Sunday, June 6, 2010
WALLA WALLA - Blue skies and freshly cut grass weren't the only friendly sights greeting fans at Borleske Stadium Friday.
The Walla Walla Sweets held their first community day as an opportunity for fans to meet and mingle with players and coaches before Tuesday's opening game against the Wenatchee Apple Sox.
Dressed in practice gear, the players left the dugouts and met with fans, who were as excited as the players about the upcoming season for the first-year expansion team of the West Coast League.
John Gallagher, a long-time Walla Walla resident, was excited to see baseball players return to Borleske Stadium after witnessing Hall-of-Famers Ozzie Smith and Tony Gwynn begin their early professional careers there, as did actor Kurt Russell.
"I see people here getting ready for life," Gallagher said about the Sweets. "It's nice to see people here looking forward to this team. I look forward to the season."
The Martinez family began its journey in Culiacan, Mexico, then flying from Arizona. Their son and sibling, Jesus Martinez, an outfielder, is playing for the Sweets.
While watching his son in batting practice, Jesus Martinez Sr. said he was impressed with the event and the players.
"Very friendly team, very friendly environment to meet the fans," Martinez said. "Nice experience. They [the team] had the opportunity to communicate with the people and meet the little kids and the guys were very respectful to the fans."
Fans attending the event also got a sneak peek at what others will see in next Tuesday's season opener.
About $250,000 and scads of work has gone into the historic stadium in preparation for opening day. The press box and the concession stand have been remodeled and box seats and Diamond Club theater seats have been added, along with a party deck near right field. There is also a beer and wine garden at left field and traditionalists will be delighted with the hand-operated scoreboard on the left wall.
Brian Biagi, a Mac-Hi graduate and current Lewis-Clark State pitcher who grew up playing summer ball in the park, was impressed by the changes.
"This park, growing up, has always been here," said Biagi. "To see it come together like this is unbelievable, really. I can't believe that these people came in and made this place. It's a great venue for baseball."
General Manager Zachary Fraser said the renovations were to create a professional environment for players and fans.
"Over the course of the next couple weeks, as our staff gets used to running the stadium and being at (the) ballpark and our coaching staff gets used to our players, you'll start to see things get even more fined-tuned," Fraser said.
In front of the freshly painted blue bleachers, fans shook hands with the assembly of collegiate players, most of whom arrived in Walla Walla during the week.
Many of them recently wrapped up college ball, except for the three players from UCLA and UC-Irvine, who are still competing in the NCAAs.
Their smaller-school counterparts are a little fresher.
Right handed pitcher Jordan McLaughlin of Truman State University has been done with college ball since May 2 and is eager to get back on the diamond. Like his fellow hurlers, McLaughlin looks forward to throwing in the pitcher-friendly park and against wood bats.
"As a pitcher, I think I have the advantage," McLaughlin said. "I mean, I hate college metal bats because if you make a good pitch, they still get a hit off you. Wood bats are a little more true and if you make a good pitch it usually results well for the pitcher. Metal bats, it's a toss-up, it could go either way."
McLaughlin, who hails from St. John, Mo., is enjoying his time in southeastern Washington.
"I like it," said McLaughlin, who arrived Monday. "I like the scenery. Definitely got to get used to the mountains because of where I am from. It's certainly a cool place."
Living with a host family has not been a difficult transition for the 22-year-old.
"They treat me well and they have a little boy who is definitely looking forward to coming out to the game and seeing some baseball," he said.
Fraser said the team has already made efforts to build chemistry, including an impromptu bowling night set up by some of the players.
"It's kind of the thing you do with your high school and college team, but these guys are from all over the country and don't know each other at all," Fraser said. "To me that was a special sign that we have a special group of guys in terms that they are stepping up to make guys feel like they're part of a team and that they are going to have each others' backs when things get tough on the field."