Summer unofficially arrived in Bend, Oregon Friday night. June 5 was the opener of the season for the Bend Elks, the West Coast League’s hometown collegiate summer baseball team, at Vince Genna Stadium. Bend is the first stop in the Northwest arc of towns on the early summer leg of our ongoing American Futures tour. The Elks were a drawing card for another in our series of the Casey Shearer memorial sporting events, which have included coverage of the Duluth Huskies, part of the Northwoods League, and the Allentown Iron Pigs, the triple-A farm team for the Phillies. The like Huskies we saw in Duluth, the Elks are college players who are not paid and lodge with local families who take them in for the summer.
Casey Shearer, a very talented student journalist and writer, died tragically and unexpectedly just before he was to graduate from Brown University in 2000. Casey was the son of our friends Derek Shearer and Ruth Goldway. My husband, Jim, had the honor of delivering the Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture last year.
In a moment of perfect serendipity, we ran into team mascot Vinnie the Elk himself while we were walking down a main street in Bend. Vinnie and his sidekick were handing out free tickets good for the opening game against the Corvallis Knights.
The Elks have been in Bend since 2000. Their roster includes college players from schools mostly in the Northwest, and pitching coach Alan Embree, a former major-league relief pitcher, who was with the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2005.
Vince Genna Stadium, a small, aging, but beloved stadium that holds about 3,500, was built in 1964 and has been home to everyone from American Legion teams to a series of collegiate summer teams and major-league affiliates. Bend citizens rallied to save the stadium from being taken down in 2000. Friday was opening day for the Elks’ 15th season.
We sat in the bleachers along the third-base line. Next to me was a young guy who worked at Enterprise car rental, who had himself played ball for his community-college team probably less than a decade ago. He told me that the players looked good to him, and said the players with professional aspirations found the summer league especially valuable as a chance to hone their skills with wooden bats used in the majors, not the aluminum bats that college teams traditionally use.
In fact, 57 Elks have gone on to play professional ball, and three of them have made it to the majors: Brian Barden of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Eric Sogard of the Oakland Athletics, and the best known, Jacoby Ellsbury, formerly of the Boston Red Sox and now on the DL for the Yankees.
The summer games are a nice draw for Bend. Over a thousand people showed up last night. Well, exactly 1,073, according to results of the guess-the-attendance challenge announced around the eighth inning. Families poured in with toddlers just learning the game and their older siblings, who lined up at the face-painting booth and then roamed free around the stadium showing off their bright, bedazzled faces. Guys in Hawaiian shirts struck up conversations with aging hippies, and policemen who casually watched the gates slapped high fives with old-timers they called by name as they entered or exited the stadium.
I looked for the legendary concessions vendor “Hot Rod” Foster, who has been around the Vince Genna Stadium for over 40 years. Maybe he was working the other side of the stadium, but I did see another vendor, a happy, hefty, likely former-athlete in his 50s, who walked the stairs hawking beer from his shoulder-strapped vendor’s tray with an auctioneer-style patter.
Honestly, it wasn’t the most exciting game, although we did find it easy to stay for the entire nine innings. And after all, the sun was still bright in the sky and warming the air into the 70s until well past 8 p.m. The hot dogs and beer were excellent, easily enough to write home about.
Grant Lucas quotes head coach Trey Watt in Saturday morning’s Bend Bulletin on Friday night’s game:
“Our guys, I could see we were playing a little tight, which is awesome because it shows me that they care,” said Watt, Bend’s first-year coach. “They care a lot about this town, this community, doing well and representing Bend well. It’s just going to be a matter of them trusting their talent, trusting their abilities and just relaxing.”
The Knights scored a run early in the game and two more later on. In the third, the Elks had runners on first and second, when 6-foot-6-inch first baseman Tommy Lane came up to bat. The count was 3–0, then an exciting full count, when unfortunately he struck out swinging. No dice.
The Elks could have used a little more help from their announcer, whose minimalist commentary consisted of saying the name and position of each upcoming batter. The only color-commentary note that I heard came after “the big one,” Tommy Lane, hit an early line drive along the first base line. “Fair ball,” said the announcer quietly, after even I saw that ump’s call and Lane had made it to first. A recording of “Sweet Caroline” around the ninth inning finally got the fans singing along.
Between innings were the familiar interstitials of summer ball: a chip-off golf-putt challenge, a dizzy-bat race, an impressively sustained hula hoop contest for kids, a chicken dance competition with a prize of candy, and a t-shirt throw. The local Summit Express Jazz Band also serenaded the crowd a few times.
Maybe the Elks suffered from a case of the opening night jitters, as sports writer Grant Lucas suggests. Or maybe it was all the pressure of the new season with new ownership, a new head coach, a new mascot, and a new logo. Jim and I are hoping for and expecting good things here in Bend. The Elks and Knights are back tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Let’s root for the home team!
Update: The Elks are back to .500! Last night they pulled out an 8-5 win over the Corvallis Knights, with the tie-breaker game of the three-game series this afternoon.