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Wilson plays out his passion for Pickles

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ON BASEBALL


TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE BRANDON - Ken Wilson, owner of the Portland Pickles and president of the Great West League, has plenty of team merchandise at Walker Stadium - and plenty of work and loose ends to oversee before his baseball team's debut in June.Ken Wilson has been a part of several special moments in baseball history.

Wilson was behind the microphone when Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record, when George Brett recorded his 3,000th hit, and when Cal Ripken Jr. tied Lou Gehrig with 2,130 consecutive games played.

The longtime announcer also called signature moments for pitching greats Kenny Rogers (a perfect game) and Gaylord Perry (his 300th win).

But Wilson has little time to reflect these days as he gears up for the latest chapter in his career: the return of baseball to Portland in the form of the Portland Pickles.

“It’ll be fabulous,” says Wilson, the team and president of the first-year Great West League. “And it’ll be here before we know it.”

Through the passion in Wilson’s voice, it’s evident the Pickles’ first home game June 10 at Walker Stadium in Lents Park will have a worthy place in his list of career accomplishments.

That’s because the Portland resident is not working long hours simply to provide a collection of college baseball players the chance to play in a summer wood-bat league. Wilson is motivated by his heartfelt vision of fellow Portland residents enjoying a ballpark experience in their city for the first time since the Triple-A Portland Beavers departed in 2010.

“It’s challenging, to say the least, but it’ll be wonderful when you get there,” Wilson says. “And when you walk in and you see the place full and the music is playing and a guy hits the ball off the wall and the little kids are eating ice cream and everybody’s happy. And when you look around and you see grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, and the 5- and 6-year-old, and you look at what a great time they’re having.

“That’s it for me. That’s the reward. That will make all this worth it.”

As he says the word “this,” Wilson motions his hand throughout the makeshift Pickles office in a trailer outside the ballpark in Southeast Portland.

“This” represents the lengthy to-do list still remaining in the $650,000 renovation project of Walker Stadium. Wilson says he isn’t worried that it won’t get done, but the calendar flipping to March has increased his anxiousness.

Wilson also is given a not-so-subtle reminder of how much time he has left to complete his tasks every time he logs onto the team’s website and sees the giant countdown clock (featuring days, hours, minutes and seconds) until Opening Day.

“When we went by 100 the other day, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re under 100 days,’” Wilson says. “On the one hand, it’s exciting because you know you’re getting closer to June 10. On the other hand, it’s a huge weight of, ‘Look at all the things we’ve got to have in place by then.’”

The first major upgrade to the ballpark was completed in September, when new grass was seeded. By October, the grass had fully grown in and Wilson’s vision of a first-rate facility was coming into shape.

It’s a vision that Wilson first had in 2008, when he took over as West Coast League president and began thinking about placing a team in the Portland market. Wilson drove by Walker Stadium and saw potential rather than a decaying 60-year-old facility off Southeast Holgate Boulevard and 92nd Avenue.TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE BRANDON - Portland Pickles owner Ken Wilson (right) talks about the revisions planned for Walker Stadium in Southeast Portland.

“To see an old ballpark that’s essentially not being used, to me, is criminal,” Wilson says. “I looked at it and said, ‘People in this city paid for this place, and it should be used. Not just sit there.’ And after the (Portland) Beavers left, I really believed we should have a baseball team in Portland. But nobody was doing it.

“So I took all this on because it’s there to do. Some said it was essentially impossible, but if you don’t start ...”

Wilson began talks with the City of Portland three years ago and remains appreciative of their cooperation and support. But with a city project comes several logistics that take up valuable time.

“I’m not worried because I don’t believe in worry. Worry doesn’t get you anywhere,” Wilson says. “I only believe in action. But there are a lot of moving parts with all of this right now. You’re dealing with an architect, a civil engineer, a structural engineer, a sign company, a fence company, a company to buy concrete, an excavator to prepare all of that, an electric company and on and on.

“So I have headaches like that, but the good thing is we’re making progress and it will all get done.”

The official seating capacity for Pickles games will be 1,544, and that will feature four new rows of chair-back seats in the field box. The old wooden bleachers behind home plate at Walker Stadium still need to be torn down and replaced with a fan-friendly party plaza that will allow spectators to stand and mingle during the game.

The ballpark also will have several group party tents along the first- and third-base lines and beyond the 3-foot fences in left and right field. The fence will rise to 16 feet in the gaps and center field.

“When it’s done, it’s going to feel real cozy,” Wilson says. “Small, quaint and cozy, and it’ll feel really good.”

But that feeling of finished satisfaction is still 86 days away as of Tuesday, as the website countdown clock reminds Wilson on an hourly basis.

“There’s lots of sleepless nights,” he says. “I’m lying there at 3 in the morning going, ‘What about that concrete? What about that backstop? What about the fencing? And how many groups have signed up to come to the park? And how many season tickets are there? How many advertisers?’ “Boy, once I get thinking like that, I’m wide awake. It’s just endless.”

Whenever Wilson gets too stressed out, he thinks about those families who will enter the ballpark on a warm summer night and enjoy the entertainment of a Portland Pickles game.

The Pickles, one of six Great West League teams, will begin their 60-game season on June 3 at the Medford Rogues. Portland will play host to the Marysville (Calif.) Gold Sox on June 10, the first of 30 regular-season home games.

“There’s going to be a lot of fun things going on every game for everybody,” Wilson says. “When people tell me they don’t like baseball, I ask, ‘Do you like to have fun? Because if you come out here this summer, I guarantee you’ll have a good time.’”

jksmith@portlandtribune.com