If you are ever a little down because so much about Portland has become big and confusing, head out to Lents Park, out beyond 82nd Avenue, to a sweet little place called Walker Stadium.
The demise of the Portland Beavers left me a bitter old man. On the night of the last baseball game at PGE Park, I joined mourners down on the field and scooped up a handful of dirt from around home plate. As I walked out of the ballpark, I turned one last time to see the field and vowed I would never set foot there again. I am still true to my word.
In City Hall, I was in the room for the final negotiations that booted baseball out of Portland. I lost track of how many times I had to fake a half-smile for the Timbers owner and the politicians drooling over soccer. That experience made me both determined and deeply fatalistic to bring baseball back to Portland.
A couple years later, as liaison to the Parks Bureau, an enthusiastic guy named Ken Wilson came to meet pitching the idea to use a decrepit 1950’s era ballpark in Lents Park as the home for a wooden bat, college player, independent league team. There are several of these leagues across America. They give young players a place to get better, use wooden bats for the first time and even nurture the dream of becoming a Major League star. (Impossible? Giants All-star, 3 time World Series Champion, Buster Posey was scouted in just such a league.) To my delight, I became the political mid-wife for a baseball team…the Portland Pickles.
For two years I have had season tickets behind home plate for the Pickles. When I advised the owners on how to make the deal happen, I said make it all about East Portland. Make it about families who rarely venture downtown. Honor Lents, yea the old “felony flats.” Baseball with its predictable spaces in between innings means you can make it about fun. By any measure the Portland Pickles are a huge, largely hidden, success.
Every time I walk into the ballpark I get a little emotional that it even exists. I fight back tears at the home openers. I always walk across the park to the stadium. Even before you get to game, you hear it. Corny music, the announcer, the pop of the mitt as the starting pitcher warms up in the bullpen. (This year they put some tape to mark off the bullpen so they didn’t have to shoo kids off of the mounds to warm up relievers.) As I get closer, I smell the hotdogs on the grill and through the fence see the lines for cold beer.
Sold out, the park has room for about 2,400 people. There are several sellouts. Even on a Monday night, 1,500 people come to the games. Along the foul lines there are long raised, grass covered mounds called The Berms. People of all ages lounge on the grass or bring their beach chairs. Families with youngsters are Berm people because the kids can run and play behind the berms. “Meet me at The Berm” is an actual thing in Pickleandia.
Walker Stadium and the Pickles are about the rest of Portland, the part only given lip service downtown. The outfield wall is close, 335 feet, little league sized. They could not push the fence back because of a row of magnificent tall Incense Cedars and deciduous Maples. So the outfield fence is tall, covered with signs, and when homeruns are smashed deep the ball disappears into the trees like a scene out of Field of Dreams.
Seemingly removed from the rest of the world by the wall of trees, you stare out at advertisement signs that remind you where you are. Buster’s Barbeque, Epic Auto Body, Skull and Bones Chiropractic, Sayler’s Country Kitchen, D&F Plumbing, The Shriners, Northside Ford, Burgerville, and in a curious eastside twist a big sponsor is Warner Pacific College. While there is no shortage of craft beers, I always lean toward sipping Hamms on tap as I watch the games.
Listen to the conversations. People talking about their days at work. The electricians arguing over wiring a house. The old guys in front of me talking about what they lost at the horses that day. The guy jumping with his phone because he is on call…software…nope…PGE…power outage. Behind me a couple celebrated their 60th anniversary at the ballpark. On the loud speakers, you are as likely to hear a shout out to a soldier back from deployment as you are to hear the breaking glass sound effect every time a foul ball flies into the parking lot.
Walker Stadium welcomes a diverse crowd. There’s a well-known loud guy who heckles the umpire and sometimes the players. He only stops to go get a cigarette every other inning. I wish he’d lay off the kids on the field. They are just out there for the love of the game, but he bought his ticket.
One evening, a classic PDX hipster couple was sitting behind me in the field seats. The man-bun dude started yelling at the heckler. “Shut up,” “we are sick of you,” “you’re an idiot.” I knew this would be trouble. The heckler yelled back, “oh, is the millennial unhappy?,” “poor millennial” and then the best one, “no crying in baseball!” (Cross-reference a line from a baseball movie and I am all in) When he yelled that, half the bleacher began to chant in unison, “no crying in baseball…no crying in baseball” The clueless and thoroughly defeated girlfriend of man-bun flipped them all off.
Man-bun and his girl were not smart enough to know they were no longer in their Portland. They were in Lents…Pickleandia. While I would have been perfectly serene with him getting a well-deserved whoop’n, there was a security guy who knew the code of the east side and quietly put himself between man-bun and heckler. I just laughed and turned back to see the game. Another great night at Walker Stadium.
The season is now over. I am a little sad. The games are full of the kind of surprises you only get with widely varied talent. And this year, there were major league scouts in the stands. I know the two kids they have their eyes on. Sign the Aussie pitcher and the big guy from UCLA now.
Having real baseball, with good east side people has been one of the great joys of my last two summers. The fans love the kids on the field. Players live with local families who come to see them at every game. In fact, for a few hours, 15 times a year, I get to be with my other family, the good baseball fans of East Portland. Can’t wait for opening day 2018.