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Pilots light up night, put shine on revamped baseball program

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ON BASEBALL


COURTESY: STEVE GIBBONS - Joe Etzel, former Portland Pilots player, coach and athletic director, throws out the first pitch before UP takes the field for the first night game at Joe Etzel Field.In the top row behind home plate, Joe Etzel stares down at Joe Etzel Field and marvels at the sight of lights illuminating the first night baseball game for the University of Portland.

“It’s something I never thought we’d see, to be very honest with you,” says Etzel, moments after throwing a ceremonial first pitch in the ballpark he helped build in 1966. “Getting an artificial field was kind of a dream and getting lights was a really big dream.”

In the press box, former Pilots baseball standout Bill Krueger is getting ready to broadcast last Friday’s home opener and can’t quite recognize the field he played on from 1977-80.

“I know this ground because I played on this ground, but that doesn’t mean I know this place,” says Krueger, who had a 13-year Major League Baseball career. “This is a totally different place now. I think it’s just absolutely perfect.”

All around the picturesque campus on The Bluff, the brightness from the lights shines a spotlight on a baseball program that isn’t shy about raising expectations despite a lack of success in recent years.

“Omaha,” says Portland junior catcher Cooper Hummel, referring to the city in Nebraska that hosts the College World Series each year. “You want to go to a regional, you want to go to a super regional, and you want to go to Omaha. That’s the whole deal behind all of this, behind this turf and these lights. Everyone wants to take the next step, and this is a big part of it. We’re right there now with all of this. We just have to take that next step as a team.”

The Pilots, who haven’t reached the NCAA playoffs since 1991, are coming off a 12-42 season. But, with former UP star Geoff Loomis on board as first-year coach, Portland is embracing a new era of Pilots baseball, and the recently installed lights serve as a shining symbol of change.

“We get a chance to set a new footprint on this program, and we can make it exactly what we want,” says UP freshman outfielder Cody Hawken, whose older brother, Jake, is a sophomore pitcher on the team. “With these lights, we’re making history.”

Cody Hawken may always have fond memories of night games at UP after hitting consecutive two-run homers in his first two at-bats of Friday’s home-opening 10-7 win over Oakland.

“I was never a Friday night football guy in high school, never got to play under the lights,” says Hawken, who went to Union High in Vancouver, Wash. “But to play under the lights like this gives that same type of feeling. It’s awesome.”

One of Hawken’s high school baseball assistant coaches at Union was former UP star Tom Lampkin. Hawken loved hearing stories about the history of Pilots baseball from Lampkin, who played for UP from 1984-86 before embarking on a 13-year career as a MLB catcher.

Lampkin and Krueger were coached by Etzel, who went 378-391 in 21 seasons from 1966-86. Etzel also played for Portland’s baseball program from 1957-60 and served as UP’s athletic director from 1970-2004.

Despite that illustrious UP career, Etzel still finds it surreal to see his name attached to the Pilots’ ballpark.

“It’s humbling,” Etzel says. “It’s a little hard to believe, even now. But I’m very appreciative of the school recognizing me like that.”

Having his name attached to the ballpark adds a personal connection to each upgrade. The addition of artificial turf last season and lights this season are parts of a multiphase renovation project that will include a covered grandstand for fans.

The protection from rain would have come in useful during Friday’s opener, which was played in a downpour. Etzel couldn’t help but laugh at the memories of trying to keep the grass-and-dirt field somewhat playable during rain in his coaching era.

“One time we played Washington State in a doubleheader and pulled the tarp on and off the field seven times in one day,” Etzel says. “It just wears you out. Those tarps were heavy.”

Adds Krueger: “I was telling Joe, I feel naked in this rain without a rake or a wheelbarrow with me. That was part of Northwest baseball back then.”

Northwest baseball has evolved, with artificial turf surfaces becoming more of the norm. But along with being able to play in the rain, the Pilots now have the option of turning on the lights even if the weather turns dark in the afternoon.

Loomis, who starred for the Pilots from 1990-92, already is champing at the bit for that sunny stretch of spring when the Pilots play under the lights in warmer weather.

“When we start getting good weather, it could really be something special,” Loomis says. “I’ve always thought Portland is such a good baseball town, and we’re right here in their backyard. Portland is a baseball city, and these lights are going to add to that and give people another reason to come out and watch a game. I want people to want to come out and spend their evenings with us.”

Etzel says when the Pilots added lights to Merlo Field for the UP soccer programs in 2004, the school also secured a permit for the baseball lights to give them the option in the future.

For a time, it appeared a new ballpark would be built near the Willamette River, about a half-mile from campus. But after that plan fell through, the focus shifted to renovating Joe Etzel Field and the dream of adding lights to the ballpark became a reality.

“I’m glad it’s remained on campus, because when you look around now, you see the soccer field, the Chiles Center and the ballpark right here in a nice little triangle,” Etzel says. “Students walk by here all the time, and they might see the lights and come on in and watch a few innings. It’s more exposure, and that’s really neat.”

Of course, the best exposure comes with a winning product, and the Pilots are excited to do their part. After winning three of four games at UC Davis to open the season, Portland went 2-2 against Oakland at home to sit at 5-3 overall.

The Pilots are aiming for their first winning season since going 27-25 in 2012.

“There’s just a different atmosphere this year,” Hummel says. “People come out and expect to do well every game. We have a different attitude and just need to keep playing good baseball.”

• Next: Portland remains home this week with a game against Seattle at 4 p.m. Tuesday before hosting UC Riverside in a four-game series this weekend. Friday’s game is back under the lights, with the first pitch set for 6 p.m. The teams will play a doubleheader at 1 p.m. Saturday and conclude the series at 1 p.m. Sunday.

• Krueger will be inducted into the West Coast Conference’s Hall of Honor on Saturday in a ceremony in Las Vegas.

“Really surprising, because I just didn’t see it coming,” Krueger says. “But I’m really honored. There’s a pretty big group of stars, not just this year but in the history of the league. So it’s pretty great to be a part of this.”

Krueger, who grew up in McMinnville, played baseball and basketball for the Pilots from 1977-80. He opened his baseball career by hitting .301 in 1977, earning the Pilots’ MVP award. He went on to star as a first baseman and pitcher for UP before playing in the major leagues from 1983-95.

Krueger now works in television as a senior baseball analyst for Root Sports Northwest and often covers the Seattle Mariners. He says it was a special privilege to serve as color analyst for his alma mater’s baseball home opener under the lights Friday alongside play-by-play announcer Travis Demers.

“This is a thrill to do this,” Krueger says. “What a ballpark. I’m really happy the Pilots kept it here on campus in this intimate location. There’s a lot of meaning here. So I really love it, and it’s going to be a real crown jewel in this league. It will be one of the best when it’s all done.”

• The Pilots baseball program also is scheduled to be on Comcast SportsNet Northwest on March 22 vs. Oregon State, April 15 vs. Pacific and May 22 vs. Saint Mary’s.

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