When Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan purchased a minority stake in the Portland Pickles baseball club back in April, he stated his intention to be involved in the operations of the team, while helping to craft an eccentric atmosphere at the ballpark.
The idea was intriguing and certainly helped to drum up interest in the second-year franchise, but some folks — including fellow owner Bill Stewart — harbored doubts that the professional football player would wind up having the time or the interest required to really make the wheels go round.
“I didn’t think he would be involved so much. Being a professional athlete I figured he’d be kind of behind the scenes until he retired or something but he’s been very hands-on,” said Stewart, who has owned minor league baseball teams and junior league hockey teams like the Portland Winterhawks in the past and currently holds a partial stake in the Clinton Lumberkings, the Seattle Mariners’ Single-A affiliate.
Stewart noted that Ryan serves on the Pickles’ board of directors and marketing team and has made himself available for numerous on-field stunts, like a home run derby and the fan-favorite ‘Tackle Jon Ryan Night.’
“I’ve wanted to own a team pretty much my entire life and really got serious about it over the last couple years,” said Ryan, who came to the Pickles with plenty of out-of-the-barrel ideas brewing.
The Pickles are in just their second year of existence and are the northermost team in the Great West League, a collegiate wood bat summer league that stretches down to Lincoln, California, which is northeast of Sacramento in the Placer Foothills As a new commodity in an unfamiliar league, the Pickles are happy to have all the help they can get in getting the message out about their particular brand of baseball.
“I feel like we’re doing a great job of bringing entertainment to the ballpark,” said Ryan. “The atmosphere at Walker Stadium is awesome. We have so many things going on that we have a packed house almost every night.”
Ryan noted that Walker Stadium maxes out at 2,300 fans and that the team typically brings in at least 1,300 fans on Monday nights when other teams in the league struggle to reach 400 fans.
As a teenager growing up in Canada, Ryan was ultimately pulled away from the diamond in favor of the lacrosse but he always retained a soft spot for America’s pastime. Ironically, it was his travels in the NFL that led him back to the world of baseball.
“It wasn’t until I was playing in Green Bay that I fell back in love with baseball,” said Ryan, who became fascinated with the Green Bay Bullfrogs of the Northwoods League. “That was the first place where I really saw collegiate wood bat summer ball.”
So far none of his Seahawks teammates have been beating down the door trying to buy up stakes in the Pickles but he says that the team’s goofy name and logo have certainly sparked plenty of conversation.
“They all think it’s awesome,” said Ryan. “They’ve all seen the merchandise, too, so they’re all bugging me for hats and stuff. They all want free merchandise.”
A Centralia GWL team?
Both Ryan and Stewart noted interest in expanding the presence of the Great West League in western Washington. Stewart noted Centralia, in particular, as a possible landing spot for a franchise so long as sufficient updates could be made to Ed Wheeler Field.
“We’re definitely going to be expanding. This is our first adventure and we’re just kind of getting our feet wet and learning as we go,” said Ryan.
Stewart said that Portland has turned out to be a particularly fertile environment for growing the Pickles brand.
“I think Portland is a much better baseball market than people give it credit for,” said Stewart, who noted that the Hillsboro Hops have helped to drum up interest in high-level baseball in the area following the departure of the AAA Portland Beavers in 2010. Stewart calls Walker Stadium, the Pickles’ home park which was originally built in the 1950s, “Probably the best baseball field in any collegiate league on the west coast.”
The park is run in conjunction with the Portland Parks and Recreation District and includes box, bleacher and berm seating. Last year the Pickles filled the stadium to 97 percent capacity over the course of the season. The berm seating has been particularly popular with fans, Stewart said.
“We’ve got a lot of room for the kids to play alongside third base. There’s not a lot of beer sales down there and kids can play catch with their dads,” explained Stewart. “I think people like the idea that you can bring the family out and sit on one side and there’s not a lot of people drinking. And if you want to drink a few beers you just go to the other side.”
Stewart added that the Pickles offer free food for children in attendance on Sundays and estimates that the team serves about 700 free hot dog meals on those days.
First-year Pickle Cameron Mosier, who is preparing for his redshirt junior year as a catcher at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, says that the atmosphere at Walker Stadium is better than any he’s ever experienced as a player.
“It’s unreal going from St. Martin’s, where we’re lucky to get 150 to 200 people,” said Mosier. “Just the adrenaline. It’s something I’ve never experienced because I’ve never had the opportunity to play in front of that many people before.”
A graduate of Mark Morris in Longview, Mosier says he has been thrilled with his experience as a Portland Pickle thus far.
“To be honest I didn’t really know what I was getting into coming into it. I honestly was clueless, but it’s awesome,” said Mosier “Portland is just a goofy, fun-loving community and they’ve embraced us like we’ve been here for years.”
If not for a last-second change of plans, Mosier could have wound up playing far away from his friends and family who have quickly figured out that the relatively short trip to Portland is well worth the up close and personal ballpark experience. Two-dollar beers on Tuesdays don’t hurt, either.
“I had my plane ticket bought and everything to go to Virginia and go play over there,” explained Mosier. “Two hours after I bought my plane ticket for Virginia, I got a phone call from the general manager of the Pickles. It was kind of a no-brainer as far as how close it is and the competition is pretty decent, so I said no to Virginia and I’m a Pickle now.”
That decision lined Mosier up for a 65-game season that will feature roughly six games per week through the first week of August. He says the Great West League is loaded with Division I ballplayers who, for one reason or another, failed to find a ton of field time during the collegiate season.
The players hail from all over, including Maine, Ohio and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, and they stay with host families from around Portland. Mosier credits an early season six-game road trip for helping the team to find their chemistry out of the chute.
“I just feel like being on the road for a week straight it didn’t really give us any option but to get comfortable with each other,” said Mosier. “Sleeping four guys to a room you’re going to get to know each other pretty well.”
Mosier’s season started slowly at the plate but he got into the swing of things early in the Pickles’ first homestand of the season with a walk-off hit to clinch a Portland victory.
“I hadn’t had a hit up until that point, I think I was 0-7. I ended up having two strikes and battled off a pitch. I was just looking for something I could get my bat on and it carried,” said Mosier who was ceremoniously mobbed by his teammates following the game-winning single. “It was a really cool way to get my first hit of the season in that environment. I didn’t really see the ball hit the ground because I was just running but I heard the fans go crazy and I looked toward the dugout and I was just met by like 34 dudes who tackled me.”
That’s not the only time this season that a mass of bodies has stormed the field in an effort to make a tackle. On ‘Tackle Jon Ryan Night’ all children 12 years of age and under were allowed a chance to try to bring the Seahawk punter down en masse.
“There as a mob of kids facing this huge punter, he was just juking them out and then he finally gave up and they took him down,” said Mosier.
Although he says an angry NFL linebacker is a whole lot more terrifying, Ryan says he learned something that day.
“It was a lot of fun and I didn’t realize how big 12-year-olds are first off, and second off we had about 150 kids out there,” noted Ryan. “As it turns out I was caught but I wasn’t actually tackled.”
Mosier says that those sorts of oddball interactions are what makes the Portland Pickles experience so unique and memorable for players and fans alike. Mosier noted that Ryan attended four of the Pickles’ first six home games and Ryan says he plans on attending more in the future, including games in northern California closer to where he is training for the upcoming football season.
“He really does make an effort to be a part of it,” said Mosier. “He’s really interactive with all of us and plays catch with us after games.”
To hear Ryan tell it, he’s having just as much fun at the ballpark as the players of the fans.
“It’s pretty cool to just be down on the field and talk to the players. It’s kind of a dream for me too. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to hang out on a ballfield like that,” said Ryan. “They’ve been great guys. We brought in a really good group of guys. I’ve just been very impressed with the maturity level of these guys. They seem to be a lot more mature than I was at that age.”
Additional information on the Portland Pickles, including their home schedule and roster can be found online at http://www.portlandpicklesbaseball.com.