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Why Baseball Coming to Lents Park is Good For Portland

Thursday, March 12, 2015

 

This week’s announcement that Lents Park next year would be the home for an amateur team of college baseball players in a league with franchises in hotbeds like Lodi and Chico had me ready to blast the idea as the latest cockamamie piece of small-ball sports in Portland.

Growing up in a city that’s had baseball franchises come and go like so many Kardashian characters, it’s hard not to be jaded. 

And it’s really difficult not to be cynical after the Pacific Coast League Beavers left for good in 2010 because Major League Soccer refused to let Portland’s stadium be used for baseball as well as soccer.

Adding insult to injury, Portland then couldn’t manage what many other mid-sized cities have easily figured out—building a 10,000-seat-or-so minor league stadium that would have built on the decent crowds the Beavers actually did attract on cheap-beer nights and weekends.

(Let’s not even get started on all the other sports flotsam that has washed ashore in Portland over the years from team tennis and pro lacrosse to indoor football.)   

But before I wrote that bitter column, I turned to two Portland friends who are deeply vested in baseball: Rob Nelson and Nova Newcomer.

Nelson is a former pitcher for the Portland Mavericks, a rollicking band of misfits that played during the mid-1970s in the single-A Northwest League—a story captured in the fantastic documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball. But Nelson is much more than that stat line in his well-traveled baseball resume. He’s the inventor of Big League Chew and a raconteur of the highest order who throws out more ideas during a conversation than pitches in a nine-inning game.

Newcomer is the executive director of Friends of Baseball, a local non-profit dedicated to supporting baseball and softball in the belief they fill a critical need for the extracurricular opportunities that boys and girls need. Like Nelson, she is an ex-ballplayer and an ever-optimistic ambassador and advocate for her sport.

My question to both was this: Should Portland be excited that starting in 2016, there will be a baseball option in the summer that doesn’t require heading out to Hillsboro or down to Salem or Eugene for some Northwest League games? Or should Portland be disappointed that yet again the city seems content with taking weak swings at attracting and keeping even a Triple-A Pacific Coast League franchise? 

Both gave essentially the same unequivocal answer: Welcome to anybody who wants to offer baseball in Portland.

 “Having played myself at Lents as a kid, there is something magical about having a high level of amateur baseball there to give kids something to aspire to,’’ Newcomer said.

And Newcomer adds that a family-friendly local entertainment option is a great boost for an under-supported and deserving area at a time when there is a growing focus on the lack of investment in east Portland.

“At Friends of Baseball, we like to say ‘baseball builds community,’’’ Newcomer said, “and bringing a wood-bat league to Lents is just one more building block toward a more healthy, sustainable future for the sport.”

Nelson went on to pitch one of his many baseball ideas, advocating Northwest League franchises in Portland and across the river in Vancouver that would be affiliated with the Red Sox and the Yankees, then marketing the teams for Boston and New York fans as a local rivalry. 

He proposes calling the Portland team the “Homers” to honor Portlander Matt Groening’s creation of Homer Simpson, and says the two new teams in Portland would be great for the already-existing Hillsboro Hops.

“Three Single-A teams within 20 miles of each other would be huge for the Northwest League too,” Nelson said.

He is of course right. 

But for the moment, he is also right when asked about the meaning of baseball in Lents Park come the summer of 2016.

“Any baseball in the summer months,” Nelson said, “is good for Portland.” 

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.

 

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