A WOMAN NAMED Tiarra, wearing a tiara, sings the national anthem in a near-empty stadium. She’s this year’s Miss Emerald City Washington, and her voice sails over White Center’s Mel Olson Stadium, farther than any baseball that will be hit that day.

It’s a pretty day — sunny and warm — and Tiarra Ford is singing her heart out, standing on home plate. She hits the last notes, the majestic ones, and the smattering of fans put their hats back atop their heads and clap before settling in to see the young college men of the Highline Bears baseball club play a game.

Tiarra heads back to the stands. She keeps her tiara on. She’s also got a sash. She sits with her friend in an empty section of the first-base-side bleachers. Sitting there — the locals watching those athletes with their wooden bats, worn gloves and freshly laundered jerseys — you can hear the umpire coughing, the toes of the starting pitcher tapping the mound, the kids squealing on their scooters in the parking lot just past the chain-link fence that is right field.

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The players on the field are excited for the game to start. The PA guy is rumbling out the starting lineups like it’s a WWE match. The Bears, this day, are playing the Fellowship of Christian Athletes baseball club.

Buntly, the Highline mascot, prowls the stands. The bear’s head is too big, and whoever’s inside it has to keep adjusting the unwieldy thing. Regardless, Buntly is nothing if not a consummate professional, and so he dances and wiggles about for no one in particular.

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The ballgame feels festive and fun, and those who are there — who purchased their $8 tickets, and who might go for clam chowder later at the concession stand — are peppy and eager to cheer the Bears to a resounding victory.

That’s rare for the Bears — being victorious. The Bears, members of the Pacific International League, a summer college baseball league, lose a lot. By way of example: A recent game was tooth and nail. It was tied 6-6 in the top of the eighth inning. By the middle of the eighth, it was 12-6, after their opponents scored six runs on no hits. Bears pitchers kept walking them in — again and again and again and again.

Pitcher Josh Sivonen, wearing a large plastic gold chain, handles the rally fish in the bullpen. Bears pitchers get on a slow opponent — “Unhook the trailer,” they yell. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Pitcher Josh Sivonen, wearing a large plastic gold chain, handles the rally fish in the bullpen. Bears pitchers get on a slow opponent — “Unhook the trailer,” they yell. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

They keep losing. If someone called them the Bad News Bears, that wouldn’t be any sort of stretch. Despite the losses by the ragtag team and the many empty seats, there is a true joy at the park that permeates everything — the game is a jubilee. There is red, white and blue bunting hanging everywhere. There is a passel of Little Leaguers watching intently on the first-base side, eager to get any sort of interaction from the players, jostling and jokey, on the field. The players are horsing around, clear smiles on a blue-sky day, enjoying the chance to play organized ball in front of the kids, the parents in the stands, Miss Emerald City Washington and the locals who realize a team even exists in their neighborhood. In White Center, that town between West Seattle and Burien.

 

“THIS IS A LOT more than about baseball,” says Justin Moser, a former second baseman for the Bears who is now the CEO and general manager of the team. He has run the team since it came to fruition in 2015. “The impact we have on the community is what drives me. … Being able to create something and be a part of something that means so much to those that come.”

There’s that famous line in the movie “Field of Dreams” — “If you build it, he will come.” Come, slowly and surely: The fans have come to watch the Bears play since their inaugural season. In 2015, the season’s total attendance was 1,985. The league’s season is short — June to August — summer play for players when school isn’t in session. By 2017, attendance hit just about 6,000. With an operating budget of approximately $75,000, last year’s attendance total was nearly 8,000.

Moser says he hopes the Bears will one day join the more prestigious West Coast League (a league whose teams include, among others, the Portland Pickles, Bellingham Bells, Yakima Valley Pippins and Walla Walla Sweets). Moser says, “In five years, I see a team drawing an average of 700-plus a game, 32 home games.”

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That’s hard, now, to fathom, watching the game Tiarra performed for. There are 70 or so fans sprinkled throughout the bleachers, half on the opposing third-base side, even with the root-beer garden open; even with the merchandise table offering up hats, T-shirts and hoodies; even with the silly pizza-box challenge between innings; even with the players hitting screaming doubles and striking out opposing batters. On a recent poll on Next Door, localized to the Bears’ White Center home, 75% of respondents said they had no idea that a team existed.

It’s a sparse but prepared crowd on a chilly Friday night in White Center for a Pacific International League game between the Highline Bears and the Everett Merchants. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
It’s a sparse but prepared crowd on a chilly Friday night in White Center for a Pacific International League game between the Highline Bears and the Everett Merchants. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

White Center’s main drag is 16th Avenue. It’s two blocks west of the ballpark. It hasn’t changed much since local hero poet Richard Hugo drank at the Triangle Tavern there and wrote poems. In his 1980 book “White Center,” he wrote, “A small boy runs the home run out again/alone in the snow. Did you see that, bison?/It comes back often that the river doesn’t care/the last game died on the scoreboard./It comes back once a lifetime/we hear someone cheer.” The tavern, now called Mac’s Triangle Pub, has a small photo of Hugo up on a wall.

Not quite Seattle, White Center is not a destination spot most people think of for an entertaining night under warming outfield lights.

The neighborhood struggles. According to U.S. Census data, the median household income is $47,746, with nearly 20% of White Center residents in poverty. Violent and property crime are both higher in White Center than the state average. And yet White Center is thinly blossoming, like a flower grown up from sidewalk cracks.

“The day moves loud in the leaves like a tremoring past,” Hugo wrote. “Some form in the dust, a blinding sky on the way.”

The sky, it seems, is the limit for the neighborhood. White Center is becoming a welcoming haven for the local LGBTQ community. There’s a new doughnut shop where kids are pawing on the glass cases for chocolate sprinkles. A brewery recently invited some little goats to frolic with the thirsty customers. An ice cream shop offers a bounty of flavors while sticky-fingered clientele play pinball. And, two blocks away, sits White Center’s field of dreams, as young men play baseball.

Buntly the Bear encourages the contestants in a doughnut-eating contest. Everett’s Jake Tilley, left, beat Highline’s Blake Wichert between innings of a Bears home game at Mel Olson Stadium in White Center. Tilley, a Woodinville High School graduate, plays at Skagit Valley College. Wichert, from Chehalis, attends Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma. Neither player was active for the game, as both had been ejected by umpires for refusing to leave their respective foul lines after the national anthem. It’s a tradition between the two rivals. Wichert hadn’t been scheduled to play, but Tilley was, and had to be scratched from Everett’s lineup and replaced. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Buntly the Bear encourages the contestants in a doughnut-eating contest. Everett’s Jake Tilley, left, beat Highline’s Blake Wichert between innings of a Bears home game at Mel Olson Stadium in White Center. Tilley, a Woodinville High School graduate, plays at Skagit Valley College. Wichert, from Chehalis, attends Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma. Neither player was active for the game, as both had been ejected by umpires for refusing to leave their respective foul lines after the national anthem. It’s a tradition between the two rivals. Wichert hadn’t been scheduled to play, but Tilley was, and had to be scratched from Everett’s lineup and replaced. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

THE PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE, founded in 1992, is a wood-bat league. Most of the PIL players are NCAA-eligible. The league is different from some college summer leagues because it allows former professionals and college graduates to play.

The five other teams are the Redmond Dudes; Fall City’s Northwest Honkers; the Everett Merchants; Seattle Wallbangers; and the Seattle Studs, who play in Tacoma. Teams come and go in the league, like the players (Tim Lincecum, Willie Bloomquist, Jason Bay and Lyle Overbay are all PIL alums). The Kirkland Kodiaks were a team for a while, as were the West Seattle Cruisers, the Skagit Eagles, the Yakima P-Knights and the Pacific Javelinas.

Teams that want to join the league are vetted. There is a leaguewide vote. They’re assessed an annual league fee based on budgets. Players in the league pay to play in it. Moser, with Russ Pritchard, Greg Lillehaug and Todd Coughlin, entered the league as the Highline Bears in 2015. “Those guys told me stories of the town’s rich baseball history, and the stadium being packed on weekends, watching baseball legends under the lights,” Moser says. “I wanted to run with it.”

Mel Olson Stadium was built in 1940, christened as White Center Stadium. It was at the heart of the local community. More than 2,000 fans would sometimes fill the stands to watch games. The Burien Adairs played many games there, coached by local legendary skipper Jim Rick. Players like future Mariners great Floyd Bannister pitched. Tacoma native Ron Cey played there, before becoming the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman.

The stadium burned to the ground in 1977.

In time, the stadium was rebuilt to its former grandeur. In 2008, major renovations upgraded the baseball field with synthetic infield turf and other improvements as part of King County Parks’ Community Partnerships and Grants program.

Highline outfielder Cole Chambers (2) is called out at second base, trying to steal, in a Bears game against the Laces Baseball Academy. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Highline outfielder Cole Chambers (2) is called out at second base, trying to steal, in a Bears game against the Laces Baseball Academy. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

NOW, UNDER MANAGER Josh Evans, players play at the ballpark, and fans cheer. Players on the team are recruited by Bears management. Many players are local talent, attending nearby schools like Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon and Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen.

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Danny Shafer, a right-handed pitcher from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, plays at Washington State. Some players go to schools farther afield. Infielder Kealen Martin, from Snohomish High School, hit .290 with five home runs last spring as a junior at NAIA school Kansas Wesleyan. Outfielder Cole Chambers (team-best .404 batting average) and pitcher Cole Connolly (4-4, 3.25 earned-run average) finished their junior seasons last spring at Texas A&M Texarkana, another NAIA college.

“Having a chance to play up with a lot of Division I guys — who are insanely good — gives me the confidence and the reps I need to be successful in my next year of school ball,” says Connolly, who is in his third year with the Bears.

It’s a friendly gantlet of teammates to run through as infielder Zach Spradlin, center, head down, tries to get to the field after the Mel Olson Stadium announcer calls his name. Spradlin hit a team-best .355 as a freshman last spring at Grays Harbor College. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
It’s a friendly gantlet of teammates to run through as infielder Zach Spradlin, center, head down, tries to get to the field after the Mel Olson Stadium announcer calls his name. Spradlin hit a team-best .355 as a freshman last spring at Grays Harbor College. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

James Kobylt is a recent high school graduate from Los Angeles who will play next spring for the Washington Huskies. But now, he’s enjoying his summer with the Highline team.

“Playing with the Bears has been a really enjoyable experience,” he says. “The relationships I’ve built with my teammates and coaches are something I’ll cherish for a long time.”

Trey Hunt, a first-year outfielder who will play at Sacramento City College, says he wouldn’t want to spend his summer any other way.

“My favorite day is opening day,” says Steven Finch, the Bears’ director of baseball operations. “All the new players have never played in front of that big of a crowd, and several players get a chance to sign autographs for the first time in their lives. It’s exactly what we envisioned for the players when we started the Bears.”

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Colton Kelly played outfield for the Bears. Now 23, he’s a firefighter in Moses Lake.

“We played baseball the way it’s supposed to be played,” he says. He reminisces about celebrating wins (they do happen from time to time, though last year, the Bears were 3-17 in league play) with teammates like Myles Wesener, Joel Moore and Travis Cook. These are players who love the game and who probably will never see their faces on baseball cards. No matter. Kelly says, “It was magic. It really was.”

Magic — this season — still seems in the bottle. Not that it isn’t fun at the park. It’s fun. The players are having a blast. A player hits a jolt of a triple and, standing on third base, pantomimes reeling in a whopper of a fish, to the delight of teammates. Whenever a Bears pitcher strikes out a hitter, the bullpen players mirthfully toss their chairs out from under them into the grass and quickly collect them before the umpires get upset. The shortstop makes a diving catch.

Keegan Culp is team mascot Buntley the Bear, interacting with fans and providing entertainment at Highline Bears games at Mel Olson Stadium in White Center. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Keegan Culp is team mascot Buntley the Bear, interacting with fans and providing entertainment at Highline Bears games at Mel Olson Stadium in White Center. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

The fans are having fun, too.

“I like going to Bears games because it’s great baseball,” says Karen Rains, who lives in the Arbor Heights neighborhood next to White Center and whose son was thrilled to throw out the first pitch one game. “It’s in an intimate setting; there’s free parking, extremely low ticket costs and great concessions close to home. We love it!”

People are eating nachos with the goo of near-cheese for dipping. Kids are hustling out into the parking lot for errant foul balls. Tiarra is being congratulated by an older woman for her star-spangled singing. Her sash is aflutter. Each game, a player is chosen on the opposing team to be the root-beer batter. If that player strikes out, fans get $1 root-beer floats. “The root-beer batter was at the plate for the Laces,” Finch says of a recent game. “It was two strikes, and the crowd was chanting, ‘ROOT BEER! ROOT BEER!’ and Michael Jarvis struck him out, and the crowd went crazy!”

Bill Wyllys, the PA guy, is pumping out Macklemore tunes. Buntly the Bear is high-fiving a retiree and trying to put the man’s straw hat atop his gargantuan bear head. The old man is laughing. Little Leaguers are looking up to the players, who are looking up at the scoreboard. Maybe they’ll win tonight. Maybe they’ll lose. No matter — it’s still magic.