Hops ready for 2019 opener
The Hillsboro Hops officially kicked-off the 2019 NWL season by introducing members of the local media to their new manager, a roster full of new and returning players, as well as a host of new concessions during a Media Day presentation Wednesday, June 12, at Ron Tonkin Field.
Starting with a brief presentation from play-by-play man Rich Burk, and ending with an opportunity for a handful of our local media's finest taking a little batting practice off of first year pitching coach Barry Enright, the mood and day was about the excitement of the seventh iteration of Hillsboro Hops baseball.
"This year in particular I'm very excited," Hillsboro Hops team owner Mike McMurray said with a smile. "For whatever reason this offseason lasted forever, and the more we're around here I don't get my major league fix like I'm used to, so I need this."
After two seasons under the reign of Shawn Roof, the Hops have a new manager this season, Javier Colina. The first-year manager is making his second trip to Hillsboro, his first coming as the hitting instructor for the 2015 team that won a league championship. Colina, who will be entering his sixth season with the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization, served last season as a coach with Arizona's Double-A affiliate in Jackson, Tennessee. The new manager was all smiles on this day, excited to be back in Hillsboro and equally excited to be at the helm of the Hillsboro Hops.
"I have great memories here," Colina said. "It's hard to believe I was the hitting coach in 2015 and now I'm here as the manager."
Colina brings with him a wealth of experience in hitting instructor Franklin Stubbs, pitching coach Barry Enright, and bench coach Hatuey Mendoza. Between the three, they have more than 60 years of professional baseball playing and coaching experience.
"We have a lot of experience and knowledge in this staff," Colina said. "I like energy and playing the right way, and we're going to bring the energy and bring that to the players."
Those players recently arrived in town from Arizona. This year's roster offers a wealth of young and older players, including 10 returning Hops from last year's team. In addition, the team is loaded with fresh-faced talent, led by 18-year-old outfielder Kristian Robinson who's the No. 5-ranked prospect in the Diamondbacks organization.
Among the returning Hops, is Andy Yerzy who was a second round selection in the 2016 draft and hit .297 with eight home runs in Hillsboro last season. Yerzy — who was a catcher on last year's team — has spent the early part of this season at Arizona's full season single-A affiliate, Kane County, learning on the fly as he transitions to a new position — first base.
"It's different," Yerzy said. "I've caught since I was seven years old, but I'm starting to get more comfortable."
Despite an obvious desire to move up in the organization, Yerzy said he was excited to be back in Hillsboro, but also that this isn't really a start to his year, but more of a continuation of what is truly a year-round job.
"I think people don't quite understand how much of a grind this is," he said. "I'm obviously doing my dream job, but there's a lot that goes into it with the travel, the food, the ballparks aren't always great, and low pay. I love it, but this is a year-round job."
Team president and general manager, K.L. Wombacher, said the arrival of the players — returnees and new additions — is like Christmas for the organization.
"We have so many faces change every year, and the returners are happy to be back and we're happy to see them," Wombacher said. "Then we have the new players who are seeing Hillsboro, the stadium, and the organization for the first time."
The players however, aren't the only new addition to this year's Hops experience. There's new food, beer, and even a new television contract.
The organization recently secured a deal with Root Sports to televise five Hops games, beginning with their June 29 game versus Eugene. In previous years, the Hops had a similar deal with CSNNW, but according to Wombacher, this deal offers the franchise a much wider reach and indirectly pairs the minor league team with the region's only MLB team, the Seattle Mariners.
"Root Sports welcomed us with open arms from the first conversation and we're excited to develop a mutually beneficial partnership," Wombacher said.
The new beer partnership was due primarily to their former partner, Bridgeport Brewing, shutting down, but Wombacher said their new deal with three separate brewers, Deschutes Brewery, Migration Brewing, and Crux Fermentation Project, will allow the organization to meet an increased longing for a wider range of options.
"Bridgeport was a great partner and we had a great relationship with them, but we kept hearing from fans that they wanted a bigger and better selection," he said. "So we really took that feedback and tried to give the fans more of what they want and asked for."
From a promotional standpoint, the Hops continue their Latin outreach this season with "Sonadores de Hillsboro," a four game rebranding as part of MiLB's national "Copa de la Diversion" initiative. The promotion will include El chavo del ocho night, which will include a generational family comedy show; Salsa dancing night; Taquiza or Taco-fest; and Texan and Mexican music night, featuring music from La reina del, The Queen of Tex-Mex, Selena Quintanilla.
Wombacher said he and his team learned a lot from last year's Lupulos promotion, and believe due to that experience — along with the efforts of Latino Outreach Coordinator Ivan Hernandez — will offer an improved Latinx experience this year.
"We learned a ton last year," Wombacher said. "The feedback has been tremendous and we're excited about the programming of those nights. We've been so much more comprehensive with music, dancing, food, and I think those nights will be really fun."
And "fun" is what this is all about.
McMurray said, that while a business for he and his partners, baseball's a passion first. The owner said he's been a fan since he was nine, and even has the picture in his office with the box score from his first game, which featured Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, and Orlando Cepeda.
"My business partners don't really like me to say this, but it's less of a business and more of a labor of love for me," McMurray said. "We want the guys that start their careers here, to see them advance as far as possible. We get a lot of pride out of that."
And he's seen a number of those, including former Hop Colin Poche, who recently made his debut with the Tampa Bay Rays.
"It's so awesome to see these kids advance," he said. "You'd think I'd get tired of that, but just the other day Colin Poche made his debut for the Rays and luckily I was able to watch it, and I almost started crying. These guys are like my kids."
Hillsboro opens the season tonight, June 14, versus the Eugene Emeralds, and are scheduled to host Vancouver at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, June 21, in their home-opener.