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  • 29 Aug 2014

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Hops still green — but fans don’t really mind

Things were hopping Tuesday night at the Hillsboro Ballpark, even if the Hops weren’t.

On a balmy evening made for baseball, a lively crowd of 3,865 seemed only mildly put off by Boise’s 3-0 Northwest League victory, the fifth loss in a row for the hometown Hops.

That’s kind of the way minor-league baseball works.

There isn’t a whole lot of fan identification with the home team. It’s more about the experience at the ballpark, whether in the company of a significant other, friends or family members. It’s about beer, hot dogs, peanuts and — why not? — a little entertainment out there on the field.

The Hops are providing precious little of the latter as they sputter toward the halfway point in their inaugural 76-game season. Their 8-24 record entering Wednesday play trailed NWL South leader Salem-Keizer by 13 games and was three games behind the next-worst team, Eugene, at 11-21.

Hillsboro’s ERA is a NWL-worst 4.06. The Hops lead the league with 53 errors. They are batting an anemic .228, though three teams are hitting worse in a pitching-dominant league.

Yet in their first season, the Hops are a big hit at the gate, averaging 3,745 fans in a dozen home dates. That ranks behind only Spokane and Vancouver in attendance average, and those teams own bigger parks than Hillsboro’s 4,500 capacity.

“If you’re here for every game and are a real diehard baseball person like my wife and I, we’d like to see more wins,” says owner Mike McMurray, who moved the club from Yakima after last season. “That doesn’t detract from how much fun you can have at the ballpark. I don’t think it’s affected us adversely.”

It hasn’t. The Portland area’s first professional baseball team since the Pacific Coast League Beavers left after the 2010 season is making money and drawing fans to a honey of a new ballpark.

“I would say without hesitation, it’s the best minor-league facility I’ve seen in my 14 years in pro baseball,” says Hillsboro manager Audo

Vicente.

The $15-million facility is reminiscent of many of major league baseball’s spring-training complexes in Arizona or Florida. That is by design, McMurray confesses.

“We cheated,” he says. “Some of our recommendations to the city were to replicate the berms and the wide concourses of some of the newer places like Salt River” Fields, the Scottsdale, Ariz., spring training home of the parent Arizona Diamondbacks.

“We’re just so excited about it,” says McMurray, who had run the club in Yakima since 1999. The park “is well beyond what we thought it would be. We knew it was being built as a multi-purpose facility, so we thought we’d have to give up some of the baseball aesthetics. But it is a ballpark, and we love it here.”

The sight lines are good from everywhere. It’s a comfortable park, buttressed to Hillsboro Football Stadium on the north side. Maybe a little small, but construction costs limited the capacity from the 5,500 originally envisioned. On most nights, 4,500 will be big enough.

Pricing is reasonable — $7 for general admission, $11 for reserved seats, $14 for box seats.

“Our rack rate is affordable for a family,” McMurray says. “We’re trying to make the entertainment experience deemed to be worthy of the price we set. We wanted to provide something the whole family can enjoy, not just baseball fans. Maybe as few as a quarter of the people who come to our games are diehard fans. We want everyone to be able to enjoy the game and bring the family with them.”

Even on a promotion night for children’s jerseys (which didn’t arrive, though the kids will get them at a later date), I was surprised at the size of the crowd with the Hops going against the major-league All-Star Game on television.

“I didn’t think we’d get half this crowd,” McMurray says. “We’re appealing to more than just diehard baseball fans. You have to do that to be successful.”

There are picnic tables behind the seating area on the third-base side. On Tuesday night, they were a popular item — and most of the inhabitants were eating, drinking, talking and not paying much attention to the game.

Even if that’s the case, the large crowds have made it fun for Vicente and his players.

“More than we have a great facility, we have great fans,” the Hillsboro manager says. “We as the Diamondbacks’ organization are really happy to see the support the fans have given to our players.”

Everything is not perfect in Hillsboro Ballpark’s maiden voyage. Concession lines were too long on a busy Tuesday night, something that should be corrected as time goes on. The video scoreboard is nice, but how about showing a replay now and then?

Then there is the on-field product. Much has been made of the Hops’ succession of close losses, but they are 5-13 in games decided by one or two runs, 3-11 otherwise. Not much difference there.

The Hops are on pace for Northwest League infamy. In the loop’s 59-year history, only one team has finished worse than Hillsboro’s current .250 win percentage — Bellingham, which went 17-61 (.218) in 1975. It’s not what McMurray had in mind when he moved the team here. So, he says, the Hops will emphasize the positive.

“We have to put on a bigger and better show despite what’s on the field,” the Hops’ owner says. “We know there’s a honeymoon period, but we have a business plan designed to add new things in the future. We’ll make some changes to keep a fresh experience here so we can prolong the honeymoon period as long as possible and make it just as entertaining as a normal season.”

Vicente doesn’t have a real answer for the Hops’ on-field failures thus far.

“We have some guys coming from different programs, and we haven’t had a lot of time together yet,” he says. “We need a little more time to put the little things together. We haven’t played a good first half, but there is time to turn that around.”

The biggest cheers Tuesday night came with the pro debut of Jimmie Sherfy, the ex-Oregon closer who pitched a perfect seventh inning, with two strikeouts and a ground out.

“Unbelievable,” Vicente says. “I was really impressed. This kid is special. His fastball was at 94 (mph), and he had an outstanding slider. It’s good to see a young kid with that kind of command and stuff.”

I’m not sure there will be a honeymoon period for the Hops. Sure, it’s always better if the home team wins. But that’s never been the biggest thing in minor-league ball. Fans are going to enjoy the park and the experience of attending a pro game. The mid-June to early September schedule coincides perfectly with Oregon’s best weather period.

Who can argue with a beer, a dog, good company and a ballgame on a hot summer night?

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Twitter: @kerryeggers