For pro sports to work in the Portland metropolitan area, it takes more than a good product. The commercial success of teams such as the Winterhawks and the Timbers has far less to do with how they play as it does the atmosphere created around them.
As I made the drive from Southwest Portland to Hillsboro for the Hops home opener Monday night, I was most interested in whether the Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks would deliver an experience filled with its own mystique and aura, or whether the Hops would simply fall back on the tried and true pattern of most minor-league clubs across the country.
The experience I had was filled with a singular mystique and aura. And that is why I would bet heavily on this franchise succeeding.
The walk from the parking lot to the stadium was filled with fans in jeans and tank tops tailgating, men and women of all ages heading to the stadium for a date night, and fathers still wearing ties holding the hands of their young sons.
Below the main concourse, a long line stretched into the team store, and that made Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher beam with pride.
Theres a passion with the fans, Wombacher said. Theyre buying Hops gear, theyre wearing Hops gear, weve got a fan base without having played a home game. Its just amazing that these fans have grabbed onto this team so quickly.
On the main concourse, the seats already were filling up. I sat down in an empty seat for a moment and was impressed by how wide it was and how much leg room there was. The stadium seats 3,534 people, and good for Hops management to not sacrifice comfort by trying to squeeze in a few dozen extra seats.
Vince Pesky, the younger brother of Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky, was extremely impressed by the stadium.
Its beautiful, Pesky said. Its mind-boggling to see the millions that have been put into it. When people walk around, theyre going to appreciate this minor-league ballpark.
The music was blaring throughout the game and helped create an atmosphere of excitement. By the time the game got started, the stadium was packed. The 4,710 people in attendance filled the concourse and the seats, and there was hardly a place to put another blanket on the grass berm seating in left field.
Ive walked through this stadium 100 times with it being empty, and to see the smiles on peoples faces, its overwhelmingly exciting, Wombacher said. Its far surpassed my expectations.
When the Hops finally charged the field, Hillsboro shortstop Josh Parr gave the fans something else to oooh and aaah about as he did a backflip on his way to his position.
The game was everything that the Hops could have hoped for in a home opener a decisive blowout. Hillsboro ran roughshod over the visiting Eugene Emeralds and won 12-0.
The Hops will have to improve several things, of course. The most pressing is the concession lines. In the third inning, I got in line to get some dinner. Two innings later, I was finally at the front of the line.
The Cobb salad I ordered was phenomenal, and the beer list was great. While it should be pointed out that fans are able to see the action on the field while they wait to order, spending two innings in line is something the club needs to fix and soon.
With our service, weve got to get our staff a lot of practice, a lot of training, Wombacher said. We want this to be the best experience in baseball. Weve got a long ways to go.
With the Hops leading by 12 runs, I took off in the eighth inning to beat the traffic.
When I got home a little before 10 p.m., my 6-month-old puppy, Gus, looked about as disgruntled about his dinner being late as the people I was standing with in the concession lines.
As I fed Gus dinner, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that the Hops were on track to become a permanent fixture in metro-area sports.
Pesky, who has been around more baseball in his 91 years than just about anyone on the planet, said he has no doubts about the future of the Hillsboro Hops.
Portland doesnt have baseball, Pesky said. (The Hops) are going to get everyone around to come here and watch baseball. Its bound to succeed.