Minor Teams Pitch Friendliness

Fans delight in the open-air charm of three games in Pacific Northwest

The Seattle Mariners may be the Pacific Northwest's only major-league baseball team, but they hardly qualify as its only baseball attraction.

The region is dotted with minor-league clubs that strive gallantly to corner fan interest. They stretch from the Southern Oregon Timberjacks in Medford, Ore., to the Vancouver Canadians in British Columbia.

This writer sampled some of these sites during a recent visit to the area, where the Mariners were in the midst of a long home stand.

As popular as the Mariners are right now, they play indoors in the Kingdome, an aging facility that comes down in 1999 once a new ballpark with a retractable roof is built.

For the moment, experiencing the joys of open-air baseball can mean tripping off to different locations. My first stop was Everett, Wash., north of Seattle, to see the AquaSox, followed by Portland, Ore., home of the Rookies, and finally Tacoma, Wash., to watch the Raniers.

Everett was an inviting first stop, given the positive review the AquaSox games received in Fodor's guide to baseball vacations (see review, right).

A short trek to this once-self-proclaimed City of Smokestacks was definitely worth the drive. Just pulling off the interstate into an unmetered, on-street parking spot across from Memorial Stadium was a pleasing experience, as was popping into an impressive souvenir shop incorporated into the team's headquarters.

Margaret and Bob Bavasi (Bob's father was a Dodger executive) own this first-class operation, a member of the Northwest League that plays a short season (June through August).

This is the Mariners' Class-A affiliate. Many players are rookies - fresh from college and not destined for the majors. Yet that hardly matters to the fans, who enjoy excellent field proximity and friendliness.

During a rare afternoon game, the atmosphere seemed as important as the on-field play. For the many children in attendance, there was the fun of seeing Vince the auto crash dummy throwing out the first ball, frog mascot Webbly working the crowd, and remote-control model cars raced between innings. After the game, youngsters could earn "Aqua Bucks" by joining a cleanup brigade.

Fans of all ages rushed the concession stands, and for good reason. Beside the usual ballpark fare, the menu included such upscale entries as minestrone soup ($3) and chili in a bread bowl ($3.50).

For all their fan-pleasing efforts, the AquaSox only drew a third as many customers last year as Northwest League rival Portland, Ore., whose Rockies came within five fans of becoming the first short-season club to reach 250,000 in attendance.

An average crowd for the Rockies is about 6,500, but even that many people can get lost in Portland's 23,000-seat Civic Stadium.

Portland, with a population that dwarfs Everett's, should really have a higher-level team, and for many years did. In 1994, however, the Triple-A Portland Beavers moved to Salt Lake City and the Rockies stepped in the following year to fill the void. Their open-air park has a large, canopied grandstand and artificial turf. It's tucked into the heart of Portland, a plus for those who wish to soak up the cityscape and use public transit.

Under threatening skies, I purchased a $2.50 seat in what is called the Rockpile, a bleachers section beyond the 25-foot-high left field wall. Picking one's vantage point on the spur of the moment is one of the beauties of minor-league attendance.

Another is the humor, such as the shtick perpetrated in Portland by a mischievous mascot who throws a visiting player's glove over the fence. At a Tacoma (Wash.) Raniers game, the comedy is more subtle if no less effective. Smiles break out when the announcer identifies the parking lot's dirtiest vehicle, the owner of which is entitled to a free car wash.

The Raniers, a Triple-A affiliate of the Mariners, play in the storied Pacific Coast League. By definition, the look and feel of play on the field is more polished than in Everett or Portland. Some of the players have big-league experience and could be called up to the majors at any moment.

One might wonder why people would pay to see the Raniers when just 30 miles away their parent club usually has tickets available. Part of the answer at any minor-league park is lower cost and often greater charm. On a clear day, the Tacoma club can also offer one thing the Mariners can't - a view of Mt. Ranier.

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