Players relish return to Pickles
A passionate fan base and move to a more competitive league inspired four players to sign on for another tour of duty with the Portland Pickles this summer.
Pitcher Max Jones and outfielder Joey Cooper are back at Walker Stadium for their third season with the club, which began playing in 2016.
Also returning are infielders Daniel Lopez and Carson Breshears, who played in Portland in 2017 and 2016, respectively.
The Pickles, who spent two years in the Great West League, are newcomers to the West Coast League this summer. Many regard the WCL as the best summer league for college players on this end of the country.
"I've come back three years in a row for a reason," Jones says. "The fans are great around here, and we're moving into the West Coast League. It's better competition, a better league to play in.
"I wasn't sure if I was going to come back, but that made the difference, and it's a wonderful place to play."
Walker Stadium exhibits baseball Americana whenever the Pickles take the field. Outfield signs spanning the color wheel, cook-to-order barbecue stands and families packing both ends of the outfield give the environment the feel of a minor league baseball game.
More than 1,600 fans trek to Lents Park on average. A good amount are season-ticket holders.
Ten other teams compete in the WCL, but the four returnees say Portland's cultlike fans separate it from the pack and made it an easy decision to come back. Players are greeted with loud ovations each time they step to the plate, as though each fan already knows them and their story. Only at Walker Stadium do you find players and fans joining in to raise lawn chairs over their head each time a runner scores, all to the tune of the "Vengaboys" cue.
Cooper pointed to the six-year period that elapsed between when the Triple-A Portland Beavers left town and the Pickles debuted.
"They waited so long to have baseball back here, aside from the (Hillsboro) Hops. And so now that it's here, like the slogan says, 'Keep Portland Weird.'" Cooper says. "You've got a bunch of crazy people here who just love the game, and they have fun."
Jones, Cooper and Lopez already have started games for the Pickles this summer. Breshears, a junior at Gonzaga, recently finished competing in the NCAA tournament for the Bulldogs.
Jones, Cooper and Lopez say they communicated with the Pickles front office during the off-season in hopes of earning a shot to play for the team again.
Cooper and Lopez say their relationship with Pickles co-owner Bill Stewart helped their cause.
"I kept in touch with Bill Stewart throughout the year. I just love being here," Cooper says. "So when I got the opportunity to come back, I couldn't pass it up."
"I was really excited," Lopez says. "I had a great summer last year, one of the best summers of my life. I was really excited to stay here and play in front of this amazing crowd."
The quartet of returnees has given first-year manager Justin Barchus a comparative advantage over other WCL teams.
"I think just the lay of the land, talking to guys about situational stuff," he says of what the group already has provided to Portland's first-year players. "Like, 'Hey, in left field, you're going to have these people yelling stuff and there's going to be kids running at you.
"I think guys can hear it, but for them to actually see it, is probably important. Those (returning) guys have been amazing leaders for us, and they've played well on top of that."
In addition to leadership and strong play, Jones, Cooper and Lopez give Barchus consistency on his lineup card. Some players on the Pickles' roster still have final exams to take and/or have been competing in the NCAA tournament. Others may decide to play elsewhere and opt out of their contract.
There also is a matter of player discipline. Barchus says his No. 1 rule is that players are going to do things the right way or else they're not going to be around. The four returnees already know what to expect from him and the grind of their 11-week season across the Northwest.
The returning players say their time competing for Portland in the GWL turned them into better college players.
Last summer for the Pickles, Jones, from Whittier, California, transitioned from a relief role into the team's No. 2 starter. He made 10 starts, threw 60 2/3 innings and posted a 3.26 ERA.
Jones just completed his junior season for NCAA Division II Cal State Monterey Bay. He transferred after pitching to a 10-3 record and 4.02 ERA for D-III Hamilton College his first two years.
Jones, a long, loose left-hander, had to sit out this spring due to transfer rules.
The WCL boasts a bevy of Pac-12 and D-I athletes. But Jones says he doesn't feel like he has anything to prove when he's on the mound.
"I've had a real windy road on my path to success. But it's always just been about controlling what I can control and worrying about being the best pitcher I can be," he says. "I pitch a lot differently than Division I guys, and that's OK. I know who I am, and I know I belong here."
Cooper, a soon-to-be senior, transferred from Palomar College to Cal State Northridge this spring. After hitting .406 his sophomore year for Palomar and .302 with 10 extra-base hits for the Pickles last summer, Cooper started all year for CSUN, batting .246 for the Matadors. Going into this week, Cooper was off to a .500 (11 for 22) start for the wood-bat Pickles, with three doubles, a triple, a home run and four RBIs in six games.
Cooper, a native of Bakersfield, California, has been starting in center field. He received his familiar "Coooop!" cheer from the crowd each time he stepped to the plate during the team's first home series.
"It's a really cool feeling," he says of the fan support for the Pickles.
Lopez recently completed his junior season for the University of Portland. A native of Pico Rivera, California, Lopez transferred to UP from Cerritos College in 2017. He appeared in just four games a year ago and hit .143 in 14 at-bats.
"It was my first time playing Division I baseball, so obviously playing with the best of the best ... had an injury that kept me sidelined, and I struggled at the end of the season," he says.
Lopez was given consistent at-bats for the Pickles last season. He posted a .285 average, with 14 doubles, six home runs and had 29 RBIs.
Lopez split time on the left side of the infield for the Pickles, and his experience boosted him into the Pilots' batting order this spring. He started all but one game and hit .226, with 10 doubles and five home runs.
Barchus has penciled in Lopez in the third spot of his batting order and says he is impressed with Lopez's defensive range at third base.
"He leads by example, so he just plays the game the right way," Barchus says. "Because of that, you see a lot of great plays out here. It's all effort all the time, and this is really important to him. He has the ability to be one of the best players in this league."
After completing his freshman season at Oregon, Breshears recorded a .296 batting average with 34 hits in 32 games for the Pickles in 2016.
Breshears, from North Bend, Washington, transferred from UO to Gonzaga this spring and started in 54 games. Barchus says Breshears, who had a .987 fielding percentage with Gonzaga, is one of several incoming infielders who will push Lopez and other players for time in the starting lineup.
Jones says leading teammates by example and being a veteran is different for him, but the transition in roles has gone well.
"It's been a little funky. The past two years, I was definitely not a guy in a leadership position," he says. "But I guess you come back for three years and you're expected to show people around. I think it's been kind of natural, just doing my thing and being around the guys."
While Jones, Cooper, Lopez and Breshears will be asked by Barchus to lead this summer, they also are in the same shoes as everyone else on the team. Each player is helping guide the organization through its first go-around in the WCL.
"Everybody's coming from big-time schools, everybody's going to be doing big things someday," Jones says. "There's a lot of young talent here, and just competing against these guys, it gives you a little taste of the higher competition at the next level."