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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: If minor league baseball goes to the dogs, maybe that's OK

| December 13, 2020 1:30 AM

Taking in minor league baseball games during our travels around the region has become one of the cool parts of summer vacation.

So the news from earlier this week that the Boise Hawks were no longer going to be part of Northwest League baseball — but were still going to be a baseball team somehow, someway — kinda jumped out on the internet.

I mentioned this news to another baseball fan.

Her response?

"Well, I hope they still get to have the dog run on to the field and pick up the bats."

HMMM ...

Maybe that's what's important here.

Maybe not how many future major leaguers your little minor league team churns out.

But maybe how much fun you had at the ballpark — even if the next day, you couldn't remember the names of any of the players.

It's easy to be mad at the "bully" that is Major League Baseball, for contracting roughly 25 percent of its farm teams — though MLB argues those 40 or so teams can still operate as minor league independent teams, or as college wood-bat league teams.

If that happens, it will be interesting to see if folks in those towns still go to the ballpark, even if the chances of seeing, say, the next Jeff Samardzija or the next Rougned Odor are slimmer, but the in-game experience — the contests between innings, etc. — remain the same.

You could argue that major league teams didn't need that many farm teams anyway — though try explaining that to all those towns who will have a harder time dangling that "come watch future major leaguers" carrot in front of their fans.

If they even get a chance to dangle at all.

How this will play out in Spokane, which will have roughly 30 more home games as a result of its move from short-season A ball to High-A ball, remains to be seen. Many of those extra home games will be in late April, May and early June, when the nights are chillier. By the time short-season A ball begins in mid-June, it's pretty much summer around here.

Spokane and five of its Northwest League cohorts — the Tri-City Dust Devils, Hillsboro Hops, Eugene Emeralds, Everett AquaSox and Vancouver Canadians — will find this out together.

Good luck to the two league teams that didn't get invited — the Boise Hawks and the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.

Honestly, Boise has mostly itself to blame for having to fend for itself now.

The in-game experience at Memorial Stadium is fine — especially the batdog. But the stadium itself is outdated, easily the worst in the league.

There was talk of the Hawks getting a new stadium. Then Boise State wanted a stadium for its baseball team that it brought back after a 40-year absence. Then there was talk of one stadium for both teams, but the sides couldn't agree on that.

Then, Boise State axed its baseball program after just one, pandemic-shortened season that consisted of just 14 games. And now the Hawks are no longer affiliated with a major league team, and still have an aging ballpark.

As for Salem-Keizer, Volcanoes Stadium is fairly new (built in 1997). The team drew 2,127 fans per game in 2019, which doesn’t seem bad, but it was last in the league.

You hope the ballpark remains more than just a staging area for folks getting in line to use the drive-through at In-N-Out Burger, which opened last December, roughly one-half mile away.

IT WOULD have been nice had the Indians been aligned with the Los Angeles Dodgers, as was reported — erroneously, as it turned out — last month.

Imagine, say, Cody Bellinger spending a few days in the Lilac City on a rehab assignment as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

But, aside from that, what are the Indians' most-popular draws? Dollar hot dog night, and fireworks night.

Same with the other minor league venues in the region.

The freshness of a newer stadium (Gesa Stadium) in Pasco, with their sun screen to block the heat from the setting sun — though I'm told they goofed when they built the screen, measuring the way the sun hit it in the winter, rather than in the summer.

"Animal House night" at PK Park in Eugene, where they played clips from the classic film between innings.

The buzz at the aforementioned Volcanoes Stadium as former Trail Blazer Jerome Kersey strolled through the crowd. Also, you could see I-5 beyond the outfield fence, and truckers used to honk as they rolled down the freeway past the park.

Went to a game in Yakima, the last year before the Bears moved to Hillsboro and became the Hops. Yakima County Stadium was showing its age by then. Not sure if that was why they left, or the fact they were leaving led to the stadium being like that.

The covered portion of the grandstands at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia, on a warm August afternoon.

Sitting one row from what is now called Funko Field in Everett, where you were within talking distance of the on-deck batter.

Even at UCCU Ballpark in Orem, where the Owlz had a Pioneer League team (playing at Utah Valley University's ballpark) before the Owlz relocated to Colorado this year, part of the entertainment was watching one of the regulars sitting right behind home plate, complaining to the umpire about his ball-strike calls.

That, and wondering if any of the vendor tents were going to get blown away during a windstorm early in the game.

That, and looking over the right field fence and watching traffic flow onto the freeway ("Get a load of that merge!")

Even at a game at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City in 2019, where the players are only one step from the bigs, I remember sitting near the visiting team's dugout, seeing Austin Barnes there with the Oklahoma City squad, having recently been sent down by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I remember telling him, "Hang in there, bud, and next year, you could be a World Series hero."*

*Full disclosure — I didn't really say that to Barnes, though I was happy for him when it worked out that way this year.

Barnes didn't play in that game in Salt Lake, I remember. I had to look it up to recall that future Dodgers Gavin Lux and Edwin Rios did play in that game for Oklahoma City. So did Jo Adell for Salt Lake City. This year, he played a lot of right field next to Mike Trout with the L.A. Angels.

Dustin May was supposed to start that game for OKC, but he had just been called up to the Dodgers.

What I also remember is, late in the game, some guy with a fancy bag full of 8x10 glossies strolled through the stands, down near the backstop and set up shop near the Oklahoma City dugout, hoping to score a few autographs from players to go with his photos after the game.

Now if he could have done that at a Boise Hawks game — get the Hawks' batdog to put a paw print on one of his photos — that would have been a memorable trip to a minor league game.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter @CdAPressSports.