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September 9, 2003

Breaking Balls

Fun with the AquaSox

by Derek Zumsteg

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I saw the last home game of the Everett AquaSox last week. The Northwest League is short-season A-ball, with eight teams, all in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia.


Rounded to thousands, from the 2000 Census, except for Vancouver, B.C.

Host City                     Population
Boise, Idaho                  432,000
Eugene, Oregon                323,000
Everett, Washington           91,000*
Salem-Keizer, Oregon          347,000*
Spokane, Washington           418,000
Tri-Cities, Washington        192,000
Vancouver, British Columbia   514,000
Yakima, Washington            223,000
* part of a larger metropolitan area

Talk about market inequities, this is crazy! Not as crazy as New York only having two teams, but how are the Yakima Bears supposed to field competitive teams when those fat cats in Canada have twice the population base?

I wrote a column earlier this year about checking out Triple-A baseball in Tacoma, and it's a great contrast. "PCL baseball offers a talent level that feels like watching the two worst teams in baseball play each other on a travel day," I noted. Short-season A-ball feels like watching two really good prep squads with wildly uneven talent on the roster go at it. When I went, it was like seeing a really good college squad face a really good high school/junior college team.

For instance, the Salem-Kaizer Volcanoes fielded an old squad--it seemed the whole of the San Francisco Giants' 2003 draft class was there (rounds 2, 4, 5, 7-12, 15, 19, 23, 30), and they were college kids, 22-24 years old almost to a man, while the AquaSox this year were much younger. The Volcanoes, as you'd expect, ran off a 43-33 season, while the home team finished 32-44. The college kids also brought their girlfriends (possibly wives) in Volcanoes gear, while the AquaSox didn't.

Everett Memorial Stadium is an intimate neighborhood park, modest and unassuming, easy to look past. It holds a couple of thousand people, and it's all metal stands with seats and bleachers, which enhances the prep feel of the place. After a good play, fans stomp their feet, producing a wide taka-taka-taka sound that makes me smile. The field's nice. Like all minor league fields I've seen, I look at the surface and think "man, they need to get that color even, and fix that trim..." as if they've got the kind of money and manpower major league teams muster to produce their perfect fields.

The teams don't have clubhouses in the park itself--they have to walk up to what is essentially a high school locker room, where the facilities are pretty bad. The lockers aren't tall enough for a uniform, I hear, so they have to hang them up on wires that are strung across the aisles. But what are you going to do? This isn't the Midwest League.

Everett Memorial is also host to the Everett Merchants, who play in the Pacific International League, the "Northwest's premier summer collegiate baseball league." They play with wood bats, and I didn't find out about them until after their season was over, so I have no idea who's there, or why, or how, or even if they run the bases counter-clockwise or not.

Anyway, on the last day of the season, the AquaSox were intentionally running out of food. They wanted to have nothing in the racks at the end of the season. So at the start of the day, you couldn't get a chili bread bowl, because they were out of bread. No chicken sandwiches. Usually at Everett, they'll run a promotion late in the game, when they want to clear the grills, and announce two dogs for $1 to a stampede of fans.

Thursday, they were announcing all kinds of random sales, and the vendors walked the aisles trying to get rid of the scraps left in the store room, cutting prices as they went.

"Peanuts, fifty cents!"
"Right here."
"I've only got the shells, is that okay?"
"No!"
"What if I throw in this half-used container of drain cleaner and said twenty-five cents?"

Everett's a good time. Everyone working at the stadium's relaxed and kind. It's a much easier commute from Seattle than Tacoma, and on days the M's aren't in town there are a lot of fans in team jerseys. Everett's also got a 20-year history, and there are even more people in AquaSox T-shirts and hats, and the rest are people out to hang out on a nice summer day and watch some baseball. Everett offers a couple of cool mini-ticket plans: Fridays, Saturdays, and days the AquaSox are home and the Mariners aren't.

Everett games are broadcast on KSER 90.7, an independent community radio station. Instead of commercial breaks, they run educational snippets. I walked out to the concourse during the game to hear this snippet: "...a ship of blacks, and became the richest man in Hartford...."

No, I have no idea what that was about. Pirates, maybe. During the course of a game, as if you're not learning enough from the fine announcing of Pat Dillon, you'll also have the station try and teach you something about history, geography, or maybe the mating habits of squid (actual tidbit).

Oh, the game. Badly played. I don't go to a minor league game expecting to see a defensive ballet, but the final score was 10-6 Volcanoes, with seven errors counted between the two teams. It looked briefly like what you'd expect from the last game of the season--hacking like the Tigers, on pace for a two-hour finish--and then it went downhill.

Adam Jones was the only AquaSox prospect of note, the Mariners' first-round pick this year. Playing shortstop, he looked solid defensively except when he had to turn the double play, where his footwork was rough and he looked like he wasn't entirely sure what he was supposed to be doing. Jones also has a cannon for an arm, firing bullets from deep in the hole.

The AquaSox also played all three of their catchers: one caught, one played DH, and one played at first base (badly). Other than that, though, a lot of relievers, and not much of note.

Baseball fans do a lot of complaining about our lot in life, forced to pay to see games live, or having to listen to color men we hate if we sit at home and watch. In almost every major market, we have our choice between: some of the best baseball played in the world; at least one minor league team within a reasonable drive if you want to see the players of tomorrow (and yesterday) take the field; your local high school; and a couple of college teams. We can be led in cheers by the obey-o-tron, or stamp your feet with a couple thousand locals.

It's a pretty good lot in life.

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