BELLINGHAM – On the same baseball field where Ken Griffey Jr. got his professional start, disappointment hangs in the air.
The designated Burger Batter from the opposing team walks instead of striking out, so fans at Joe Martin Field won’t receive coupons for a free Dairy Queen burger on this night. Soon enough, though, the dance moves of the Bellingham Bells’ mascot, Dinger the hamster, cheer them up.
After the game, players walk through the concession area to the clubhouse, where wide-eyed kids line up for autographs.
The scene playing out at Joe Martin Field is echoed throughout the West Coast League, the independent summer league the Bells are affiliated with. Players with at least one remaining college season arrive each June in 12 Northwest towns — including Yakima, Bellingham, Bremerton, Walla Walla, Wenatchee and Longview in Washington. They stay with host families and play a pro-like schedule of five to six games a week, hoping this will be a springboard to the major leagues.
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Mascots, announcers and coaches, who also sometimes live with host families, search for something bigger as well.
“We just want to help people chase their dreams,” said Stephanie Morrell, the Bells’ marketing director. “Our broadcaster left his wife and family (for the summer) because he’s chasing the dream of calling games in the big leagues. From him to the person in the hamster suit, we’re just trying to help everyone reach what they want to do.”
Many WCL towns, like Bellingham, have lost minor-league teams. They’re fighting for the same thing the players are: to stay connected to baseball.
A family affair
Every good morning begins with the smell of coffee.
It gets Nate Esposito out of bed and to the kitchen table of Peter and Rozanne Lind’s home in Wenatchee.
The Linds are Esposito’s host family for the summer, where he’s a catcher for the WCL’s AppleSox and plays at Oregon State. His AppleSox teammate, Ian Buckles, stays there, too.
Players are hosted by families free of charge. Buy a plane, train or bus ticket into town, and the rest is taken care of.
Esposito and Buckles are the reason the Linds buy five dozen eggs at a time, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’ve been opening their home for eight years.
“It’s weird, but I feel like I’m at home,” Esposito said. “I feel like they’re my parents and I’m a little kid again.”
Not every host situation is the same. In Yakima, pitcher Kenny Rosenberg lives with a 25-year-old single mom with two young daughters.
Most WCL players don’t know their teammates when they arrive. The league has a rule restricting teams from having more than four players from one school. Bellingham has three players from the University of Maine, for example, but also pulls from Northwest schools like Gonzaga.
Sometimes, a relative unknown slips in: Buckles, in Wenatchee, hails from tiny, Division III George Fox in Newberg, Ore.
This is Buckles’ second summer in the WCL. He’s proving himself against the players with scholarships at bigger schools.
“Last summer I remember pitching against Cowlitz and I had thrown five or six shutout innings,” he said. “I remember hearing their coach yelling in the dugout, ‘This is a D-III guy. Figure it out!’ ”
He grins. “It was so sweet.”
In the stands
If you go to a baseball game at Yakima County Stadium, you’ll hear Mike Wilson’s booming voice.
Loud, but with a hint of playfulness, he yells, “One, two, three, SEE YA!” after an opponent strikes out.
He has been in the same two seats for 20 years, dating to when Yakima had a Class A minor-league team, the Bears.
A couple of seats down from Wilson is Kathi Bonlender. She’s been coming to baseball games in Yakima for more than 20 years, usually with her husband, Ron.
After Ron died almost three years ago, it was hard for her to go back to the stadium. Being at the games reminded her of Ron.
She’s back at the ballpark now, still wearing her wedding ring.
Watching the Pippins gives her a chance to joke around with the rest of Section C and enjoy the sunshine in sweltering Yakima. West Coast League baseball gave her a place to heal.
“The first year, it was really hard,” she said. “But these guys gave me a great support system and a lot of laughs.”
The West Coast League is not only about giving players a chance to develop, but about the opportunity for towns to reconnect with the game.
Yakima’s old Class A team, the Bears, moved to Hillsboro, Ore., in 2012, and the town was without baseball until the Pippins showed up on their doorstep a year later.
In Bellingham, the Bells paint a similar picture: They played in the Pacific International League from 1999-2004. Before that, Griffey played at Joe Martin Field with the Bellingham Mariners of the Northwest League. There are photos in the stadium’s concourse to prove it, next to a sign that reads “Who’s next?”
“This is a baseball town,” Morrell said.
Even without an MLB-affiliated team, Bellingham has still embraced its summer team. Joe Martin Field holds about 1,600, and the Bells usually fill it.
Other teams with smaller parks, like at county fairgrounds, bring fans in with minor-league-style promotions.
The Kitsap Bluejackets, playing in one of the smallest and oldest parks in the league (no seating behind home plate and no clubhouses), still draw well. Kids’ activities between innings and a beer garden for their parents are enough to bring many families out.
Two-Dollar Tuesdays, Mom Mondays, Bobblehead Nights and loony-looking mascots can be found around the league. The WCL injects the nutty nature of minor-league promotions into a league that still has the heart of college sports.
In Wenatchee, Esposito and Buckles return home in the wee hours of the morning.
They’ve just finished a six-hour bus ride after playing their sixth game in as many days.
The house is quiet. Peter and Rozanne went to bed hours ago, but there’s food in the fridge and a note from Rozanne: Here’s what I made for dinner, and I hope the game went well, too.
Their days of late plates and early-morning coffee with the Linds are winding down.
Soon enough, Esposito and Buckles will have to leave. And 360 players will leave the West Coast League to go back to school.
For some, like Esposito and Buckles, this will be the last summer league they’ll ever play in — a bittersweet goodbye for players who have played summer ball since they were Little Leaguers.
Only one more year — their senior season — of baseball is guaranteed.
The draft is daunting. It can be a revolving door to a career of baseball or an unforgiving exit from the game.
The West Coast League prides itself on being a launching pad for top baseball talent. The WCL had 57 alumni drafted in 2013. Its alumni include Jacoby Ellsbury, Tommy Milone and Mark Rzepcynski.
The dream doesn’t die easily. Two months of bus rides, bunts and batting gloves in the heat of Walla Walla or the drizzle of Bellingham could bring players a step closer to the majors.
Just like the towns that host them, WCL players are trying to put off their farewell to the game.
“I think everyone is told at some point in their life that they can’t play the children’s game anymore,” said Rosenberg, Pippins pitcher. “You’re always going to be told that. We’re just out here trying to play as long as we can.”