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Though Gov. Kate Brown says no mass gatherings through September, the team says it hopes to play before fans this year.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Corbin Carroll, an outfielder for the Hillsboro Hops last year, was the 16th overall pick in the 2019 Major League Baseball draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks.Despite a Thursday, May 7, announcement from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown pointing toward the cancellation of mass gatherings in the state into the fall, Washington County's only professional baseball team says it hasn't given up hope of playing this year.

The Hillsboro Hops, a Class A Short Season affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, released a statement to the Pamplin Media Group on Thursday saying there have been "no final decisions" about the 2020 season.

The Hops play in the Northwest League, which typically begins a 76-game season in June after the Major League Baseball draft. Games continue into September, when a league champion is crowned after a playoff tournament.

The Hops are the most recent champions of the Northwest League, adding a title in 2019 to previous championships in 2014 and 2015. Since relocating from Yakima, Washington, after the 2012 season, they are the winningest team in the league.

"The Hillsboro Hops have been in constant dialogue with state, county and city officials throughout the pandemic and were aware of the work being done on large public event guidelines that the governor issued today," the Hops said in a statement Thursday. "While we remain hopeful there is a path forward to play in front of our fans in 2020, all conversations are fluid and no final decisions have been made about the upcoming season."

Brown said Thursday morning that while some social distancing policies are being relaxed this month — non-emergency medical and dental procedures have already resumed at many clinics, state parks are beginning to re-open, and certain businesses will be allowed to re-open with restrictions as soon as May 15 — others will likely remain in place until a vaccine against the novel coronavirus is available.

Nearly 3,000 Oregonians have tested positive for the coronavirus or have presumptive cases of COVID-19 based on symptoms and contact with known cases. More than 120 deaths have been blamed on COVID-19 in the Beaver State.

Brown also said Thursday that state authorities are recommending that events like festivals, concerts and major sporting events be canceled at least through September, and perhaps later.

"Large gatherings, including live sporting events with audiences, concerts, festivals and conventions, will not be able to return until we have a reliable treatment or prevention like a vaccine," Brown said at a press conference.

Multiple vaccine candidates are in varying stages of development, but none have yet been approved to protect against the coronavirus, which was first diagnosed in humans in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

If sports games are canceled through September or later, that would put the Northwest League season in jeopardy. Three of the league's eight teams — the Hops, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes and the Eugene Emeralds — play home games in Oregon. The others are scattered across Washington, Idaho and British Columbia, where similar restrictions are currently in place.

Like virtually all other professional sports, Major League Baseball itself is on indefinite hiatus. While some recent reports have suggested growing optimism within league and team offices that a season will be played, it is unclear what form it would take, when it would start or whether it will indeed move forward.

The Hops indicated in Thursday's statement that they aren't planning to move ahead with a season without state and local officials' blessing.

"The Hops have been diligent in our adherence to the advice of local public health authorities and government agencies throughout the crisis and will continue to do so," the team stated, "with the safety and well-being of our fans, staff and players as the club's highest priority."

Significant changes could be coming to minor league baseball as early as next year.

Baseball America and other national publications have reported recently that negotiations between MLB and the minor leagues could result in 40 or more minor league teams losing their major league affiliations.

Right now, minor league teams like the Hops field players and coaches who are under contract with a major league team — the Arizona Diamondbacks, in the Hops' case. The arrangement allows minor league teams to put top talent on the field, while major league teams use those minor league affiliates to develop prospects. Promising young players will hone their skills and receive coaching across multiple successive levels of play before they're called up to the major leagues.

Class A Short Season is one of the lowest levels of play, and Hillsboro may be the first stop in professional baseball for a young player drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks, especially if he already has some college experience.

However, according to Baseball America and others who have reported on negotiations between MLB and the minor leagues, MLB is strongly considering eliminating the short-season levels of play. In that case, at least some short-season teams could be promoted to full-season play — giving them an April start date instead of a June start date — although some could instead lose their ties to MLB parent teams.

Whether the next home game in Hillsboro is later this summer, next June or next April, without the kind of restrictions that exist in Oregon now in place, history suggests it could draw thousands of fans. The Hops consistently rank in the top half of Northwest League teams by attendance, averaging 3,516 per game in 2019, according to league statistics.

Meanwhile, the Portland Pickles — a semi-professional team not affiliated with minor league baseball — announced plans Thursday to play games without fans present from July 2 to Aug. 9. A schedule has yet to be published, and the league in which the Pickles play hasn't formally announced what it will do yet while restrictions remain.

By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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