Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dam Soccer

In case you haven't heard the news, the major leagues are coming to Portland, Oregon. In 2011, the Portland Timbers of the United Soccer Leagues First Division—professional soccer's equivalent of AAA—will become the newest expansion franchise of Major League Soccer (MLS). What this means for the Portland Beavers, the Pacific Coast League (AAA) affiliate of Major League Baseball's San Diego Padres, is that they'll be losing their home and there's not a “dam” thing they can do about it.

The Beavers' current home, PGE Park, is easily the nicest minor league park I've ever visited. Unfortunately, this season will be their second to last there, as the city of Portland has announced plans to renovate the stadium to make it more suitable for play at professional soccer's highest level, and to build a new park for the baseball team. Since the Timbers and Beavers are both owned by the same company, the baseball team is not actually getting kicked out of their home. However, having been raised by a father who considered soccer to be un-American and even downright evil, I feel it is my duty to report on the injustice that this situation represents.

Outside PGE Park
Seriously, KJ and I visited PGE on Friday night. Our purchase of seats directly behind home plate—five minutes before game time—and the night's total attendance of just over five thousand, does not bode well for Portland's chances of being awarded a Major League Baseball franchise in the not-too-distant future. But, that didn't detract from an enjoyable experience at a truly great park.

It was Family Feast Friday, which meant hot dogs, ice cream and bottled water could all be purchased for just $1 each. It was also Girl Scout Sleepover Night, as the girls from the local scout troup were camping out on the field after the game. We ran into an old neighbor of KJ's, and he just happened to be one of the parents involved with the Girl Scout event. I told him that, personally, I'd probably be just as excited as the kids about the prospect of spending a night on a professional baseball field. He may or may not have agreed with me, but he didn't give me a funny look, so my guess is he did.

Inside PGE Park
The fact that you can take the MAX, Portland's Light Rail Public Transportation System, to a stop just outside the stadium is another huge plus, even for a city that just seems to do most everything right. Obviously, they're not the only city that offers this, but it still reminded me of our experience trying to get to Turner Field via the subway.

A brave 11-year old girl performed the national anthem. Despite some problems with the sound system that didn't provide the best representation of her performance, she was great. She may not have always been perfectly on key, but I was amazed that she reached the higher notes virtually effortlessly, and was adorably giddy once her work was complete. We were told by our very friendly—not an aberration in this neck of the woods, by the way—usher that her family was in the section next to ours, and we believe we caught a glimpse of her grandfather crying.

PGE's left field wall is an intriguing hybrid of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. It's roughly the same height as the Green Monster and is covered in ivy. There is also a row of seats at the top of the wall that look directly down at the left field warning track, but what's most impressive is its manual scoreboard. It's 60 feet wide and stands almost seven stories high, and displays not only the game's line score, but also both teams' lineups and the current balls, strikes and outs. According to the Beavers' web site, it takes a staff of four to operate.

PGE Park scoreboard
There was a small group of annoying fans sitting directly to our right, dispelling the myth that everyone in Portland is cool. I gave all of them nicknames, with their obvious leaders being "The Know-It-All," a version of whom is found in every park, and "Herm," who as far as I know is unique to this particular place. In my opinion, Herm overdid it a bit with her heckling of Tim Raines Jr. of the visiting Omaha Royals. Raines didn't seem really phased, though, as he hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to deep center. I was fully prepared to give him a standing ovation had he hit a grand slam. It's fans like Herm that reinforce my otherwise unusual desire to root against the home team.

The star of the game was Omaha starting pitcher Mike O'Connor, who was released by the Padres just a month ago, and was making his first start for his third organization of 2009. He outdueled Aaron Poreda, one of the players obtained by San Diego in the Jake Peavy deal, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. O'Connor threw seven scoreless innings, allowing just three hits while striking out six, and combined with reliever Carlos Rosa on a three-hit shutout. Omaha scored four runs in the seventh on their way to a 5-0 victory over the home team.

Overall, Portland's PGE Park has just about everything I look for in a baseball venue. I love the urban atmosphere and the uniqueness of the stadium, as well as the fact that it is simply a really nice place to witness a professional baseball game. I can only hope that the Beavers' next home is at least as good as their soon-to-be old one.

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