Neither assertion fits the Volcanoes: “The things that MLB has listed, the Volcanoes have,” said Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark, who has supported the team since it arrived in her town in 1997.
Indeed, the Volcanoes play roughly two-thirds of their 76-game regular-season schedule within a roughly 120-mile radius without even leaving Oregon: In addition to at least 37 home games, their closest rivals, the Hillsboro Hops and the Eugene Emeralds, each play roughly an hour away. “Our travel time is the best of any team in the Northwest League,” said Mickey Walker, CEO of the Volcanoes.
As for Volcanoes Stadium: It is 23 years old, but it meets MLB’s requirements and is hardly in disrepair. It annually hosts Oregon’s state high-school baseball championships as well as college baseball games.
The Volcanoes’ owners, Jerry and Lisa Walker (CEO Mickey Walker’s parents) have committed to providing any facility upgrades that MLB or the San Francisco Giants request. In recent years they added a 1,000-square-foot weight room and an indoor hitting facility.
The Volcanoes’ problem is that the team is one of two low Class A affiliates of the Giants, and the team’s other one, the Augusta GreenJackets of the South Atlantic League, play in a sparkling 2-year-old ballpark. That makes the Volcanoes expendable in the MLB’s eyes. (The MLB wants each of its teams to have only one low Class A affiliate.)
But some think MLB hasn’t considered the cost of severing ties with small-town, rural America—specifically the cost to its future. Participation in youth baseball is declining for a variety of reasons. Minor league teams let youngsters connect with up-and-coming pros, collect their autographs, and see how action-packed the game can be.
MLB also stands to lose fans who root for the players who come through their towns—and often live with local host families while they’re there—long after they’ve moved up the ladder. “A lot of the guys stay in touch with their host families,” said Bob Bush, a longtime Volcanoes supporter who has worked for the team for the past seven seasons. “Some of them go so far as to arrange for their host families to come see a game after they make it to the majors—and they do it at their own expense.”
Such connections are especially vital in places that are far removed from major league markets, such as Keizer, a town of 36,478 that is 3½ hours away from Seattle, home of the nearest MLB team.
The Volcanoes, and 41 teams like them, are still around for the time being. There is at least a chance that they’ll still be around come 2021: Clark has written letters in support of the team, and Keizer’s representative in Congress, Kurt Schrader, is part of a bipartisan group of legislators who have gone to bat against MLB’s plan.
Mickey Walker remains both optimistic and determined. “I really do feel we have a track record of success here,” he said. “We’ll do whatever needs to be done to make sure baseball’s going to be around. It’s in the Lord’s hands after that.”
The ballpark experience
Just beyond Volcanoes Stadium’s right field fence, behind netting set up to protect passing cars from home run balls, stands a 35-foot-tall sign featuring an electronic message board. Typically, the message board proudly touts to drivers headed southbound on Interstate 5 the Volcanoes’ longtime affiliation with MLB’s San Francisco Giants, announces upcoming games, or invites fans to purchase season tickets.
Now, the message board announces that the ballpark is available for rent on Airbnb.com: For as little as $1,000, fans can rent out the ballpark, bring 16 or more of their closest friends, use all of the ballpark’s facilities—field, clubhouse, batting cages—and equipment, and even spend the night. Food and beverages from the park’s concessions stand cost extra.
Volcanoes CEO Mickey Walker got the idea after learning that the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, a minor league team in Florida, was renting out its ballpark on Airbnb to generate income during the coronavirus pandemic. The gambit is paying off: “We’ve had quite a few bookings already in the first three days,” Walker said. “We’ve also gotten inquiries from many dozen who haven’t quite booked yet but are close.”
Renting out its ballpark is an ingenious way for the Volcanoes to make money when they’re not hosting baseball games—especially since the Northwest League season only lasts from mid-June through early September, not counting playoffs. Still, said Walker, “we’d rather have professional baseball there, no doubt about it.” —R.H.