Pickled Tink in Portland

While Portland is often mentioned as a home for MLB’s next expansion team, there’s already a plucky non-professional team already there. (via Public Domain)

Quick quiz: Which of the following cities is the only one being considered for a major league expansion franchise?

Bellingham, Cowlitz, Port Angeles, Ridgefield, Wenatchee, and Yakima, Washington; Kelowna and Victoria, British Columbia; and Corvallis, Bend, Walla Walla, and Portland, Oregon.

If you didn’t select Portland, you haven’t been paying attention — to major league baseball or Pacific Northwest geography.

What all the above municipalities have in common, though, is that they host franchises in the West Coast League, a summer collegiate wooden bat league. Aside from Portland, whose metro area is currently home to about 2.5 million people, these locales are small cities. This is standard operating procedure for such leagues. They generally don’t put franchises in big cities, which offer too much competition for leisure-time activities and discretionary dollars, and where professional baseball is almost always available. In Portland, however, the Portland Pickles are the only game in town — at least in the summertime.

Though Portland was a longtime stalwart of the Pacific Coast League, no Triple-A ball has been played there since 2010. Portland now calls itself Soccer City, USA. Portland Municipal Stadium (a.k.a. PGE Park), the longtime home of minor league ball, has been renamed Providence Park, remodeled and expanded for the Portland Timbers, the city’s pro soccer franchise. The Portland Thorns, a franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League, also play in Providence Park. Of course, the city also has the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA. Basically, Portland has two seasons: basketball and soccer. Other sports take a back seat.

There is a local minor league team in northwestern Oregon, but it’s a long way from Triple-A and doesn’t live in Portland. Its home is the western suburb of Hillsboro, and the team is nicknamed the Hops (named after the essential beer ingredient, an important local crop). An affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Hops play in the Northwest League, a short-season Single-A classification.

Of course, minor league ballparks, even at the bottom of the prospect ladder, are pleasant places to watch games these days, and Ron Tonkin Field in Hillsboro is a copacetic baseball venue. Still, it is an enormous drop in class from Triple-A — and curiously, given the Pacific Northwest’s reliable rainfall, the field is all artificial turf save for the batter’s box and pitcher’s mound.

The Hops are a professional team; the Pickles are not. Some of the pros on the Hops’ roster are younger than the college kids who play for the Pickles. In Portland, baseball is a young man’s game. There are no veterans, grizzled or otherwise, unless you count Pickles owner Jon Ryan, a former punter for the Seattle Seahawks.

The Pickles, now in their fifth season, play in a neighborhood that was considered (and rejected) as a site for a new Triple-A facility for the Portland Beavers for the 2011 season. Walker Stadium, located in a municipal park in southeast Portland, is something of a misnomer. I don’t think there is any official capacity required for a facility to be labeled a stadium, but the word evokes a vast structure with row after row of seats rising to the sky.

Walker Stadium (officially known as Charles B. Walker Stadium at Lents Park, referred to as “The Walk” by the locals) has a capacity of 1,566, though the berms hold the overflow — the day I visited the crowd was almost 2,400. Not quite my vision of a stadium. Walker Park…Walker Field…Walker Yards…but Walker Stadium?

The Lents Park area is something of an anomaly in Portland. It’s a working-class neighborhood that seems to have missed out on all the glitz and growth so evident in the rest of the city and even places like Hillsboro. If you are a normie in Portland, you are leading an alternative lifestyle. But you might feel at home in Lents Park. And apparently, many people do: The Pickles drew 64,000 last season. That was the best of any summer collegiate team in the western states.

You like goofy mascots? Meet Dillon the Pickle (Dill…pickle…get it?), sometimes referred to as D.T. Pickle. If they had a name-the-mascot contest, I would have submitted Pickles Dillhoefer after the major league player (1917-1921, Cubs, Phillies, Cardinals) of the same name. Perhaps Dillon could petition the court for a name change.

And, of course, the Pickles offer T-shirts, caps, and other souvenirs. Appropriately, considering the welter of local breweries, cideries, and wineries, you can get a T-shirt that says, “Get Pickled.” Or you can get one with a play on words: “I’m sort of a big dill” or “Just dill with it.” Not sure why they left out “Shut up and dill.” You can even get a Portland Mavericks jersey. The Mavericks, you may recall, were an independent minor league team that filled in a gap between PCL franchises. They boasted a notably eccentric roster, including Kurt Russell (his father owned the team) and the recently deceased Jim Bouton, who was beginning a comeback at the time.

And if that’s not enough, you can even get a 2019 Pickles team card set and ice cream (the real goods, not prefab Dippin’ Dots) in a plastic mini-helmet. So that establishes the franchise’s bona fides – at least in my mind. I would have liked to add a Walker Stadium refrigerator magnet to my collection but, unfortunately, one was not available. Perhaps next season.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

Pickles are necessarily available at the concessions stand. In fact, if you really like pickles, a local Voodoo Doughnut franchise was inspired to come up with a pickle doughnut. That’s far out, but what would you expect from a bakery that offers such merchandise as ballcaps with a “VD” logo?

So the merch and concessions are impressive for an amateur league. But what about the ballpark itself?

Well, if you like quirky, you will feel right at home in The Walk. A big plus, the park is just a few blocks from a light rail station. The Portland rail system is so expansive, it puts the Pickles within reach of almost everyone in the city limits and some of the suburbs. This may be one reason why the area was considered for a Triple-A ballpark.

As you might expect, The Walk is an intimate setting, the quintessential bandbox. It’s only 309 and 311 feet down the lines, and the fences are waist high. From straightaway left to straightaway right, the fence is taller, but it has to be because center field is only 335 feet away. I guess they could reconfigure the outfield with conventional dimensions, but to do so they would have to chop down a panoramic phalanx of trees that tower above the fence.

Portland was once known as Stumptown because of all the trees that had to be cut down to build the city. Of course, trees have become more huggable since then. Even if you don’t feel any particular affection for our arboreal friends, clear-cutting this backdrop would be a crime. (The Portland Pickles’ web site opens with a nifty drone shot offering a treetop perspective of the park.) Unlike Ron Tonkin Field, the field is all natural grass.

In keeping with the name of the league, most of the Pickles come from West Coast schools. There are a few outliers: pitcher K.C. Hunt from Mississippi State, catcher Jon Burghardt from Morehead State in Kentucky, infielders Brendan Power from Tulane and Everett Lau from Auburn, and outfielder John Arndorfer from Notre Dame.

I’m not sure how they managed to land a spot on the Pickles’ roster, but a college ballplayer could hardly find a better place to spend the summer. Weather-wise, the norm is cool to warm and rarely hot. Since Portland has more than 100 breweries, no matter what happens on the field during the season, it would be a summer to remember for a ballplayer beer geek.

The West Coast League has two divisions of six teams each, which supplies plenty of competition. The league’s evil empire is the Corvallis Knights, who won their sixth West Coast League title in 2018. But there is more.

The Pickles also play non-league games against the San Francisco Seals (California Collegiate League) and independent teams such as the Australian Perth Colts and the Hayesville Hammers. Then there was Future Baseball Night in which the Pickles and Knights squared off in an exhibition game played by 2050 rules, incorporating seven major changes. Where else could you witness a contest like this? Certainly not in a major league ballpark.

To jump from summer amateur ball to the big leagues is a quantum leap. I don’t see Portland making that leap. There are a lot of red flags. The abandonment of Triple-A ball is troubling. In fact, despite its size, Portland has no SABR chapter. The lack of an NFL franchise might raise eyebrows about Portland as a sports town.

On the other hand, if Portland somehow did land a big league franchise, it would need a place to play while awaiting the construction of a ballpark. I nominate Walker Stadium to serve as a temporary home. That would never happen, obviously, but as of right now, there is no better place.

On the other hand, if I were a Portland resident and I had to choose between a major league franchise and the Pickles (and I couldn’t have both), I would opt for the latter. I can always watch major league ball on TV. But as for the Pickles, you have to be there in person.

To lift a line from Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”: Walker Stadium is “a place where even squares can have a ball.”

References & Resources

  • “The Pickles Are Portland’s Best Baseball-Playing Orphans” by Sophia June, Willamette Week, October 3, 2016
  • www.portlandpicklesbaseball.com
  • www.westcoastleague.com
  • www.wikipedia.com


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Jim
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Jim

You have a refrigerator magnet collection? Write a story about that, please. Whenever I go anywhere I have to bring back at least three for my partner. You should see our refrigerator.

schpydah
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Member
schpydah

Amen. As a lifelong Portland resident and diehard A’s fan, and witnessing the PCL Beavers leave town TWICE in my lifetime, I think the Pickles and the Hops give Portland the EXACT amount of baseball this town wants. With the Pickles it’s very refreshing to see the game played at a level stripped of all the baggage that accompanies MLB. Furthermore, if a future MLB franchise does come here, if it doesn’t build a stadium with its own money I will not support it, which is academic, as I think it would leave due to lack of support within a… Read more »

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Then what’s kept the Marlins and Rays in Florida for over 20 years with the Marlins even getting a new stadium in recent years? Neither of those teams have had decent support since Day 1 (with the Marlins’ team management, no matter who it is, running the team into the ground on several occasions), yet they’re both somehow still there.

CL1NT
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CL1NT

Love the Merle Haggard reference!