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Hops on the way to harvesting success

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A rainbow appears over Hillsboro Ballpark during Monday night's home opener for the new Hillsboro Hops.HILLSBORO — For pro sports to work in the Portland 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.

Fearing rush-hour traffic, I headed out an hour and a half before the 7 p.m. game. There was little traffic on the Sunset Highway on the way to the stadium.

But, once I made the turn onto Northwest Imbrie Drive at about 6 p.m., things backed up. It took me longer to navigate the half-mile between the exit and Hillsboro Ballpark than it did to drive on the freeway.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Baseball fans begin to pour into Hillsboro Ballpark to watch the Hops' home opener Monday night.After I reached the stadium, I was surprised and delighted that parking was still plentiful.

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.

The streetlight signs, such as “Just follow the hotdog smell,” were a bit kitschy, but also sort of endearing.

Outside the stadium, singer Brittney Kellogg and her band serenaded fans on their way into the game.

The outside of the ballpark was the same dull grey color as the football stadium kitty-corner. But the Hops had decorated the baseball stadium with red, white and blue World Series-esque banners, and it looked attractive.

Below the main concourse, a long line stretched into the team store, and that made Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher beam with pride.

“There’s a passion with the fans,” Wombacher said. “They’re buying Hops gear, they’re wearing Hops gear, we’ve got a fan base without having played a home game. It’s just amazing that these fans have grabbed onto this team so quickly.”

On the main concourse, the seats already were filling up. I sat 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.

“It’s beautiful,” Pesky said. “It’s mind-boggling to see the millions that have been put into it. When people walk around, they’re going to appreciate this minor-league ballpark.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hillsboro Hops manager Audo Vicente is introduced before the team's home opener.Before the game, Rich Burk, the voice of the Hops, stood on the field in a tuxedo, emceeing the introductions. The stadium’s audio system was very much in working order (read: you did not need to bring your hearing aids to

listen to what was going on).

The music was blaring throughout the game and helped create an atmosphere of excitement. The choice of playing the theme song from “The Natural” as Hillsboro City Council members threw out the first pitch was inspired, but who in the name of Luke Skywalker decided to play the Darth Vader theme song during the scorecard exchange?

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.

“I’ve walked through this stadium 100 times with it being empty, and to see the smiles on people’s faces, it’s overwhelmingly exciting,” Wombacher said. “It’s far surpassed my expectations.”

After the home plate that once belonged to the now-defunct Portland Beavers was presented by youth baseball players representing the nonprofit group Friends of Baseball, Burk introduced the starting lineup.

The Hops did not skimp on fireworks, shooting them off as each starter's name was announced.

When the Hops 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 try 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. The concessions served Summer Squeeze, India Pale Ale, Kingpin and the Hops' own Long Ball Ale (all from Bridgeport Brewing Co.) for $6 for 16 ounces and $7 for 20 ounces, and Coors Light ($5 for 16 ounces, $6 for 20 ounces).

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, we’ve 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. We’ve got a long ways to go.”

Practice and training may go a long way toward helping the situation, and concessions are always slow on a stadium’s first run. But if the problem continues, the Hops may want to look into opening up more concessions.

The video scoreboard was very state-of-the-art. However, the place to display a pitch's miles per hour was not in operation.

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 pug, 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 doesn’t have baseball,” Pesky said. “They (the Hops) are going to get everyone around to come here and watch baseball. It’s bound to succeed.”by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey (left) listens as Hillsboro Hops President Mike McMurray speaks to the crowd before the first pitch at Hillsboro Ballpark.