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Take me out to the ball game: Hops baseball a home run for family fun

Hillsboro Hops have brought professional baseball back to the Portland area, and they don't plan on leaving any time soon


Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - The Hillsboro Hops, the Portland area's only professional baseball team, play at Ron Tonkin Field, a 15.5 million dollar stadium opened in June of 2013. The venue holds up to 4,500 spectators for baseball.Generally speaking, there aren't many events that strike at the heartstrings of a sports fan like baseball. Live sporting events, while slightly less comfortable than the armchair and 70 inch television, offer a richer deeper experience: everything from the scent of popcorn and hotdogs to the crack of the bat serves as a stark reminder that, unlike taking in the game at home, that fly ball headed toward you might hurt if you don't pay attention.

“Whole thing about this stadium, is you're so close, you've got to be ready for the ball,” said KL Wombacher, executive vice president and general manager of the Hillsboro Hops. “Foul balls get into the stands quickly, so bring your glove.”

Womacher's warning is heeded by many of the fans in attendance at the Hops' splendid Ron Tonkin Field, which was opened in the summer of 2013 when the Yakima Bears relocated to the Portland area and rechristened themselves to align with Portland's brewing culture.

They're 20 minutes from Scappoose, 20 minutes from downtown Portland, 20 minutes from Tualatin, and 20 minutes from Banks, sitting alongside Hillsboro Stadium just off of highway 26.

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Hops' pitcher Jared Miller winds up during Hillsboro's 1-0 win over Boise on Aug. 13. At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, Miller is the biggest player on the roster.The move, which was a risky one, given that the Portland area hadn't been kind to baseball in the past – snubbing the Beavers in 2010 – has been wildly successful. The stadium holds around 4,500 spectators, and while the franchise hasn't been selling out every game, they've had scores of rowdy, adoring fans.

“A lot of teams, their first year [are] their biggest crowds, and then they kinda go through that honeymoon phase and crowds start to die out,” said Wombacher, who, like the team's ownership, moved from Yakima along with the team. “In year two, we're expected to increase over year one, and each game just gets busier and busier and busier. It's incredible. The fan support has been tremendous.”

Wombacher described the promotional goal as less of a money grab and more of aiming to provide 38 “community parties,” including Christmas in July, Timbers and Blazers nights, fireworks and a zombie night.

“That's definitely the strangest promotion we've had. We had 20 ushers – we had brought in a face painter, a professional makeup artist – so our staff was zombie-fied. Our on-field hosts were zombie-fied, fans could go and pay $10 or whatever and get zombie-fied, and it was incredible,” said Wombacher. “There were probably 100 people in the ballpark [with face paint]. We had paid actors that came out and walked the stands as zombies.”

The Hops, who play in the short-season, single-A Northwest League, also bring out countless well-known faces throughout the community to toss the ceremonial first pitch. Terry Stotts, head coach of the Portland Trailblazers and Timber Joey, the Timbers' logger mascot are two of the more recent pitchers, but the list has included everyone from brain cancer survivors to mayors of surrounding cities.

As much as the Hops put an emphasis on the entertainment in the stands, attendance will dwindle unless the team wins, which is exactly what they've done in their second season. They've racked up a 34-24 record, and after winning the first half of the season, solidified a place in the post season in September.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, the Hops' major-league affiliate, provides the players and coaches, hoping to develop young potential into big-league talent. The baseball is in careful hands, which leaves Wombacher and the rest of the front office to take care of everything else behind the scenes.

“Our goal is really to provide a great baseball experience and to provide a memorable enough experience to bring some people back,” Wombacher said. “We focus a lot more on the entertainment, the atmosphere in the ball park and the energy, and just create a fun atmosphere that people are dying to come back for.”

Photo Credit: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Hillsboro Hops' outfielder Sryker Trahan, the youngest player on the squad, takes a swing during Wednesday's 1-0 walkoff victory over Boise. Trahan is just 20 years old, and was drafted by the Arizona Dimondbacks in 2012.The season is quickly coming to a close, with only a handful of home games remaining before the trip to the post season, but Wombacher said there is still plenty of space available for people who want a glimpse of the Portland area's only professional baseball team.

One such instance is the team's home finale on Monday, Sept. 1 against the Eugene Emeralds, a show that will include fireworks and a send-off to the southern division championship series.

“It's the first time we're gonna have playoffs here in Hillsboro. You can still get some decent reserve seats for most of our games, and have very good reserve seats,” said Wombacher. “The playoff game, tickets just went on sale and I think it's going to be an electric atmosphere. If I was a fan, I think that's the game I'd want to go to.”

Unlike many pro sports teams, the Hops won't raise the ticket prices for the playoffs – general admission tickets for the outfield and the berm along the first base line will remain at $7, while the most expensive tickets under the cover and directly in front of the concession stands, are all of $16.

And to calm the fears of those who might worry about baseball's future in the area, Wombacher was clear and direct.

“We signed a 20-year lease, and we plan to be here for 50 plus,” he said.

“It's a perfect spot for minor-league baseball, so we're not going anywhere. We'll have to get kicked out of here.”