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Q&A: With Hillsboro's new baseball GM, K.L. Wombacher

When summer ends, the greatest casualty is always baseball. The game that helps millions of people slog through the dog days of summer never feels as good and pure during the fall as it does when the weather is warm and the sound of a ball meeting a bat is pure magic.

This year, though, the ghost of baseball will remain in Hillsboro throughout the winter. In just a few short months, it will be summer again. And next summer the Yakima Bears, a Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, will relocate to Hillsboro, bringing the magic of summer with them.

The Hillsboro Tribune recently caught up with Bears general manager K.L. Wombacher to talk about Hillsboro’s new professional baseball team:

Hillsboro Tribune: What made Hillsboro the place where you wanted to move the Yakima Bears?

K.L. Wombacher: We just got a great feeling from the community. The quality of the public parks, all the people we’ve met there from elected officials, to city employees to potential sponsors and ticket holders, the excitement of bringing Minor League Baseball to the community and especially with the city leaders, we felt that they knew what kind of value having a Minor League Baseball team would bring to their city. They don’t take it for granted. They know what a big deal it is to have Minor League Baseball in the city for their residents. As a sports team you want to feel welcome and you want to feel wanted. That was one of the biggest reasons that we were so compelled to make things work in Hillsboro. We just felt wanted.

Tribune: What will this offseason look like for the team?

Wombacher: Well, I’m going to be playing a lot of golf. No, I’m just kidding. It’s going to be a lot of work. We’ve got a lot to do. We’ll start by selecting our team name and unveiling that in mid to late September. We’ll work on our team logo, team colors, team uniforms and we’ll unveil those in October or November. We hope to get ticket plans on sale as soon as mid September. A lot of it is just starting to build our corporate sponsor base, starting to build our fan base, developing a grass roots marketing campaign where we’re out in the community putting reading programs together, putting kids clubs together, working with Little League baseball programs, youth softball programs and getting ourselves into the heart of the community so we can really become Hillsboro’s team and the region’s team.

Tribune: Speaking of team names, what are a few good suggestions that you’ve heard so far?

Wombacher: We’ve heard a lot of really fun names. A lot of them have played into the technology theme out there. We’ve heard some that play into the craft brew theme in the metro area. There are a lot of themes (geared) toward agriculture. We’ve heard names like the Hackers, which would be kind of fun as a play on (hitting a) baseball and also hacking computers. We’ve heard some classic names like the Pioneers, the Harvesters. The Hammers is one that has a strong theme to it. The challenge is trying to find something unique. There’s 160 Minor League teams and there’s been a lot of logos and team names that have come and gone throughout the history of Minor League Baseball. Trying to find something that’s new and unique has been very challenging. But, that’s our goal. We want to be relevant in New York. We want to be relevant in Alabama. We want to be relevant in California. We want to be most relevant in the Hillsboro, Beaverton, Portland metro area.

Tribune: What can people expect the experience to be like with a Short Season A team as opposed to other levels of Minor League Baseball?

Wombacher: This level is the most exciting. The reason for the is you have a lot of first year players that are just coming off a college career or a high school career. They’re just signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s their first year as a professional athlete and their goal is to make the Big Leagues. They don’t know how tough it is yet. Everyday they’re working hard, trying to develop their skills. They play hard every single game. They know they’re being watched by the Big League people. They have that wide-eyed approach of soaking it all in because it’s their first professional year and also that energy level that they want to make it to the Big Leagues. The best thing for us with these first year players is trying to mold them into professional athletes. We want to get them to understand that signing autographs for kids and treating fans well and doing community appearances, doing free clinics for kids, all that stuff goes into being a professional athlete. While the Diamondbacks’ responsibility is to develop their baseball skills, our responsibility is to develop them into good human beings and good professional athletes.

Tribune: How do you balance improving players for the Diamondbacks and giving the fans a good product?

Wombacher: We have to keep in mind that the goal of the business is to develop players. With our parent club, that’s their main priority. Our main priority is providing a great fan experience and affordable entertainment for families. We have to balance those two. We have to make sure our parent club is happy. We have to make sure that the players are in a comfortable situation so that they can work hard and train and develop their skills. But, our first priority is always going to be the fan experience. Our team turns over every year as a Single A club. We can’t afford to put too much emphasis on the team performance or the players because you never know when someone is going to be promoted. To us, at this level, it’s much more about building a fan experience, having a customer service approach that’s second to none, treating fans with respect and making sure that their purchases are appreciated and valued. Anytime you’re in a discretionary income entertainment industry, you’ve got to make sure that your customers feel appreciated. That’s really been our main focus in Yakima—making sure that every dollar that people spend with us is appreciated.

Tribune: What do you anticipate the attendance to be like next year?

Wombacher: With the intimacy of the stadium being a capacity of only 4,500-5,000—we don’t know exactly what the capacity is going to be yet—it would not surprise me if we sold out every game. The last time there was a short season team in the market (the Portland Rockies), they drew 6,500 a game. Granted they were in downtown Portland, but talking to the owners of that team, 60-70 percent of their fans were from Washington County. We think there’s a huge demand there. Not having baseball for the last two summers, people are excited. They’re ready to have baseball back. You have a ton of very intelligent baseball fans there. They understand the game. They know what this level is. They want to see the players make the Big Leagues. They like to be outdoors during the summer. They like to take their families out to activities and they’re looking for affordable entertainment. It’s really a perfect blend. It’s a perfect storm for our franchise and we think it’s going to be wildly successful.

Tribune: Do you see this team becoming a permanent fixture in Hillsboro?

Wombacher: There’s no question about it. That’s why we made the decision to relocate our franchise. The access off the highway, the visibility off the highway, the synergies with the stadium, the on-sight parking, the demographics in Washington County are ideal for Minor League Baseball. They’re the best demographics in the whole Northwest League. That’s where the families live. That’s the bread and butter audience for Minor League Baseball. Then, the potential of having a state of the art facility in the Washington County area, you can compete with Eugene, you can compete with Spokane, you can compete with Tacoma on different events, whether it’s tournaments, whether it’s collegiate events, professional events, baseball combines with high school players, there’s a plethora of events that are available now.

Tribune: What’s the most exciting thing about the upcoming season?

Wombacher: The most exciting thing is being in a community that really is excited and wants us. Not that we don’t have that here (in Yakima) because we have a lot of great fans here. But, just the excitement (in Hillsboro) it’s been contagious for us. It’s really been a struggle with our facility here. I’m really excited about the ballpark, to be in a new facility that doesn’t have issues, that’s comfortable for the players. And I’m excited to see the reaction of fans when they come out to that first home stand and are just blown away by the experience.