It was still 24 hours away from the team's opening game versus Everett, but it was all smiles at Ron Tonkin Field Monday afternoon, May 3, as the Hillsboro Hops' staff and players prepared for what would be the first meaningful game for the professional franchise and it's players in almost two years.
"The last few days, ever since the team got into town, it's just been this uplifting feeling that we haven't felt in a long, long time," Hops President K.L. Wombacher said. "Just to have baseball back, it's hard to put into words just how incredible it feels."
Both the Hops and Vancouver Canadians — who are playing their 2021 home games in Hillsboro this season due to Canadian border complications as a result of the pandemic — took the field Monday for fielding and batting practice, and with every crack of the bat, a sense of normalcy seemed to crawl back into what has been a mostly quiet stadium since the 2020 season was canceled last spring.
The Hops open their season at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday, May 5, against the Everett AquaSox. Tickets are sparse due to state COVID-19 restrictions limiting capacity to just 15%, but despite the reduced attendance, Wombacher said the game experience will not be dissimilar to what Hops fans have seen in the past.
"Obviously, people will notice the distanced seating, but from an operational standpoint, we're going to try and make this feel like a normal Hops game," the team president and general manager said. "We're up and ready to rock at full speed, we know people are ready to be outdoors with their friends and family, and we know we can keep them safe, so we want to give them what they deserve."
Part of that experience will be the food and beverages Hops fans have become accustomed to. New to this year's game day experience will be a wood-fired pizza oven and smoker, which will provide local baseball fans with a variety of smoked meats.
On the field, the 2021 Hops will be led by first-year manager Vince Harrison. Harrison spent the 2019 season as the skipper of the Class-A Kane County Cougars. He will be joined in the dugout this season by pitching coach Shane Loux, hitting coach K.C. Judge, Juan Francia, team trainer Damon Reel, and strength and conditioning coach Nathan Friedman.
Harrison said he's fairly familiar with the team, having been with the organization for a handful of years, and said fans of the club should expect a pretty aggressive style of baseball from both a personnel and tactical standpoint.
"I'd rather have guys go aggressive and pull back, because I think it creates teachable moments," Harrison said. "I want them not to worry about mistakes. Hopefully we get the guys to play loose, with an aggressive and exciting style of play."
Like everyone, Harrison too was forced to navigate the past year under the dark cloud of COVID-19. He said it was difficult without the game last summer, but it did offer him an opportunity to spend time with his wife and kids.
"I was trying to recall the last time I was home in the summer," Harrison said with a chuckle. "I think it was just a couple months after I graduated high school before I took off for college — so it's been, like, 20-plus years."
Hops outfielder Tra Holmes said he spent the bulk of his time working on the mental aspect of the game. Holmes' father, Earl Holmes, played 10 years in the NFL, and the four-year baseball professional said he comes from a very athletic family. Because of that, he's often relied on his athleticism to get by, whereas now he feels he's much better equipped to deal with the game between the ears.
"I feel like a became more of a student of the game," Holmes said. "I'm not just going out there and using my athleticism to compete. I think about the game a lot more and it's helped me figure out what kind of player I am."
Holmes said he's excited about the roster in Hillsboro this year, which should be a vastly higher level of talent due to the franchise going from Class-A Short Season to the High-A level. He's especially excited to see teammate Corbin Carroll — one of the top overall prospects in baseball — in action.
"I got to see him a bit during spring training," he said. "But I'm excited to watch that guy play on an everyday basis. It's gonna be fun."
Carroll, a second-year pro from Seattle, Washington, was the 16th overall pick in the 2019 draft and played 11 games in Hillsboro, batting .326 with an OPS of .990. The 20-year-old outfielder said he missed playing competitively last season, but he added that he was fortunate to still have the ability to work on his craft at the Diamondbacks' facility in Arizona.
"I was super-fortunate in the way that I was still able to spend a lot of time developing at our complex," Carroll said. "I know a lot of minor leaguers didn't have that luxury. I definitely realize how important my time there was."
Carroll is excited to again be back in the Pacific Northwest, but almost apologetically, he also said he looks forward to moving on.
"I know a lot of guys don't even get this far, but I also realize that High-A ball isn't all that far along," Carroll said. "It takes a ton of hard work and a lot of people may not even reach this level, but with the end goal being making it as a long-term major leaguer, I realize that this is just a step along the way, so I'm never complacent."
It's that appreciation coupled with a genuine love for the game that has Carroll, his teammates and manager, along with the whole front office excited to get things started against Everett Tuesday night.
"I woke up this morning and it hit me that I was going to be able to play a game tomorrow," Carroll said. "That put a big smile on my face, so I couldn't be more excited to go out there with the guys."
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