Minor league baseball generates positive buzz from fans in Hillsboro
For the sophomore campaign in Hillsboro, its so far, so good for the Hops.
So far, its been a great start, Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher said of the fan support. It feels like theres a lot more buzz, like theres a lot more excitement (than last year). Our preseason ticket sales were about 60 percent ahead of last year. We had a more productive year than last year.
Not only did fans buy tickets ahead of this season, but they also continued to turn out. About a third of the way into the season, attendance has been solid the Hops rank third in the Northwest League, the same spot they occupied in their maiden season of 2013. The average home crowd has been 3,408 so far this season, down only slightly from last years 3,557 full-season average, but prime summer dates remain.
From a general standpoint, it just feels more exciting, and it feels like more people are talking about it, Wombacher said.
Though it seems like it should, winning does not necessarily translate into an increase in attendance. Wombacher said the atmosphere at Ron Tonkin Field, renamed this season after its debut a year ago as Hillsboro Ballpark, is a much more important factor to ticket sales.
If we keep playing this way, well see what kind of impact it has, Wombacher said about the teams winning, first-place record. But historically, team record doesnt have a lot to do with minor league attendance. Its the atmosphere. People have fun and they come back.
In a major plus this season, the fans who have turned out have gotten to enjoy much better baseball. In 2013, the Hops were just 34-42, a record buoyed by a late-season hot streak. This season, through Tuesday, Hillsboro was 15-10 and sat in first place in the NWL South Division, two games ahead of the Boise Hawks, three games in front of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, and four games up on the Eugene Emeralds.
It took the Hops until July 27 last year to record 15 wins.
Theyre playing hard, Hops manager J.R. House said about this years group. They get after it, its good energy, its good life. The chemistry has been good.
Of course, the most important thing for the short season Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks is to develop players so that they might one day become big leaguers. And House said his players have done a good job utilizing their time at the ballpark to improve themselves.
Theyre using the time that theyre at the yard on improving themselves. Its not wasted, House said. Thats the key. Some people are going to go farther than others, and theyre going to develop at a faster rate. But if you can manage your time while youre here properly and do everything you can to get better, thats the key. For the most part, theyre doing that.
House said winning ballgames is important, too, of course, because it breeds a culture inside an organization and helps players improve at a higher rate.
As a minor league system, we believe in not only development, but in winning, House said. Winning helps you develop quicker, because you can put the players in more intense, pressure situations more often. When its a 10-run game and youre getting blown out, or youre winning by that much, you get away with so much more and you dont learn as much. Winning games when its close is key.
Close games are something the Hops have gotten used to during their time in Hillsboro. The team played its 100th game earlier this week, and in that time frame, 39 games have been decided by a single run. Hillsboro is 7-4 in one-run games so far this season.
Given the squads propensity for close games, the strong pitching staff has been a boon this summer. Through Tuesday, the Hops ranked third in the eight-team Northwest League in pitching with a staff ERA of 3.75.
Some of the Hops top pitchers are starters Ryan Doran (1-2, 2.61 ERA) Ben Eckels (2-0, 2.86) and Brent Jones (2-1, 3.32). The relievers have been pitching well, too, including Zac Curtis (0-1, 2.00, six saves in nine appearances), Nick Baker (1-0, 2.25, one save in four relief stints) and Cody Geyer (2-0, 0.00, three saves in nine appearances).
Its a pretty complete staff, Doran said. We have good starting pitching, one through five. You have an ace in almost every slot. You can win a game with almost all of our starters. Our middle relief is extremely underrated. A lot of teams have trouble there. But we have some guys there who are bona fide starters and closers. They can do a lot of things. And our closers are dominant. They come in and shut the door, and they dont get rattled out there.
Were confident, and we know pitching is whats going to win championships.
The Hops pitchers have the advantage in working with 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek as their pitching coach.
He makes us a lot calmer, Doran said. He has a very calm demeanor about him, and he doesnt freak out about things that a lot of pitching coaches freak out about. Thats just a tribute to his experience of pitching a good number of years and being very successful. It rubs off on us and breeds confidence through our entire staff.
Hillsboros hitting is still working out a bit of the kinks at this point. The Hops are fifth in the NWL in batting average (.241) and fourth in runs scored (111). Returning catcher Elvin Soto (.306) and outfielder Grant Heyman (.326) are the only players currently on the roster hitting above .300.
Were scoring runs, and we have a chance to win every game, which is what you want, Heyman said. Some games we havent scored in the last couple of innings. Were swinging it, but we can also be better.
The Hops are much more inclined to let their batters take their hacks than to play small ball, which makes it a lot more fun for Hillsboros hitters.
I love it as a hitter, said Heyman, a 20-year-old from Pittsford, N.Y. Were aggressive, and we dont play small ball. If theres a runner in scoring position, were going to hit them in. Thats a really good approach for us, and its paid off. As a hitter, you love that kind of stuff.
Hillsboros hitters are able to seek the advice of hitting coach Mark Grace, the former standout with the Chicago Cubs.
Its amazing, Heyman said about having Grace as a hitting coach. To have someone be your hitting coach that was a big league all-star, is pretty incredible. Hes been a great help so far. Hes not a guy whos going to completely change your swing, but he helps you make adjustments, which is what baseball is all about.
With the season still relatively young, House says he wants to continue seeing improvement from his ballclub in every aspect of the game.
We need to get better everywhere, he said. We need to get better behind the plate catching-wise, we need to get better offensively, battling with two strikes, hitting better with runners in scoring position, taking better leads on the steal, executing the bunt plays, catching the ball on stolen bases ... and a lot of pitchers need to get individually better with their stuff. Theres tons of improvement to be made.
The Hops wrapped up a run of six road games in seven days on Thursday. Now they get to settle back in at Ron Tonkin Field for a bit, with seven home games in eight days starting tonight.
Hillsboro kicks off a three-game series against Salem-Keizer at 7:05 tonight. After another home game Saturday, the Hops visit the Volcanoes on Sunday. Then the Hops welcome the Tri-City Dust Devils to Ron Tonkin Field for a five-game stint from Monday through next Friday, July 18.