This season, the Eugene Emeralds played their home opener on June 15. This was more than a little inconvenient, as they did not have access to their PK Park home until three days prior.
The ultra-tight timetable was just a fact of life for the Northwest League club, who reside within the land of the Ducks. This is University of Oregon territory, in other words, and the Ems (as they are often referred to locally) share PK Park with the university's baseball team. The intimate 4,000-seat facility, which opened in 2010, is situated in the shadow of hulking Autzen Stadium -- a 54,000-seat behemoth that hosts the Ducks football team. PK Park is owned by the university -- it was built for an approximate cost of $20 million -- and the Ems are now in the third year of a 20-year, $2 million lease agreement to use the facility during the Northwest League's 2 1/2-month-long, 76-game schedule.
"When the Ducks move out, the Ems move in" is what it comes down to, and as part of the lease agreement PK Park is turned over to the Emeralds on June 1 of each season. But this year the Ducks advanced to the Super Regionals of the NCAA college baseball tournament, resulting in an extended slate of games that continued through June 11. The Emeralds staff, housed in a separate office that is fronted by ticket windows, could only wait (not so) patiently as the clock ticked inexorably toward Opening Day. So once the Ducks finally cleared out, the Emeralds went into hyper-drive.
"We had three days to convert [PK Park]," said Emeralds general manager Allan Benavides. "Usually, it takes two weeks."
A key aspect of this conversion involves hanging the stadium signage, from outfield billboards to concession areas to banners along the concourse celebrating notable Emeralds players from years past. The Ems also had to make adjustments to the playing surface. While the Ducks compete on a field that is comprised totally of FieldTurf artificial surface, the Emeralds, in accordance with Minor League stipulations, provide a batter's box area comprised of real dirt. This changeover takes five days, however, and an exception had to be made. The Emeralds season-opening series against the Yakima Bears was played on the Ducks' 100 percent synthetic surface, and the transformation to dirt occurred once the team left on its first road trip of the season.
But all's well that ends well. Eugene won that season opener in front of a near sellout crowd, setting the stage for a season that has been a success at the gate and on the field (the Ems have compiled one of the Northwest League's best records and are one game out of a playoff spot in the second-half West Division race).
"We were able to make our ballpark look like home," said Benavides.
A Pre-fect promo
Fans lined up early outside PK Park on Friday to ensure they would receive the evening's coveted giveaway: a bobblehead doll of University of Oregon track and field legend Steve Prefontaine. Before dying in an automobile accident in 1975 at the age of 24, Prefontaine set a plethora of world records and helped bring the sport of running to a whole new level of mainstream prominence. The people of Eugene take tremendous pride in his accomplishments, and as such Prefontaine seemed like a natural fit for a bobblehead (the doll depicts him in full stride, his signature long hair billowing out behind him).
One of the evening's guests of honor was Prefontaine's older sister Neta, an exuberant woman decked out in a "Pre" hat and T-shirt. Upon pulling the bobblehead out of the box, Neta was thrilled.
"If my brother could have seen this, he would have been tickled," she said. "I bet he'd look at it and ask, 'Am I really that pretty?'"