orem, the naming rights are owned by a local car dealer.



The Yakima Bears moved in and became the Hillsboro Hops, an alliterative appellation that honours Oregon's position as the 2nd-largest producer of hops in the nation, as well as having baseball connotations. I enjoy hoppy beer, so this is my favourite minor league team name, by far.



The ballpark is located right next to Hillsboro Stadium, which was opened in 1999, and the new venue used the existing structure to create the third base concourse. It is tough to see how this works, so I'm using this public domain picture of Hillsboro Stadium...



...and my picture from the game. You can see how they have combined the two venues quite well.



Before the game, I stopped by ABV, a nearby tap house that is a must visit for beer fans. By the time I made my way over to the ballpark and paid the $5 parking charge, it was only 30 minutes before first pitch. As I walked toward the stadium entrance, I was surprised by the crowd. I guess there was a large group in attendance, but whatever the case, there were few tickets left at the box office. Field Box seats are $16 ($18 for the first row), while general admission (berm only) is only $7. Usually I would take the latter and find a place to sit, but with so many fans, I decided on a guaranteed seat. In the end, the GA option would have worked as there were a couple of tables along the concourse, as well as some drink rails down the lines.



There are also reserved benches down the third base line for $12, but the sun does shine on these seats for the first few innings.



Due to the crowd (4,701 announced with a capacity of 4,500) and my late arrival, I did not do a full tour, even though it is possible to walk around the entire stadium.



Outside the stadium, there are posters of past Hops who have gone on to success. Ariel Hernandez actually pitches for Cincinnati now after the Reds picked him up in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft.



Barley, the mascot, is my second favourite in all of sports behind Youppi!.



The hops motif is used throughout the park, such as the Brew Pen, a beer garden down the first base line.



Overall, Ron Tonkin Field is an excellent ballpark, especially for Short Season A ball. However, it is also quite expensive, especially for Short Season A ball. My budget for a minor league game at this level is usually $20, and I exceeded that with parking and ticket. Therefore, despite all the Hops references, I abstained here as beer prices rival those in the major leagues, with a 20-oz premium draft going for $8.50. This is really a minor league team in a major league market and they charge accordingly. With average attendance above 3,600, this is obviously a strategy that works.



One of the problems with these road trips is that I usually get to experience a stadium only once, and sometimes things don't work out perfectly, such as tonight. This is a great ballpark with great fans, but for a stadium traveler such as myself, it was just a bit too pricey for this level of baseball. Next time, I'll choose the GA ticket, and then I'll have a beer or two!



The Game

The Hops have enjoyed much success since their inception, with two league titles in four seasons (pennants hang above center field). One of the reasons for this is that the Diamondbacks have always sent their top draft pick to Hillsboro (Dansby Swanson notably) and this year is no different, with their top three picks wearing Hops uniforms. First rounder Pavin Smith (7th overall), second rounder Drew Ellis (41) and compensation pick Daulton Varsho (68, son of Gary, named after Darren Daulton) were all in the starting lineup, and batting 3-4-5. It was certainly a tough assignment for Eugene (Cubs) starter Enrique De Los Rios, but he did well, giving up a lead off homer to Yan Sanchez, but yielding nothing else through four.



Mitchell Aker, an undrafted free agent, started for Hillsboro and gave up 5 runs in 4.2 innings, including an impressive 2-run homer from catcher Miguel Amaya. Eugene were cruising with their 5-1 lead, but then De Los Rios ran into trouble in the 5th. Two walks, a single by Smith to score a run, and a walk to Ellis loaded the bases and sent De Los Rios to the showers. Manuel Rodriguez, the reigning NWL pitcher of the week, came on and promptly gave up a bases-clearing triple to Varsho that tied the game. The Hillsboro bullpen was almost perfect the rest of the way, with a single walk through 4.1 innings the only blemish, and we entered the bottom of the ninth still tied at 5. Varsho led off against Yapson Gomez and lined a shot to the wall in right center. For a catcher, Varsho has good speed and he legged out his second triple of the game. The next batter was Tra Holmes (11th, 2017) who struck out. But wait, the ball scooted by Amaya and Varsho scampered home with the winning run on the wild pitch. An exciting finish that rewarded those who had stayed to the end.



This would have been a great game as there were no errors and "only" 11 walks, but the Eugene pitching coach made at least five trips to the mound to talk extensively to his pitchers. It seemed like he thought it was the 7th game of the World Series. The contest took 3:17 for a PPM of 1.52, a very slow pace for a minor league game. I'm heading to Eugene in a couple of days and I'll see if this annoying behaviour is repeated.



Notes

It was Breast Cancer Awareness night and the Hops wore special uniforms with pink lettering for the occasion. That's Holmes below signing autographs before the game.



You can take public transit to the ballpark. Portland's Max LRT, recently in the news for the horrific attack by a white supremacist that resulted in the deaths of 3 passengers, has a stop on the Blue Line at Orenco, from where a free shuttle bus will take you to the ballpark.

Next Up

A short drive south to Salem today, where I'll check out the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes before moving on to Eugene Saturday. Check back daily for more exciting updates.

Best,

Sean

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