WALLA WALLA — It’s too early to estimate just how much interest Walla Walla’s new wood-bat baseball team will generate when it opens its inaugural season June 8 at Borleske Stadium.
But if the enthusiasm expressed by a bleachers-full throng of kids at Sharpstein Elementary School during the team’s coming-out party Thursday afternoon is any indication, the expansion West Coast League franchise is going to be a rousing success.
The team’s ownership group, led by Whitman College graduate John Stanton of Bellevue and former Seattle Mariners third baseman Jeff Cirillo, was in town to introduce the team’s new field manager and unveil its mascot and nickname. Fellow investors Peter Van Oppen and Greg Shaw were also on hand, as were Ken Wilson, president of the WCL, and Zachary Fraser, the new team’s general manager.
Fraser acted as the afternoon’s master of ceremonies, and he had the kids in the bleachers waving white homer hankies on command that would have done fans in the Metrodome proud. Fraser also announced the team’s nickname and mascot — Walla Walla Sweets and Sweet Lou — and introduced homegrown J.C. Biagi as the Sweets’ first field manager.
The 28-year-old Biagi — he’ll be 29 by the time the team opens its 2010 season — is a 2000 DeSales graduate who played on four Irish Class B state championship baseball teams. He then played two seasons at Walla Walla Community College and two more at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., before eventually finding his way home.
Biagi coached for one season under his high school mentor Kim Cox, whom he described as the "most inspirational and impressive coach" he has ever played for, and spent the last two springs as an assistant coach at Walla Walla Community College. He also assisted with the Walla Walla Bears American Legion team one summer.
Biagi said he will remain at WWCC, where he is also in charge of field maintenance, and anticipates a smooth transition from that job to his new summer position with the Sweets.
And he recognizes the opportunity at hand.
"I am thrilled," Biagi said. "This is an excellent opportunity for me. And I am so impressed with this organization here. They are in it for the right reasons."
Biagi said that before he accepted the position, he asked one question: "Why Walla Walla?"
"In my mind, I had a good idea of all of the great things about my town. But I wanted to know what they thought."
The answer he got convinced him to accept the job.
"They said it was all about the community and the people who live here," Biagi said. "And that is what is important to me.
"This team belongs to you," he said, addressing the the crowd. "And I want to be a part of it."
The Walla Walla Sweets moniker was selected from some dozen-or-so names that were suggested in a name-the-team contest that the organization held in the weeks since it was announced that Walla Walla was to be the home of the new franchise. Gordon Buley of Walla Walla was declared the contest winner and received season tickets for the 2010 campaign.
Three other popular suggestions, Fraser said, were Walla Walla Blues, Walla Walla Bing-Bangs and Walla Walla Padres. There were more than 600 contest entries.
"I’ve traveled all over the world," remarked Stanton, a pioneer in the wireless communications industry. "And people I’ve met know two things about Walla Walla. It’s the town that named itself twice, and Walla Walla Sweet Onion.
"I think Sweets is the perfect name."
Stanton also recalled attending Whitman College and spending the summers in Walla Walla working in the wheat and pea harvests.
"And at night we would go to the baseball games," he said, recollecting the years when Walla Walla was home to minor league professional baseball. "It’s been some years since we’ve had summer baseball in Walla Walla, but now we’re going to have it again."
The West Coast League is a league for high-caliber collegiate players interested in getting accustomed to wood bats rather than the aluminum variety used by most colleges. The nine-team WCL, which will begin its fifth season, is comparable to the Cape Cod League on the East Coast.
"You are going to see some quality baseball players come to your city," said Cirillo, who is retired after 14 seasons in the big leagues. "They will be high character individuals who are going to be playing the best baseball possible."
During a question-and-answer session, Cirillo confided that, yes, he did know Ken Griffey Jr. And John Olerud and Edgar Martinez and Dan Wilson.
"John Olerud is really big on wine," Cirillo said. "So I am going to make sure a couple of bottles of Walla Walla wine wind up in his Christmas stocking. And I’m sure he’ll be willing to come over here a couple of times during the summer."
Cirillo said that he would also be in town often during the season, both to work with players and to visit with fans.
"I’ll be around a lot, and I’m very approachable," Cirillo said. "I’ve been out of baseball for awhile, and now it’s time to get back. Every day as a big leaguer was a blessing. I pinch myself every day."
Laure Quaresma, the principal at Sharptsein, helped organize the event and led her students in a special Walla Walla Sweets cheer. But she was also spotted wearing a Corvallis Knights baseball cap, and the Knights are one of the Sweets’ rivals in the WCL.
Towards the end of the press conference, Fraser temporarily confiscated the Knights cap and replaced it with a new Sweets cap.
"I got it as a Christmas gift from my daughter Whitney’s boyfriend three years ago," Quaresma said of her old cap. "Zach Borba played at Washington State and then for the Knights in the summer, and we went to some of his games."
Borba is still in the picture, Quaresma said.
"But I will probably have to put this cap away now that the Sweets are in town."