Yakima expansion shows Walla Walla has winning ticket for small-town hardball

Jake Wylie (Np. 16) and the Walla Walla dugout celebrate Kramer Lindell's 5th inning solo homer to tie the score 1-1 Thursday night against the Bend Elks at Borleske Stadium.  Walla Walla added three more runs to win 4-2.

Jake Wylie (Np. 16) and the Walla Walla dugout celebrate Kramer Lindell's 5th inning solo homer to tie the score 1-1 Thursday night against the Bend Elks at Borleske Stadium. Walla Walla added three more runs to win 4-2. Photo by Jeff Horner.

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WALLA WALLA — It’s entirely possible that Nick from College Place was flush with the thrill of victory, if not a trip or two to the beer garden, when he offered the following appraisal of the Walla Walla Sweets.

“This baseball team,” Nick said, minutes after a 4-3 win over the Bellingham Bells, “is the best thing that’s happened to Walla Walla since we got our own ZIP code.”

A year from now, someone here may or may not share Nick’s sentiment about a West Coast League team that plans to play in Yakima County Stadium. If not, Sweets general manager Zachary Fraser would understand.

“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Fraser said as an announced crowd of 1,071 filed out of Borleske Stadium. “I’d prefer to consider what we do here to be more like a little slice of Norman Rockwell.”

That type of All-American ambiance — rooting for the home team on an idyllic summer night — was what the Sweets had provided on this occasion, and what Fraser and others within his organization envision next summer for Yakima.

The WCL team here will be owned by the same group, Pacific Baseball Ventures, that runs the Sweets, and of which Fraser is a member. A lease agreement for Yakima County Stadium is all but done, and a contest to name the team has been started — you can participate by logging onto www.yakimabaseball.com.

The biggest difference between the WCL and the Northwest League, of which Yakima was a part through last summer before the Bears moved to Hillsboro, Ore., is that the players are not professionals.

College players, most of them underclassmen including some from junior colleges, stock WCL rosters and are chosen by each franchise. Managers and coaches also typically come from the college ranks, as do umpires. The WCL last season began using three-man umpiring crews while the Northwest League uses two.

On the occasion of Walla Walla’s aforementioned victory last month, I drove to 86-year-old Borleske Stadium for a first-hand look at the Sweets, their operation and the the WCL.

It’s true that my experience included only one of the team’s 32 home games (they play a 52-game league schedule with 26 at home, plus six home contests with non-league teams). It’s also true that I’ve loved baseball for as long as I can remember and would have enjoyed the game under most circumstances.

And while a bit warm — a downtown bank thermometer read 104 degrees when I drove in — the weather was quite pleasant given the tree-shaded grandstand at Borleske. As with Yakima, summer nights in Walla Walla cool down nicely, and the Sweets have orchestrated things in a fan-friendly manner.

For starters, getting into the game is reasonable. Day of game general admission tickets cost $7, reserved seats are $9 and premier seats — located among several rows directly behind home plate or in a series of box seats down the right-field line — are $11. All tickets cost $1 less if purchased in advance.

And while details of the Yakima franchise’s lease have not yet been disclosed, it seems likely that a parking fee will be charged at State Fair Park. Parking is free at Walla Walla.

Concessions at Borleske are varied and reasonably priced. There is a shop that sells Sweets jerseys, caps, T-shirts and other souvenirs.

Most importantly, the atmosphere was pleasant and relaxed.

The Sweets even held “Bark in the Park” night this past season, with an estimated 150 dogs plus multiple cats, birds and even a turtle, it was said, in attendance. Fraser indicated that a similar event will be held here.

“We enjoy it,” said Ernie, a retired engineer who moved to Walla Walla from Seattle in 2006. “Win or lose, it’s a lot of fun. The weather’s usually nice and it’s just a good way to spend an evening.”

He said he and his wife, Star, come to four or five games a year.

Another Walla Wallan, Stephanie, came to her first Sweets game in 2010, the team’s first season, thinking her 6-year-old granddaughter Maddy would enjoy maybe three or four innings.

“We got her some caramel corn, cotton candy and root beer,” Stephanie said. “She just seemed to enjoy the whole atmosphere — the game, the crowd, everything. And around the fifth or sixth inning, she said, ‘Grandma, can we stay for the rest of the game?’”

So they did. And now Stephanie sees them all, serving as the Sweets’ official scorer.

“The atmosphere at games here and around our league,” said Fraser, “are more like those of the old town teams they had back in the 40s. Of course I wasn’t around then, but that’s what people have told me.”

Of course, the Bears attempted — and by most accounts succeeded — in providing a fan-friendly atmosphere, but couldn’t make a go of it financially.

Whether the WCL will be more successful here than the NWL was, only time will tell. But it appears that the new team will have a better chance if for no other reason than West Coast League franchises seem to thrive, or at least survive, in smaller markets.

And while Yakima was easily the smallest in the NWL, it will be the second-largest in the WCL.

Ultimately for Yakima, the coming WCL team might not be the greatest thing since the ZIP code — or crushed ice or sliced bread. But it just might be the first athletic endeavor beyond the prep and college ranks here to permanently succeed.

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