Saying adios to the Portland Beavers

17 08 2010

Five thousand, one hundred-eighty three. The number of times, it almost seems, that I went to Civic Stadium over the past 30 years.

The old place on 18th and S.W. Morrison in Portland has always been one of my favorite spots in my hometown. It was never flashy, even after the remodel and name change to PGE Park in 2001, but there wasn’t really a bad seat in the house. Over the years, I saw such events as Portland State football, high-school football and baseball playoffs, the 1991 Blazer Slam-n-Jam benefit for Ramon Ramos when they brought in the Memorial Coliseum Court and put it in the stadium for an exhibition game, and various soccer matches from the USL Timbers to U.S. National men’s and women’s matches to Mexican teams.

The stadium won’t be going away. It’s going to look even better than ever next year when the Timbers move to Major League Soccer and PGE is renovated to become soccer-specific. But the stadium’s longest-running tenant, minor-league baseball’s Triple-A Portland Beavers, are all but gone after the first week of September. And they likely won’t be back for a long time, maybe never.

Which is why I had to go see the Bevos one more time. One last hurrah before they quietly slip out of sight and mind and the parent club, the San Diego Padres, moves its top minor-league team far away.

This past weekend was like a trip down memory lane for me. I left the Portland area in 1998 to become an intern for the Seattle Times newspaper company, and now I live in Phoenix. But coming home is always special. I reconnected with a lot of high-school classmates. I rode the light rail and drove past landmarks I grew up going to. And I went back to the first place I ever saw a pro baseball game, to see a team that changes every year but is still my city’s baseball team with a long history of legends who passed through.

Baseball won’t be played here anymore. Merritt Paulson, owner of the Timbers and Beavers, is banking on the success of his new big-time soccer club and its thousands of loyal supporters. Paulson says he tried hard to find a site for a new stadium for the Beavers so they wouldn’t have to move. So do city leaders. But time is about to run out. The Beavers don’t have a place to play under construction and their season ends in a few weeks.

Oh, the memories. I was at Civic when Willie Stargell played in an exhibition game for the Pittsburgh Pirates against their farm club, the Beavers, and he hit a home run off the Multnomah Athletic Club concrete façade. I saw aged vets like Willie Horton and Luis Tiant. Saw a young Tony Pena, and when the Phillies become the parent club, Juan Samuel came through.

When Joe Buzas took over ownership of the team, he neglected it. Attendance dropped to all-new lows. There’d be maybe 500 people in the 19,000-seat stadium on some nights. There were rarely any promotions or giveaways; still my dad and I would go to a few games a year together, and sometimes he’d drop me off for a double-header and go finish his work, and I’d sit there alone keeping score. It was a happy time, never lonely. Only the die-hard baseball fans were there.

I’ll never forget the night that True Value Hardware gave away free neon Beavers caps, and 3,000 or so people showed up to the park. The old scoreboard would urge folks to “Clap Your Hands and Stomp Your Feet.” Really. And then someone yelled, “Wave your caps!” and the crowd held its bright yellow-green lids in the air, trying to will the local nine to a comeback victory.

It didn’t work. But it was fun for a kid like me.

Or Opening Day on one of my birthdays, and Leslie Easterbrook, who was in Police Academy, was the celebrity guest. It poured rain but we went to the stadium anyway, just in case it let up. It didn’t. We got rain checks.

Or Mr. Baseball, an old man who must have convinced the team to give him a spare batting helmet. He got a gold-plated trophy-like beaver welded into the bill of the helmet, and walked around the stadium by himself handing out pocket schedules and signing autographs. The guy was a classic. My younger sister and I were shocked when he spelled her name, Angelica, perfectly. Even after she pronounced it in Spanish.

Or the guy who sat in a wheelchair and screamed “LET’S…GO…BEA-VERS!!!!!” at the top of his lungs, his voice echoing through the cavernous and largely empty stands. He’d punctuate it with a “LET’S GO!!!!” after folks would cheer his enthusiasm.

My dad would yell encouragement in Spanish to the Latino players, guys like Hedy Vargas and Victor Rodriguez and Edgar Naveda. Years later, when the Beavers left and the single-A Portland Rockies became the stadium’s baseball tenants, I pulled for that generation’s players like Efrain Alamo and Melvin Rosario and Jose Gonzales.

I was there in 1997 when the Rockies won the Northwest League championship, reporting on it for El Hispanic News. Jack and Mary Cain, the Rockies’ owners, were the best. They knew how to run a minor-league club and make it appealing and affordable.

Over the years the Beavers changed affiliations, from the Pirates to the Phillies to the Twins, then no AAA ball from 1995 to 2000, and then the Beavers came back to a renovated PGE Park with the Padres as the parent club. I made sure I went to a game any chance I could, whenever I had a vacation from work and came home.

I did so much at Beavers and Rockies baseball games. I snagged a foul ball, sat in the press area as a working professional, hung out with former play-by-play man Mike Parker one night, stood above center field with TV cameras as an intern, watched postgame concerts (The Kingsmen!) and Fourth of July fireworks, even took a couple of dates to games.

Nothing says you care about someone like sitting her in the $4 bleachers for minor-league baseball. And nothing beat that sunset over the West Hills of Portland, the sight of a deep drive soaring over the high wall only 310 feet to left field and in later years, the Max light rail trains gliding by above the field on a summer night at the yard. That made you feel like you really were in a downtown ballpark.

The Beavers spanned my childhood to my adulthood. Their games helped my dad and I bond – I went by myself quite a bit, too. I’ll always regret not being able to be there when Fernando Valenzuela, who had accepted an assignment to the Angels’ AAA club in 1991 after years with the Dodgers, pitched against Portland. My family went, having made signs welcoming “The Fat Boy,” as my dad called him, and my dad got interviewed by the local paper about Fernandomania. He told the reporter that he wished his son was there to be interviewed, because Valenzuela was and is my favorite player of all time.

I had to work that day.

On Aug. 14, 2010, I went to what is likely to have been the last Portland Beavers game I will ever see. The attendance that night, a hot one in the Rose City, was 5,183. The Beavers lost 5-1 to the Albuquerque Isotopes, and the most recognizable player in the lineup for the home team was outfielder Wily Mo Pena, a mountain of a man who has had big-league stints with Boston and Cincinnati.

Even Lucky Beaver (he’ll always be Round Tripper to me), the mascot, looked kind of down.

I sat down the third-base line, kept score, laughed at the promotion (What if Portland had lost the historic coin flip and was known as Boston, Oregon?) and bought a pair of Beavers flip-flops, half-price in the team shop. Everything was on sale, because everyone knows the Beavers are leaving. Sad to see them go, but I’m glad I had them for so long.

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3 responses

18 08 2010
Shelli

Nicely written! P.S. I got a signed baseball from Hedy Vargas as a kid, you ‘member, right? 🙂

18 08 2010
The Wife

Love it! Makes me sad to see them go. Thanks for sharing this part of your life with me.

6 09 2010
Forever a Portland Beavers fan, even on this sad day « My life of sports, y mas

[…] is heart-wrenching. The Beavers were such a big part of my youth, even my adulthood. I’ll hold out hope that baseball will come back to the Rose City someday, […]

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