HILLSBORO, OR. -- I'm sitting in a seat behind home plate. The Hillsboro Hops left fielder is standing at the plate, waiting. A runner is on third. It is the third inning, or maybe the second, I don't know -- it's early, in any case. My beer is still cold. The sun is setting behind the stands and a cool breeze whips the flags on the pole out in left center. The mascot is doing what looks like a jig with a kid. The pitcher comes set. My four-year-old son jumps from his chair, dumping his ketchup-covered hot dog off his lap. I follow its meandering path down his leg, off my foot, onto the ground, leaving ketchup footprints each step of the way, rolling, rolling, rolling off the ledge and under the seat in front of us. It falls and the crowd roars its approval. As it turns out, they weren't cheering the hot dog. The left fielder homered. I stand and applaud a player I've never heard of put a team I've never seen before up 2-0. We'll buy another hot dog later. This is baseball in Portland, Oregon.
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The Hillsboro Hops baseball team is not named after tiny jumps; it's a nod to the local beer culture in Portland, Oregon. (A hop is a flowering plant used to add spice and flavor to beer.) The Hops have a mascot. He is a hop. His name is Barley. That doesn't make any sense, and yet silliness like that is not at all unusual for a short-season single-A franchise.
The Hops are the new team in the Portland area, playing in a newly constructed stadium just west of the city in the new (well, globally speaking) suburb of Hillsboro, Oregon. They are the only professional baseball team in the Portland area.
In fact, Portland hasn't had any team to call it's own since the Triple-A Beavers moved following the 2010 season. The Hops' arrival means that, for the first time in three seasons, I could attend a professional baseball game without leaving the Portland area. So attend I did. I caught my first game this past weekend and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The park's roughly 4,000 seats were mostly filled, everyone was friendly, and the weather was perfect, hardly unusual for a Pacific Northwest summer day. Even the beer was cheap and, as you might expect of this team, good.
My only complaint has nothing to do with the franchise, players, ballpark, or even the ill-named mascot. My only complaint is that this is it for professional baseball in Portland, Oregon.
As you're probably aware, Portland is a relatively big city. It's not New York, Philadelphia, Houston, or even Seattle, but it's not small, especially when you consider its suburbs. Portland has an international airport, a couple rivers, lots of parks, restaurants, bars, and other things that big cities have. The 2010 Census ranked Portland's Metropolitan Statistical Area (I've lost you already, haven't I?) as the 24th largest in the nation. By population, the Portland area is roughly the size of Pittsburgh or Denver, and bigger than the Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, and, of course, Milwaukee areas. (Everything is bigger than Milwaukee.) All of which means the Portland area is, to coin a term, major-league sized. Yet Portland has never had a major league baseball team to call its own.
Portland does have a history of minor league baseball that stretches back more than a century, but nobody has ever even tried to put major league baseball in the Rose City. As with most things of this nature, the answer to "why?" gets complicated.
I spoke with Rob Neyer, a fellow Portlander and expert on this kind of thing (read: Portland and baseball). The gist is this: over the last century, Portland has been home to multiple Triple-A franchises, but they've never adequately supported them. Thus, the teams have always left the city for places that, though maybe smaller, have fans that are interested in going to the games. If you can't support a Triple-A team, so goes the reasoning, then clearly you're not going to support a major-league team either.
That's not entirely fair to Portland, however. Major league baseball is quite different than minor league ball. The finances, the stadium, the attention, and the corporate presence are all vastly different. It's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison. Further, the city rabidly supports both a pro basketball team and a Major League Soccer franchise. And Portland has evolved over the last few decades, too. Today the city has one of the better restaurant, music, and beer scenes in the country. Okay, the best beer scene in the country. These are marks of a city that appreciates quality, and taken a step further, is willing to pay for quality. So you'd think that a city like that would appreciate major league baseball.
Directly relevant or not, though, Portland's long history of not attending Triple-A games impacts the city's ability to draw a major league team. Put it this way: if you don't hit in the minor leagues, they won't bring you up to the bigs.
Another factor is the weather. For my money there is no better place to be than the Pacific Northwest in summer time. The weather is fair, not too hot, almost never muggy, few bugs (though we do have lots of spiders!) and the sun is always out. However, as you may have heard, the other nine months out of the season are on the rainy side. Portlanders pride themselves on being outdoor types despite the weather, and they are, but outdoorsy or not, few people want to sit in cold drizzle for three hours in April, May, or June, even if it's to watch a Major League baseball team. Seattle solved their version of that problem with a sliding roof, and before that a dome, so there are ways around that problem.
But that brings us to the next problem: there isn't the political will to spend what it would cost to build a stadium, and there isn't the money to build one even if the will existed (which it doesn't). Additionally, the corporate base is smaller in Portland than maybe its census figures would suggest, so selling out luxury boxes would be more difficult as well.
Then there is Seattle. People from areas outside the Pacific Northwest tend to think of Seattle and Portland as sister cities, like Baltimore and DC or San Francisco and Oakland. Except Seattle and Portland are 180 miles apart, three hours by car if you're traveling on fantasy highway, more if you're taking I-5 in the real world. Seattle and Portland are the same distance apart as Baltimore and New York City. Yet, because there aren't as many other cities, the two are lumped together. This is problematic. Nobody thinks the Orioles are infringing on the Yankees' market, but there are many people who think a team in Portland would cut into Seattle's territory.
The end result of all this is that, while Portland may be the largest city in the country without a Major League Baseball team, there are no signs that anyone is out to remedy that situation any time soon. String time out to infinity and at some point in the future Portland will get a Major League team. There are too many people and too much money here not to put a team here, be it 20 years, 50 years, or 100 years. It'll happen.
But for now, those of us who love baseball and call Portland home will have to make do with Barley and the Hillsboro Hops, punctuated by the occasional drive up I-5. There are worse things than beautiful weather, good beer, and cheap tickets, even if you do have to spring for the occasional extra hot dog.