‘Band of brothers’ from Snohomish make Merchants a family affair

Finally, they’re together on the same team.

Just when it looked as if it would never happen.

The brothers Rodland, Eric and Kevin, played together in backyard games growing up in Snohomish, but because several years separated them in age, they never got to play on the same team together.

When Eric was starting his final season of professional baseball, Kevin was playing his final season of high school ball.

Eric went to work as an engineer, Kevin went off to college. It seemed as if they were destined never to play together.

Then a curious thing happened. Eric went to a Seattle Mariners game this spring and suddenly realized how much he missed playing baseball.

Brother Kevin already was signed up to play this summer for the Everett Merchants, a team made up of college players and former pros. Eric had played two summers for the Merchants while in college, and long-time Merchants manager Harold Pyatte had great memories of his performances back then.

So when the 2009 Merchants’ campaign began, there the brothers were, not only on the same team for the first time, but playing next to one another — Kevin the starting shortstop, Eric the starting second baseman.

“It’s a great experience to play with him up the middle,” Eric, 29, said between swings in the batting cage before a game last week, “and to get to see him compete every day.”

Little brother’s eyes were alight with excitement, too. Not only because he’s getting to play with his older brother, but because he’s teaming up with a couple of life-long friends and former high school teammates, the Hammons brothers, Jake and Nick.

In other words, there’ll be nights this summer when the Merchants take the field that half of the position players could be brother combos from Snohomish. For instance, in that game against Tacoma last week, Nick Hammons, who finished up at Everett Community College this spring, was at third; Kevin Rodland, a senior at Nevada-Reno, was at short, and Eric Rodland, a Boeing engineer, was at second.

Jake Hammons, a senior at Central Washington, would ordinarily have been the starting catcher, but he had the night off until the ninth inning, when he came in to close out a 9-2 Merchants victory on the mound.

The Snohomish influence goes even deeper. Kim Hammons, the highly successful Panther baseball coach and the father of Jake and Nick, is one of Pyatte’s coaches. And Aaron West, who helped lead the Panthers to the Class 4A state title in 2008, is a pitcher from the University of Washington.

The Snohomish kids are used to winning. The Brothers Four figure they have more than 60 years of organized baseball among them, and maybe two losing seasons. That’s counting Little League on up through high school, college and Eric Rodland’s four years of minor-league ball.

The winning tradition is continuing this summer with the Merchants, who were 14-5 as they headed into a tournament in Canada this week. This team, Pyatte said, is the best one he’s had since the 1988 squad that won the National Baseball Congress World Series.

“This club has more depth than in ‘88,” he said. “We don’t quite have the pitching (we had then), but we have (better) hitting and defense and we can run.”

He isn’t shy about ballyhooing his Rodland double play duo, calling it the best in the Pacific International League. And they look as if they’ve been playing together forever, instead of just one month.

“You can see the confidence they have in each other when they have a double-play opportunity,” he said. “They read one another really well. And they’re always back-slapping and kidding each other.”

Jake Hammons gives the up-the-middle defense even more strength from the catcher’s position. “He’s going to throw out almost anyone that tries to run on him,” Pyatte said. “He doesn’t lollipop it in there.”

The Hammons and Rodlands not only played backyard games together as boys, but during the summer, their families would vacation at Lake Chelan. They’d boat, swim, fish, hunt toads.

Now here they are in their 20s, still having fun together. Still kidding one another.

Even Kim Hammons — or “Skip” as he’s known to his former players — joins in the ribbing. “They have some interesting conversations in the dugout,” he said of his sons, when Nick is pitching and Jake is catching. “Like, ‘Why’d you call that pitch?’ Or, referring to the Rodlands, ‘Hey, that was a lousy feed.’”

All said in good fun.

When Nick Hammons starts praising the composure Eric Rodland demonstrates when he’s batting, Eric rolls his eyes and lets go with a mildly sarcastic, “Oh, stop it.”

They all laugh.

Nobody laughs when Eric gets in the cage to take batting practice. They marvel at his swing.

“A sweet, beautiful thing of perfection,” Merchants coach Beau Blacken said about the left-handed hitting Rodland’s stroke. “It epitomizes the KISS Method — keep it simple stupid.”

“It’s almost a flawless major-league swing,” Pyatte added. “He’s got an excellent eye and he knows the strike zone.”

That eye and that swing allowed him to bat .300 for the Class AA Texas League Arkansas Travelers, an affiliate of the California Angels, in 2006.

That offseason, he decided to retire from the game, citing burnout.

No regrets? “I wouldn’t say that,” he said with that same calm he brings to the plate.

As for the decision to play for the Merchants, that’s been nothing but positive.

“Probably the most fun I’ve ever had,” he said. “I wanted to focus on enjoying the game, not putting any pressure on myself, and smelling the grass.

“The best thing I can pass on to these guys,” he said, nodding to his brother and the Hammons boys, “is to have fun.”

After all, it’s a game.

Article courtesy of Everett Herald