Bears baseball: It’s a blast.

Article Courtesy of the Seattle Times

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.
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.

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.”

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