Kitsap BlueJackets are still around … just not in Kitsap

The Kitsap BlueJackets haven’t gone away.  They’ll just be going away, spending their entire summer baseball season playing games outside the borders of Kitsap County. That’s the price the team is paying for leaving the West Coast League for the Pacific International League.

“It is what it is,” BlueJackets first-year manager Abe Lupkin said following Tuesday’s 8-1 loss to the Everett Merchants at North Mason High School.

“We still want to be the Kitsap BlueJackets. In 2018, hopefully we’ll be back in the county.”

The BlueJackets’ future in Kitsap came into doubt last summer, when owner Matt Acker announced he was starting a new West Coast League franchise — the Port Angeles Lefties — in 2017. With the BlueJackets annually struggling to put fans in the seats after 12 WCL seasons at Gene Lobe Field at the Fairgrounds, Acker felt it was time to seek prosperity elsewhere.

Yet Acker, who spent seven seasons as the BlueJackets manager before becoming owner in 2014, didn’t want to leave Kitsap empty-handed. He kept the BlueJackets intact as new members of the PIL, an eight-team semi-pro league with teams in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, as well as British Columbia and Alberta in Canada.

“It would be really easy for me to just move my team to (Port Angeles) and call it a day,” Acker said.

The BlueJackets’ move to a new league didn’t come without a curveball from the Kitsap County Parks Department: The BlueJackets would no longer be given priority usage of Gene Lobe Field, which also hosts high school and youth baseball games throughout the year.

“They made it so the priorities were different,” Acker said.

Parks director Jim Dunwiddie explained the BlueJackets previously received a priority usage exemption as a historic user, having played at Gene Lobe since 2004.

“The priority of field use was tied to the team as a member of the West Coast League,” Dunwiddie said. “The franchise’s relocation removed such consideration.”

Needing a new home venue, Lupkin said the BlueJackets nearly struck a deal to use the Suquamish Tribe’s Totten Road baseball field in Poulsbo.

“Then they shut it down for repairs,” Lupkin said. “Last minute, we are trying to scramble for a field.”

The BlueJackets (1-3) managed to secure three home games at North Mason, but will finish their 30-game PIL season with 12 home games at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey.

Tuesday’s game at North Mason gave players a glimpse of what operating without a true home venue looks like: no announcer, no scoreboard operator, no programs, 15-20 spectators — pretty much zero frills.

Even the BlueJackets’ dugout looked fairly empty compared to how it will appear two weeks from now. Lupkin said two-thirds of the team’s roster is still away at college.

“It’s just how you run it in the summer,” said Lupkin, whose team practices at Kingston High School, where he is head baseball coach.

Despite not playing games in Kitsap, Lupkin said the BlueJackets feature several local players, including Central Kitsap grads Aki Buckson and Griffin McCormick, Klahowya grad Tanner Zuber, North Mason grad Daulton Geyer and North Kitsap grad Nash Gowin, as well as a couple Olympic College players (Jacob Price and Ben Tinnel).

“We’ve got a pretty good mix,” said Lupkin, whose assistant coaches include North Mason head coach Bill Geyer and Klahowya assistant coach Joe Valley.

The youngest player on the team is 17-year-old Jacob Denney, a senior at North Kitsap who helped led the Vikings to a fourth-place finish at the Class 2A state tournament in May.

Denney, who’ll play at Olympic College next season, likes getting an opportunity to compete with the BlueJackets, a team he grew up watching.

“It’s pretty cool,” Denney said. “I came here knowing I needed to get reps before next year.”

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