COVID-Era Sports

The Winterhawks Wait, the Hops Hope, and the Pickles Get Ready to Play

Local minor league and amateur teams still face uncertainty, but baseball is back on this summer with the Wild Wild West League.

By Margaret Seiler June 14, 2020

The Portland Pickles in the before times at Walker Stadium

The Portland Pickles should have opened their fifth season at Walker Stadium in Lents Park on June 5, against the Bellingham Bells. Instead, that was the day the West Coast League, made up of summering college players getting some wood-bat experience, announced the cancellation of its entire 2020 season due to the novel coronavirus.

Less than a week later, the Pickles made an announcement of their own on June 11. Games will indeed be played at Walker Stadium from mid-July to mid-August as part of the very unofficial Wild Wild West League, with such opponents as the Gresham Greywolves, the West Linn Knights, and the Portland Gherkins, the Pickles farm team having its inaugural season this year. There will be no fans in attendance, and games will be shown on Facebook Live and YouTube (and possibly other platforms—details are still in the works). While in a normal summer the Pickles would have players from elsewhere staying with host families in addition to locals, the Wild Wild West League rosters are mostly players already in the area with their own housing, and away games will not be very far away.

“We’re very fortunate. There’s not a lot of markets in different cities that have as much local talent as the Portland area has,” Alan Miller, Pickles president and a team co-owner, told Portland Monthly. “We want to create a forum and an opportunity for them to continue to get better, and to give our fans an opportunity of something to look forward to.”

One thing Miller doesn’t want to give fans, though, is a substitute that just makes people sad they’re missing the real thing. “We have to make this entertaining for people in ways a broadcast may normally not be. It’s important that we develop strategies to help bring everyone together during this time. What we don’t want is people to be upset, like, ‘Oh, I wish I was there,’” he says. To that end, another co-owner, former Seattle Seahawk Jon Ryan, plans to bring in athletes and comedians from his network to be part of the broadcast, even if just for an inning. Miller won’t name names but promises “popular people that you wouldn’t normally see” in a minor league broadcast. “And we can really talk about baseball, talk about styles, talk about the Pacific Northwest and just do something a little different,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be this traditional play-by-play we’ve done in the past.”

In a Facebook Live Q&A, Ryan also promised to ask his poker buddy Will Smith about the possibility of a Pickles remix of the song that played over the closing credits of Wild Wild West, the 1999 steampunk western that starred Smith, Salma Hayek, and Kevin Kline. (It’s unclear if Ryan might also know anyone in British band the Escape Club, responsible for the 1988 song and album of the same name.)

Presidential candidate Dillon the Pickle might be Portland’s most exciting candidate since Extremo the Clown ran for mayor in 2004.

The Pickles’ seemingly boundless promotional energy (the team is known for theme nights with serious local color, from DB Cooper to Twin Peaks to the ’70s-era Portland Mavericks) is also being channeled into a voting drive, with its mascot, Dillon T. Pickle, even running for president. The team has expanded its popular merch line to include one-of-a-kind face masks made from game-worn jerseys. Dillon is busy, offering Fathers Day visits through June 19 for $49.99. For twice the price, Dillon will bring along Gherkins mascot Lil’ P.

Across town on the west side, the Hillsboro Hops were supposed to start their season in Spokane this week and have their home opener at Ron Tonkin Field against Eugene on June 22. But the class-A minor league team, part of the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system, is at the mercy of Major League Baseball, which can’t figure out a plan for the top tier of competition for 2020, let alone for farm teams. There’s no final call on a Hops season yet, team reps say, but the chances are slim.

Meanwhile, the Hops and Portland-based Baseballism are selling team face masks featuring the words hope, optimism, patience, and strength as a fundraiser for the nonprofit Community Action. Mascot Barley the Hop, who continues to have one of the most endearing Twitter presences in town, is hirable for private events. Hosts just have to provide a place for Barley to get ready, and have to give the giant hop flower a break for any visit lasting more than an hour.

While baseball’s boys (and nonbinary mascots) of summer postpone the start of their seasons, hockey had most of 2019–20 in the books before the coronavirus shutdown. One of 22 clubs in the Calgary-based NHL development Western Hockey League, the Portland Winterhawks team a packed with mostly Canadian teenagers who live with area families during the season and attend local high schools. The Winterhawks were leading the Western Conference in March, when the WHL declared an early end to the 2019–20 season and canceled its playoffs, which would have started March 27 and wrapped with a championship in May. Players are back home, trying to stay fit as rinks and gyms begin reopening. This month, some current and former Winterhawks who are people of color have also been speaking out on their experiences, adding their voices to the #BlackLivesMatter conversation.

Eleven new players were selected in the WHL’s virtual draft in April, but in May the team’s parent company filed for bankruptcy and the team was put up for sale. The Oregonian reported last month that the owners of the Portland Pickles were considering branching out into hockey. Miller said Thursday they’re still “in the process of assessing the opportunity right now” but was mum of any further decisions or developments. The Western Hockey League assured fans it was monitoring the situation and that Coach Mike Johnston and other staff would be staying with the team. No announcements yet on the 2020–21 season, which would normally start in September. 

As fans wait for major league US sports to come back (set to begin June 27, with the National Women’s Soccer League), Pickles co-owner Miller says he’s been watching a lot of Korean baseball and German soccer but will be happy to experience games in person again. “There’s something very special about being at the ballpark, being outside and being around the community, and it’s missing, he says. “We talk a lot about what kind of businesses are essential in our community and our culture. When you take away things like music and sports, I think we start to understand how essential those things actually are in our lives, and how much we miss them and how important they are just to our overall mind-set and how we feel every day. I think we’ve collectively been missing that.”

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