The venerable short-season circuit, the current iteration of which began in 1955, will be boasting a new team in the form of the Hillsboro Hops. The arrival of the Hops necessitated a divisional realignment, so the Northwest League is now divided into North and South divisions as opposed to East and West. The best players from each division will face off in the league's first All-Star Game, a late-summer classic scheduled for Aug. 6 at Everett Memorial Stadium.
And, finally, a new president is at the helm in veteran Minor League executive Mike Ellis. Entering his 20th season in Minor League baseball, Ellis takes over for Bob Richmond, who served as Northwest League president from 1974-81 and again from 1991-2012.
Got all that?
Let's start with the Hops, whose inaugural season will be one of the year's top storylines in Minor League Baseball. Named for one of Oregon's notable crops, the team relocated from Yakima (where it was known as the Bears) and is filling a void in the Portland-area baseball scene that had existed since the Triple-A Portland Beavers relocated to Tucson following the 2010 season. The Hops will compete in a new stadium, currently under construction on a pre-existing city parks and recreation site.
With Hillsboro in and Yakima (located in central Washington) out, league executives decided that a new North-South divisional alignment would be preferable. The South Division features Hillsboro, Salem-Keizer, Eugene and Boise, while the North includes Vancouver, Spokane, Tri-City and Everett. Teams will play 12 games against each divisional foes and 10 vs. those in the other division.
"It's all pretty straightforward, as there really weren't a lot of choices given the travel considerations," said Hops vice president and general manager K.L. Wombacher, who previously served as Yakima GM. "From a geography standpoint, Yakima was actually the best for travel because it was right in the middle [of the league], and no bus ride was more than five or six hours. Whereas in Hillsboro, there will now be a couple of nine-hour trips."
On the plus side, Hillsboro's proximity to fellow Oregon entries Salem-Keizer and Eugene should make for some intriguing regional rivalries.
"Salem's close enough that it will be a natural fit for our fans and theirs to travel back and forth, and there's already been talk about starting an I-5 rivalry with Eugene," Wombacher said, referring to the north-south interstate highway that connects the two cities.
There will be a North-South rivalry of a different sort on Aug. 6, when the Everett AquaSox host the league's first All-Star Game. In doing so, the Northwest League becomes the second of the four short-season leagues to stage such an event (the New York-Penn League held its inaugural All-Star Game in 2005).
"The All-Star Game is going to be an exciting event as it moves around from year to year and gives everyone a chance to show off their facilities," Ellis said. "The Northwest League as a whole is really dynamic. This is just a beautiful part of the country, with great scenery and great cities, and I don't know anyone who has visited who hasn't come away impressed."
For Ellis, the Northwest League presidency is the latest position on a Minor League resumé that dates to his 1993 purchase of the Pioneer League franchise that is now the Missoula Osprey. But his involvement with the sport, however indirect, goes back even further.
"My wife [Judy] was the first to work in Minor League Baseball -- in 1984 she was with the [California League] Lodi Crushers cooking hamburgers at the concession stand," Ellis recalled. "I would go to the games with my son, Matt, who was just starting high school at the time. And Matt loved it. He knew even then he wanted to be the GM of a Minor League team."
Matt began his Minor League front-office career in 1989 and is now vice president of the Missoula Osprey. Judy went on to win the California League's Woman Executive of the Year Award in 1999. Ellis has served in multiple capacities throughout the industry and is excited for his first season as Northwest League president.
"Thirty years ago, I wouldn't have been able to comprehend that this was possible," he said. "But Minor League Baseball is something that I dearly love. Here, even the worst of times are still good times."