Pickles go to the 'Future'
What will baseball be like in 2050?
The Portland Pickles have a vision for that, and they tried out some of it on Thursday night.
In a brisk Fourth of July exhibition, the Pickles faced off against the Corvallis Knights in front of a Walker Stadium-record 2,997 fans, winning the first-ever "Future" game 11-3.
The West Coast League rivals played under a set of unorthodox rules that kept everyone on their toes.
"It was a lot of fun," said Portland infielder Jonathan Kelly, a recent West Linn High graduate. "It was a lot different. Those rules trip you up a little bit. But I hope they continue to do it because it was a good experience, for sure."
How does someone try to envision what baseball will look like in 30 years?
Pickles majority owner Alan Miller first took notice of what leagues like the WCL are doing to stand out.
"Certain leagues are popping up based on unique or new rules that kind of help push forward," Miller said. "And we talked about how baseball has never had any major changes, so we thought it would be fun" to do a "Future" game.
Miller and Corvallis CEO Dan Segel, along with Segel's friend Doug Nichols, came up with some unique rules, then got in contact with WCL Commissioner Rob Neyer.
Once Neyer confirmed that the ideas were for just an exhibition game, he was all in, even contributing some ideas to the cause.
"Alan came to me and said, 'We want to do this,' and I said, 'Of course, why would you not want to do that!'" Neyer said.
"He said this is cool," Segel said of Neyer. "He was super supportive, and he had some input as well."
The WCL is not affiliated with the MLB. That gives the summer wood-bat league for college players a lot of freedom with promotions and ideas as crazy as possible baseball in 2050.
While Neyer admitted there are certain limitations (league games have to stick to certain NCAA rules), WCL owners have much freedom to do what they want.
"It's the West Coast League, but really it's the Wild West League," said Neyer, who is in his second year as commissioner. "We don't have somebody who owns the leagues and says, 'You guys have to do A, B and C.' Every team is essentially free to do whatever they want."
With Neyer's permission, Miller started putting together the logistics of the game. The Pickles and Knights donned new uniforms, with Portland wearing a multi-colored jersey designed by a fan and the Knights wearing skin-tight jerseys with nicknames on the back.
Some nicknames were future-related, with references to such luminaries as "Back to the Future" movie characters McFly and Biff. Others were more personal, like Tracer for Knights infielder Tracye Tammaro, who also plays for the University of Portland.
The game featured seven major differences in rules from regular baseball. The game was shortened to seven innings, had a 15-second pitch clock, and only eight defensive players were allowed on the field.
The game also introduced a yellow bonus ball. The bonus ball could be used only on offense, and the result of the play was essentially doubled. For example, a single became a double, a double equaled a home run, a strike was an automatic out, a ball was a walk, etc. Each team had seven bonus balls and use no more than two in an inning.
"I love the bonus balls," Segel said, who wore a black jumpsuit and funny hat along with assistant coach Youngjin Yoon to honor Morris Buttermaker from the movie "The Bad News Bears."
"I think I'm sitting on 7 for 7 on these," Yoon said.
"Eight for eight, actually," Segel quickly corrected.
The rule that took the biggest adjustment was the offense's ability to switch direction on the base path. In every odd inning, the batting team had the option to run the bases clockwise, going from third to second to first to home.
The flip threw off teams on both sides. Multiple outs occurred simply because a player started running to first and had to change quickly. One time that mistake led to a run for Corvallis, which tricked the Pickles into forgetting which way they were going to drive in a run in the third.
"Running the bases was weird," Kelly said, laughing. "I mean, everyone ran to first base."
"I think going backwards in the odd innings is going to be a little weird," Portland coach Justin Barchus said before the game.
Barchus and his staff didn't have to worry too much about managing this one, however. Both sides let their players take over, with Barchus and company retreating to the Northside Ford Party Deck.
"You just got to play like kids," Kelly said.
How did that turn out?
"(Kyle) Manzardo didn't do such a bad job at third base," Kelly said, referring to first baseman Kyle Manzardo's work as Pickles manager.
A special bunting rule also was in effect. Any bunt hit, as judged by the umpires, counted as a double, while any foul ball on a bunt attempt was an automatic out.
The bunt, or more accurately the lack thereof, played a significant role in the outcome of the game. In the second inning and with two out, Kelly came to the plate. On-field announcers Jeremiah Coughlan and Jake Silbermann started heckling Kelly to try a bunt, getting the crowd to cheer along with them.
But Kelly didn't bother listening, looking at Manzardo at third base, shaking his head and determining he was going for it. It paid off, as he hit a three-run home run over the left field wall to extend a six-run second inning.
Kelly said he wasn't going to let Coughlan and Silbermann tell him what to do.
"I was thinking, 'No way I'm going to do that,'" Kelly said of bunting. "Especially with no strikes."
The atmosphere of an exhibition game is different than that of a league game. The tone of the game is looser, less intense than your average Pickles game. The environment was what allowed Coughlan and Silberman to riff and heckle the players, pressuring Kelly into bunting and commenting on the tightness of Corvallis's jerseys as well as their model-esque looks, as they described it.
"We can have a little more license to goof off with the mics," said Coughlan, who co-hosts the weekly Portland Pickles podcast "Brine Time" with Silberman. "When we're doing stuff, we're having a little more fun, and it seems the players are having a little more fun."
When they aren't keeping fans entertained at Pickles games, the duo works as comedians, performing frequently at the Helium Comedy Club in Portland. Working these exhibition games allows them to put their comedic chops on display in ways they wouldn't be able to in a regular game.
"It's very freeing," Silberman said. "You basically get to clown the whole time."
"They're the pulse right now of these games, and I think they do an incredible job," Miller said. "We've been waiting to let them loose all season, and so this is the opportunity where we said, 'Jeremiah and Jake, you guys are tonight's stars, you go out there and put on a show for everybody,' and I think everyone's been really enjoying it."
Miller said he was more than open to changing some things, though, for a future "Future" Pickles game.
"This is a test," he said. "Next year, maybe we can try a few more things and tweak it a little bit and keep getting better and better. And maybe that's what we do and we help invent baseball in the future, going back in time just like Marty McFly did."
Baseball is a very traditionalist sport. Historically, the game and its overseers are resistant to change.
"No, these rules aren't good for the future," Barchus said bluntly. "I think there are some positive changes that can be made to the game, but I think these are a little drastic."
"Nothing really," Kelly said as to what major rule changes he could see for baseball. "I think baseball's been the way it is because it's such a good game.
"But this was a lot of fun. I hope they do it in the future."
Barchus and Kelly admitted the 15-second pitch clock was good, however. And while not everything done Thursday night at Walker Stadium will happening in Fenway Park in 2050, Neyer said some change to the pro game is inevitable.
"Baseball always has been quite wedded to a tradition in its rules, but I think that's going to change in the next few decades," Neyer said. "I think big leagues like this will be test beds for crazy new rules.
"Major League Baseball in 2030 or 2040 will be recognizable, but it will look different in some ways, whether we can come up with a rule in our league or not.
"I don't know when, but it'll happen. There'll be some changes."