The impending Major League Baseball season is currently poised to bring baseball back to major cities across America in about a month’s time. Municipalities with minor league teams, however, won’t be getting that same sense of normalcy this summer. No dollar hot dog nights. No listening to the radio broadcast as the local boys take on the fellas from the next town over. No box scores and no standings to peruse in the local paper while sipping the morning coffee. It’s a lost season for Minor League Baseball thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while that isn’t the cheeriest of sentiments, at least one franchise is using the time without baseball to deepen its impact off the field since there won’t be anything happening on it.
The Hillsboro Hops are my local team and are the only professional baseball team in the metro area surrounding Portland, Ore. Hillsboro, specifically, is located to Portland’s west along highway 26, the metro area’s gateway to the Oregon Coast. To the east lies Beaverton (home of Nike) and Portland proper. There’s not much to Hillsboro’s west and a sizable chunk of the surrounding area is unincorporated Washington County.
Of all the things Oregon is known for, diversity is not especially one of them, but Hillsboro has a Latino population that is a full 10 percent higher than the statewide average while Washington County’s Black population is slightly higher than the statewide average. Hillsboro has been known as a sort of Latinx-rich city when it comes to the Portland metro area. Seven of every 10 Hillsboro residents are white according to the latest Census data, but that makes Hillsboro twice as non-white as the state as a whole. Diversity is something the state is desperately lacking but if one were to go looking for it, Hillsboro would be a good place to start.
Despite being founded just seven years ago, the Hops have already ingrained themselves locally.
“We got involved in the community right away, which has always been in our DNA.,” club president and GM K.L. Wombacher said. “We’ve always had the attitude of, reach out and give back to the community before you expect (the community) to reach out and support you.”
That line of thinking put the Hops’ franchise on a collision course with some difficult conversations, ones that have been transformational in connecting the organization with its community and ultimately placed them in a position to help at a time when large segments of that community are hurting.
Minor League Baseball in general never seems to be short on promotional ideas. From the strangest of foods to cow-milking contests and everything in between, MiLB has seen it. It began a new theme, la Copa de la Diversión, three seasons ago as a foray into promoting its Latinx players and acknowledging its Latinx fan base by encouraging teams to adopt Spanish team names complete with Latin-themed logos and color schemes. More than 90 minor league teams were scheduled to participate this season, including Hillsboro, up from the 72 teams that participated in 2019. That’s an encouraging sign on the surface but could be easily seen as simple lip service in an effort to sell some new merchandise while getting a few new fans to come through the turnstiles. Truth be told, the Hops didn’t exactly knock their entry into la Copa out of the park on the first try.
“We started with Los Lúpolos, Spanish for Hops,” Wombacher said. “And we kind of went with Minor League Baseball’s suggestion of translating our team name into Spanish, and we tested a bit in the Latinx community and unveiled it and it fell flat. No one really cared and it didn’t connect us with the Latino community the way we wanted.”
A hop, for those outside of brewing circles, is a sort of cone-shaped flower that is used for bittering beer. And with the Northwest’s craft beer culture, naming the team the Hops was an immediate nod to the local nomenclature similar to the NBA’s Trail Blazers (Oregon Trail) MLS’ Timbers (western Oregon is heavily forested), and NWSL’s Thorns (Portland is the Rose City). Sure, Los Lúpolos was accurate, but it wasn’t as meaningful for Hillsboro’s largest minority population.
In an effort to more authentically connect, the Hops’ front office sought greater insight. The team hired Iván Hernández, a local Portland Community College student at the time, to be their full-time Latino Outreach Coordinator and work alongside their full-time Community Engagement Coordinator in an effort to bring greater meaning to their efforts.
We finally found Iván and he was very involved in the community and the more he got out there in the community that summer, the more we realized that we swung and missed on the name,” Wombacher said. “In July of that year, we launched a rebrand process and included Ivan, obviously, with some of our internal team and community members and that’s when we came up with Los Soñadores.”
Los Soñadores translates to “The Dreamers” and there was some initial trepidation around the change.
“So we had a lot of conversations asking, is this kind of statement we want to make?” Wombacher said. “At the time, sports teams were pretty apolitical and didn’t want to rock the boat. We had a lot of conversations around whether or not this was the right thing to do. Finally, we made sure our owners were comfortable with it, and finally we said screw it, of course this is the right thing to do. Let’s make a statement here because this part of our community is really important.”
The DACA Act was recently upheld by the Supreme Court and the Hops see it as something unifying rather than divisive.
“Everyone, every kid that comes to our ballpark has a dream,” Wombacher said. “Every ballplayer who comes to this country has a dream. Every ballplayer who gets drafted has a dream. Kids have dreams to be firefighters, to be doctors. We’re all dreamers. So we loved the fact that no matter what color of skin you have, no matter where you come from, what you grew up with, everyone can dream.”
The Hops saw the change from Los Lúpulos to Los Soñadores as a way to build a bridge with a vital and growing part of the community. They even chose the Alibrije as the corresponding mascot, a mythical creature from Latin culture who visits people in their dreams. The new, more genuine brand has landed on much firmer ground with Latinx fans and has helped cement the Hops’ place in a greater portion of the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has crossed cultural lines, of course, but even with the absence of a 2020 season to play, the Hops have doubled down on their efforts to support their community. They’ve done shoutouts on social media to local graduating student athletes of high school baseball and softball teams. Office staff have delivered meals to front line workers like EMTs and health care professionals as a way of saying thank you. They just launched a co-branded line of face masks with Portland company Baseballism with all proceeds from mask sales going to an organization in Washington County that services families in need of essentials like housing, food and clothing. They even hosted a drive-through ceremony for area youth baseball and softball teams with announcer Rich Burk delivering the recognition.
The pandemic also gave the organization with another hard choice to make, this one financial. The Hops had been working on a large-scale grant program for area organizations, many of them youth baseball and softball-related, that was different from what they had done in the past.
“We’ve done donations over the years. We’ve helped build a youth baseball field over at Glencoe high school, but we got to the point that we really wanted to start making a difference,” Wombacher said. “We don’t want to make little $200 or $500 donations that helps pay for a few uniforms. Let’s start making a real impact. This year our community team put together a grant program and we circulated it through the whole youth baseball and softball community as much as we could and just said, ‘Hey, write us. No cap, no expectations. Just fill this out and tell us what you need. Tell us how much and tell us how we can help.’ ”
The grant requests came rolling in (well before the pandemic struck) and the Hops’ staff went through every single one of them. They approved the vast majority totaling almost $100,000. After dispersing funds, COVID-19 set in and several approved grantees asked the team if they would like their money back. Without tickets or advertising slots to sell for the 2020 season, recouping nearly a hundred grand could be enticing, but the organization stayed true to their mission and told everyone to keep the money.
“Our hope is that every year’s going to be able to make big impacts, like $80,000 or $100,000 or $200,000 and over the course of a few years, we’ll be able to look back and see beautiful fields that have been built, kids that have played together for years and developed friendships with one another playing sports together, they’re better students in the classroom,” Wombacher said. “It’s just going to improve the community overall… A lot teams will donate tickets and say they donated so much money to the community, but it’s not cash.”
The attention on COVID-19 took an abrupt backseat to the rallying cries for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25. As demonstrations took place across the country, the Northwest was no exception, and the Hops felt immediately compelled to jump into the fray rather than stay silent or simply offer condolences.
“As the conversation has shifted from COVID to the racial tensions and social justice… we’ve kind of pivoted there to be more sensitive on the national conversation and do stuff with some of our Black players and also strategize,” Wombacher said.“What can we do from a sustainable standpoint to help this situation? What kind of scholarship program can we put together? What kind of internships can we put together where we’re not sitting back and waiting for applicants or waiting for members of the Black community to come be fans or come work for us. You know, we’re actively trying to be present in the community… I think we’ve got some really good ideas that we’ll be able to put into a sustainable model. We’re not just going to send out a statement like a lot of other companies that says, ‘we support Black lives.’ But let’s do some work behind the scenes and when we come out and release these programs, we can do them every year and they actually make a measurable difference. For us, it’s actions versus words.”
The Hillsboro Hops are a minor league baseball franchise at its core, but the fact that they have a popular brand and a place in the sporting community has only increased the desire to leverage those aspects for deepening its roots locally to do good. And, as with so many things, it stems from leadership. Owners Mike and Laura McMurray have always been all-in when it comes to the franchise.
“When (the McMurrays) bought Yakima (which eventually became Hillsboro), they moved from Southern California to Yakima, Wa.,” Wombacher said. “How many people would move from Southern California to Yakima just because they bought a baseball team that plays two or three months out of the year? They’re committed. They’ve never wanted to be out-of-town owners. They don’t live in some high-rise in Portland, they live here, in Hillsboro. It’s always been important for them to live in the community where their team is.”
The McMurrays buy two tickets to every home game and sit with the rest of the crowd, eschewing an owner’s box for a more authentic experience.
“Having an ownership group, their money is at stake, but they’re invested in Hillsboro,” Wombacher said. “They’re invested in the quality of life here, the people here, they’re accessible. Any one of our fans can come up and talk to them.”
That kind of commitment is reflected in the organization’s actions. They’ve done more than the run-of-mill, P.R.-friendly, fluffy stuff that sounds good in a press release. They’ve had difficult conversations about the touchiest of subjects and taken actionable steps to be visible advocates and supporters in the community.
“We’ve always believed that people don’t buy what you do but they buy why you do it,” Wombacher said.
The Hops are surely not alone in the MiLB community when it comes to connecting meaningfully with their community, but how and, more importantly, why they’ve gone to such lengths speaks to the power and potential of minor league baseball beyond the diamond.
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