Is Portland a Good Baseball Town?

July 22, 2010 · Filed Under Mariners · 45 Comments 

The summer of 2010 marks the departure of two things from Portland, Oregon. Well, actually, the first isn’t really a thing — in fact, it’s me, Carson Cistulli. This Monday, the wife and I leave Portland in a Penske-brand truck bound for Madison, Wisconsin of America’s Middle West, where we plan to gorge ourselves on a variety of cheese-filled and -covered foodstuffs.

The other departure will be that of the Triple-A Portland Beavers — and of affiliated baseball, in general. Sadly, the Beavers leave Portland with only slightly more fanfare than yours truly. That’s damning with the very faintest of praise, I assure you.

On the eve of these twin flights, I thought I might attempt to answer a question upon which I’ve meditated idly in my three or so years here in the Rose City — a question that might also be of some interest to USS Mariner readers.

The question is this: Is Portland a good baseball town?

The answer, predictably, is “I don’t know.” But there are at least some considerations to, uh, consider. Here they are:

Portland doesn’t feel like a baseball town.

Here are some places I’ve either lived and/or spent significant time, in chronological-ish order: New England (assorted towns); New York City; Seattle, Washington; Missoula, Montana; Chicago, Illinois; Portland, Oregon. With the exception of Missoula, which is a town populated entirely by eco-jocks and, you know, Montanans, Portland is the least baseball-y feeling of the bunch.

I recognize that the “feel” of a town is a rather nebulous thing; still, there’s no reason not to consider one’s intuition. Plus, there are other signs of a lack of baseball support. For example, baseball caps: anecdotally, I see very few of them around. (And, certainly, there are more tattoos than Mariners caps.)

And when I do see caps, they are frequently not of the Mariner variety — i.e. the team located only three hours away and accessible via most cable subscriptions. Like, I have a friend from Portland who’s a Mets fan. I asked him, “Why are you a Mets fan?” “Because of Dwight Gooden,” he tells me. Another gentleman — a bartender at Claudia’s Sports Pub — is from Portland and, in 60 or so years, has never been east of Pendleton, Oregon. His team? The Yankees. “They used to be on CBS every Saturday and Sunday when I was a kid,” he tells me.

The Portland Beavers are a mess.

So far, in 2010, the Portland Beavers are last in the Pacific Coast League in attendance, averaging a reported 3,380 fans per game. The low attendance is very likely due to the fact that the Beavers are on their way out of town. After having jumped at the opportunity to acquire a Major League Soccer franchise — and adopting, with it, MLS’s requirement that teams play in soccer-specific stadia — owner Merritt Paulson was unable to find a place for the Beavers*. So far as this author knows, they are an orphaned team after the 2010 PCL season ends.

*Needless to say, there’s a lot more to it than this.

Attendance has not always been this poor. In 2009, the team averaged 5,133 per home contest — placing them 12th out of 16 teams. Not great, but not last. In 2008, the Beavers averaged 5,451 per game; that placed them 9th out of 16. Years before that appear to have the team right about in the middle of the pack.

One problem, however — even when attendance has been closer to five thousand — is how it looks in the Beavers’ home park.

The Sacramento River Cats and Round Rock Express — the teams that’ve finished No.s 1 and 2 in PCL attendance the last couple seasons — each currently draw about 9,000 per game. The clubs have stadia that contain about 11,000 and 9,000 fixed seats, respectively, with room for about another 3,000 more fans on grassy knoll-type situations.

Portland’s PGE Park, on the other hand, has something close to 20,000 fixed seats. Yes, a great number of these are roped off for Beaver games, but that doesn’t change the fact that the seats are still there and visible. Put 5,000 people in Sacramento’s Raley Field, and the place looks half full; put the same number at PGE, and it looks three-quarters empty. In any case, it makes the games less exciting.

Portland hasn’t always drawn poorly.

Rob Neyer — who lives in Portland and very patiently listened to me stumble my way through some ideas for the present article — suggests that Portland might not be well-suited to Triple-A ball. According to Neyer, when the short-season Portland Rockies of the Northwest League replaced an earlier incarnation of the Portland Beavers in 1995, the Rockies actually drew more fans than their Triple-A brethren in approximately half as many games. Also according to Neyer, the short-season Portland Mavericks (1973-1977) also drew well.

Essentally, this is Portland baseball over the last 40 or so years: 1. Class A team draws well. 2. Triple-A team displaces Class A team. 3. Triple-A team suffers. 4. Triple-A team leaves. 5. Class A team replaces it. 6. Class A team draws well. 7. Repeat.

Apparently, the ratings for baseball are good in Portland.

According to the Bring MLB to Portland Facebook page — which is obviously biased in no way:

In 2001, the Portland TV market generated a stunning 4.3 cable TV rating for Seattle Mariners’ games, a better mark than 19 MLB cities recorded for their own teams – including the Yankees, Cubs and Giants. Most impressively, the Portland region then produced a 4.5 rating during the 2002 season, when the Mariners failed to make the playoffs.

Those numbers appear to have dropped in the interim, although not to terrible levels. According to an FSN Northwest press release from November of 2007, the Mariners received a 2.3 rating (which I’m led to believe is good) in Portland from 2005 through 2007.

There are good baseball players from Portland and environs.

Massachusetts has a population of approximately 6.5 million; Oregon, about 4.0 million. This year, however, only four players born in Massachusetts have made any sort of major league appearance: Chris Capuano, Manny Delcarmen, Sean Gallagher, and Lance Zawadzki. On the other hand, 13 Oregon natives have made appearances in the majors this season — five of them from Portland alone.

Moreover, the Oregon State Beavers made the College World Series 2005-07, winning the entire tournament the last two of the those years. Certainly, no New England state can boast of such an accomplishment.

What’s the significance of this? Well, it might only mean that Oregon’s winters are more temperate than New England’s, thus allowing young athletes to play year-round. It almost definitely suggests, though, that when those young athletes play, a good number of them are choosing baseball as one of their sports of choice.