Like most Northwest League teams, the Yakima Bears have five games remaining in their regular season schedule. But what sets the Bears apart is this: those five contests are all that remain of their regular season existence.
This is the end.
In 2013 the Bears, a D-backs affiliate, will re-locate to Hillsboro, Ore., assuming a to-be-determined team name and competing in a yet-to-be-built ballpark. This move makes sense on a number of levels: As a suburb of Portland, Hillsboro is part of a fertile market that has gone without Minor League Baseball since the departure of the Pacific Coast League's Beavers following the 2010 season. And the Bears have had more than their share of troubles in Yakima, from low attendance and a tiny base of corporate supporters to frustrations regarding a county-owned stadium that has fallen into an increasing state of disrepair.
The move to Hillsboro comes after several seasons of uncertainty: After trying in vain to obtain funding for Yakima County Stadium renovations, Bears ownership then engaged in prolonged but ultimately fruitless negotiations with other nearby markets. It has taken until now for their relocation dreams to be realized.
For those Yakima residents for whom Bears baseball has been a part of life, now is the time to soak up the final moments in franchise history. From photo opportunities with Boomer the Bear to a kielbasa and garlic fries at the "Bar-B-Q" concession stand to the satirical song selections by ace PA announcer Todd Lyons, a bevy of decades-in-the-making summertime memories will soon disappear for good.
This moment in time is bittersweet for Bears general manager K.L. Wombacher, who joined the front-office staff as in intern in 2001. He worked his way up the ladder over the ensuing 11 seasons (meeting his wife, Lauren, along the way) and is now embarking on a significant new portion of his professional life. Wombacher and his family are moving with the team to Hillsboro, where he will oversee the challenging but rewarding task of creating a new franchise identity from scratch.
In this Q&A, conducted prior to the Bears game on Aug. 20, Wombacher reflects on his time in Yakima -- both the positives and the negatives -- before looking forward to what the future may bring.
MiLB.com: After working here for so long and playing such a large role in the Bears' day-to-day operations, what are your feelings as you approach the waning days of professional baseball in Yakima?
Wombacher: It's all becoming real for the first time. We've worked on renovations here in Yakima, we've worked on [obtaining funding for] stadiums in other communities, and now it's becoming real. We've thought about it and envisioned it for a few years, so there's a sense of excitement. But also, there's a sense of sadness. We're going to miss a lot of people that we've built relationships with over the years here. There are a lot of friendships that we'll miss, a lot of partnerships with businesses and season ticket holders that we'll miss.
But the sense of excitement is because we're going to a great market. We're going to a city that really wants us, in a brand-new ballpark. There's never been a team in the Beaverton-Hillsboro area, so we can start a page of history out there. It's very exciting.
MiLB.com: As you reflect on your 12 seasons here, what are some memories that stand out?
Wombacher: Well, I met my wife [Lauren, now the Bears director of merchandise] here, so that memory is first and foremost (laughs). [The Bears] had an exhibition game against a team of Central Washington [University] players, and she was watching some friends who played on the Central baseball team. We had had a couple of classes together at Central, so we kind of recognized each other. We had an usher who quit the night before; I was looking to hire an usher and she was looking for a summer job. So we hired her as an usher and kind of hung out during the summer and got together after the summer. That was nine years ago. We've been married for six years, and we have a young daughter -- she's 2 years old -- that we had in Yakima.
MiLB.com: You must have a lot of on-field memories as well.
Wombacher: There was a game against Salem-Keizer where their pitcher had a perfect game going into the ninth inning. The score was 1-0, and he had two outs so he was one out away from the perfect game. He went to a 3-2 count on the next hitter and walked him, but still had the no-hitter intact. He then went to 3-2 on the next guy, who tripled down the line. That scored the run and tied the game -- perfect game blown, no-hitter blown. The next guy up lays down a squeeze-play bunt, he's safe at first and we win the game.
The Bears celebrate a walk-off win in Yakima on Aug. 20. (Benjamin Hill/MiLB.com)
Oh, man. Our whole staff thought that we were going to witness a perfect game, which in short-season A ball, you'll probably never see in your lifetime. And then not only to not see the perfect game, but end up winning it in the bottom of the ninth? It was a great experience.
We've had a lot of good nights here. ... In my first year as GM, we had Edgar Martinez come out for a personal appearance, which was just magical. We've had guys like Dan Wilson come out, and Jay Buhner, who are huge celebrities here in the Northwest with the Mariners tie-in. It's been a lot of fun.
MiLB.com: But Yakima clearly had its challenges. Can you elaborate on those?
Wombacher: Some of the challenges are ballpark and lease-related. ... We work hard to drive fans here and they're paying $5 to park and we don't see any of that money -- that's a revenue stream that we haven't been able to get here. And this is a 20-year-old facility that hasn't been maintained very well, and we don't have partners to help maintain it, so we're left on the hook for a lot of the upkeep and improvements that need to be done. That has been tough on us, financially.
And the corporate base here is small. You don't have advertising budgets like you'd see in a big city, so we've really got to scrounge for every last nickel and dime. The household income levels are pretty low compared to other cities in the Northwest, so people just don't have the disposable income in Yakima that they do in a Spokane, a Tacoma, an Everett. We really have to treat people well. ... Our customer service has to be top-notch because in this market, you can't make mistakes, you can't lose any fans because every fan we lose makes a difference on the bottom line.
We've been very cognizant of that and have worked very hard to keep our ticket and concession pricing low with the goal of creating memorable experiences where people are going to have the desire to come back over and over again.
MiLB.com: Looking forward, what will be your approach as you establish a new franchise in Hillsboro?
Wombacher: We're excited to be going to a community that has a ton of potential, and where people are going to call us. The phone didn't ring much in Yakima, so it was strictly outside sales. We had to knock on every door and invite every person out. We're looking forward to being the new team and proving that we can provide the type of experience that we would provide here. We know that people are going to enjoy it.
And then there are the opportunities that we'll have with the corporate base. There's a ton more businesses there, with bigger budgets, that are going to want to sign on as team partners .... We're excited about the relationship with the city. They're building the facility on an existing parks and rec site, with a football and soccer stadium and some auxiliary fields, so we're looking forward to being active around the ballpark on a year-round basis. We'll be working with the parks and recreation staff, we'll be working with the city, and we already have four city council members that want to be season ticket holders. That level of support from the city side is crucial for a team to be successful. This is going to be a great partnership with the city of Hillsboro.