Hops break ground in revival with Nike

Hillsboro rekindles partnership that started in Triple-A Portland

By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com | March 16, 2018 10:00 AM

Zoom in on a photo of the 2008 Portland Beavers and you'll spot something odd. The Padres affiliate in the Pacific Coast League had moved away from their traditional red-and-black color scheme in their third-to-last season of existence. Now featuring a combination of navy and light blue, the Beavers retained a classic look with similar uniform script across their jerseys and a familiar cartoon beaver in the logo.

Just eight miles west from the Beavers' home ballpark sat the headquarters of one of the most successful clothing manufacturers in history, but a closer look at those pre-2009 uniforms reveals the makers' mark wasn't Nike's iconic Swoosh. It was the three stripes of Adidas.

That didn't last long in Portland-area baseball.

Though the Beavers packed up and headed to Tucson following the 2010 campaign -- expecting to get a ballpark that never materialized in Escondido, California -- baseball returned in 2013. The Class A Short Season Hillsboro Hops, seven miles farther west of Nike on U.S. Highway 26 from the Beavers' former digs, joined the Northwest League in a beautiful new park and set about renewing a unique partnership from the Beavers' last years.

"I knew there was a connection with MiLB and Nike, and I never knew why other teams couldn't really do Nike," said Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher, a Pacific Northwest native and 18-year NWL veteran who remembered watching Nike-clad Beavers players during televised games in the late 2000s. "It really came down to how they're just in our backyard. We approached them, and when we moved the team here, found out the contact through the Oregon Sports Authority and met with Danny McCormack who heads up a lot of their baseball on the MLB side. We hit it off with Danny and were able to put something together pretty quickly because he had a blueprint of what they had done with the Portland Beavers as far as deal points, what they could and couldn't provide, uniform designs, lead times and all that kind of stuff."

"When the Beavers hosted their All-Star Game out here in Portland (in 2009), we had a partnership with them," said McCormack, Nike Baseball's Sports Marketing Director. "They did an event on campus at our Tiger Woods Center, and we provided gifts for all the general managers and players that participated in the game. I think from that, K.L. saw that and thought that a partnership, given that we were local, would be ideal."

Triple-A Portland wore Adidas uniforms prior to 2009. (Brent Asay/MiLB.com)

Attention to detail

Over the past decade, Minor League Baseball has provided the opportunity for select teams to enter into uniform and apparel agreements with exclusive providers based on geographic proximity. In 2017, those three clubs were the Hops, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Majestic) and the Aberdeen IronBirds (Under Armour). Aberdeen's uniforms will be produced by Rawlings beginning this year, ending the IronBirds' partnership with Under Armour a season before the company takes over as the exclusive uniform provider for Major League Baseball's 30 clubs.

The Hops were previously the Yakima Bears, perpetual bottom dwellers in Northwest League attendance. Their relocation was a jolt of energy for the circuit, and in an era of wacky names and outlandish logos, Hillsboro went relatively muted with its moniker and classic with its look. Nike was there from the start.

"It was a combination of Studio Simon and Nike," Wombacher said of the Hops' identity. "[Logo designer Dan Simon] did the main jersey, the home jersey, and it's pretty similar to the final product. We took that to Nike and said we want to keep a classic-type look. We went through some different variations of where we put piping and that was really the main decision when it came to the home jersey. That became our base.

"We did want to go more classic, and part of it was because Nike is known for being pretty flashy with [the University of] Oregon. We didn't want to seem like we were following that. We wanted to be a little bit more unique of a Nike client. You can do a lot of fun things in baseball to dress it up, but baseball does have a classic look on the field for the most part."

The Hops name and logo paid tribute, according to the team's release upon its announcement, to "Hillsboro's proud agricultural heritage," honoring a prominent Oregon crop while incorporating a baseball term. The identity was immediately well received and notably came without the considerable controversy of so many contemporary unveilings in the Minors. Chris Creamer of sportslogos.net called it "the next great Minor League logo."

"We really wanted to emphasize the word 'professional' baseball instead of 'Minor League' baseball when we launched in Hillsboro," Wombacher said. "We want to have the look and feel of a Major League team, being in a Major League market with the Blazers and Timbers. A lot of those decisions we've made, whether it's promotions we do or what we wear on field, what we do in the community, we want to make sure it looks very clean, very professional and hopefully provides that image for us."

Nike supplied Hillsboro a timeless look with a modern flair.

"They're using our top-of-the-line product," McCormack said. "They're using our Vapor uniform. It's our most technologically advanced product, and you look at the design of the logos and the cream uniform and everything, it gives it an old school look but with a modern, really high-tech performance product."

The Hops created a substantial foothold in the Portland marketplace almost instantly, winning Northwest League titles in 2014 and 2015 and finishing in the top three in attendance every season. During that time, they've played host to the top short-season players in last year's Pioneer-Northwest League All-Star Game with a Nike-hosted event to honoring the Portland area's lengthy baseball history with some of the Minors' most detailed and accurate throwbacks to the Portland Beavers and Portland Mavericks. The Hops announced earlier this month that they'll be the Mavericks for all Monday home games in 2018.

Mack Lemieux sported a throwback uniform in 2016. (Jared Ravich/MiLB.com)

"I think that's a credit to K.L. more than anything," McCormack said. "He's the one that comes up with the ideas. He's the one that comes to us, and when he comes to us, we're of course wanting to do the best we can for him. We're not going to do anything that looks sloppy or that isn't right or anything but the Nike way and ensure that we put the best product on the field for the players. We make sure it looks like it's quality stuff. We're not going to do anything halfway or leave a stone unturned."

For his part, Wombacher credited Nike's dedication.

"I think that's what's been one of the highlights of the Nike partnership," he said of the special uniform ventures. "They really have an active attitude towards it. [We work directly with] Hal Melhart (Nike's senior product line manager) ... I think he really loves working with this. I get the impression that we're one of his favorite clients or at least he leads us to believe that. He treats us like his best team. To have that kind of connection makes a huge difference. To have their buy-in to either be open to anything we want to do or to come with ideas on their own, which they've done, I think that's what's made the partnership so successful."

Much like Lehigh Valley's relationship with Majestic, Hillsboro has served as a testing ground for Nike in the partnership's five years.

"Our product team has actually built relationships with K.L., with [clubhouse manager Casey Sawyer]," McCormack said. "They go out to the park during batting practice around 1:30, 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and they're out there testing new products, sliding shorts, uniforms, cleats, batting gloves, everything. They get really deep with the players, the team. They get excellent feedback. It's really beneficial for us, and the players love it because they're short-season players. They get zero attention, but to have the opportunity to be a part of something they might see two or three years down the line is pretty cool.

"You've got 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids from all over the world, and they've looked at Nike as the brand they've always wanted to be with. For them to have the opportunity to work with the brand is big, but it feels good from our perspective because you see their eyes and how excited they are. They come to campus. I do campus tours with certain players. We set them up through our employee store as part of the program. It's awesome to see and also to see some of these kids make it to the upper levels and the big leagues is pretty cool."

At the Class A Short Season level, the brutal reality is most Hops players won't see the Majors in their playing careers. Many won't reach the upper Minors. Some of their contributions, however, have already hit The Show.

"Our Huarache Elite cleat that you see on the field now in the big leagues, that was first shown to the Hillsboro players I believe in 2016, a prototype," McCormack said. "We got their feedback, made some changes, went back to them with the changes, let them wear them at that point, got their feedback and then had the final product that you see on the field now."

Nike made the 2018 Pioneer-Northwest All-Star uniforms. (Jared Ravich/MiLB.com)

From the ground up

While the threads are important, the partnership goes far beyond apparel. Upon the club's move to Oregon, Nike was one of several companies to join the Hops as "founding corporate partners," receiving ballpark signage and promotional opportunities in exchange for early financial support. Last May, Nike said it employed over 12,000 in Oregon with a hefty portion of those at its Beaverton world headquarters, though announced layoffs of roughly 1,400 last June altered that figure. That contingent has formed a large component of the Hops' base.

"It's a huge pride point for us, for sure," said Wombacher. "To be able to position it to a lot of their meeting planners and employees and try to recreate that pride level that we have of being the only Nike team, I think it helps grow the fan base as well [with Nike employees]. They're prideful working with Nike. We're prideful being the only professional baseball team that wears Nike off the field. To try to match up that loyalty has been fun."

McCormack agreed.

"There's a lot of pride actually," he said. "The Hillsboro Hops are the only (baseball) team that we make uniforms for at the professional level, and people know that. There's a lot of pride not only in the fact that Nike's involved with them but also just the Hillsboro Hops in the community.

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"To have them in our backyard here in Beaverton is huge, and the employees love it."

The Hops and Nike may best lay out the impact of their partnership with praise of each other. For the multinational corporation, the baseball team provides a grass-roots link to home. For the small Minor League club, uniforms and apparel provide world-class validation. For each, the relationship has provided major return and isn't going anywhere.

"The biggest asset for us has been the credibility that Nike brings to our organization," Wombacher said. "We're a Minor League team but we don't want to act like a 'Minor League team' and so having Nike as a major partner of ours helps validate that it's professional, again using the word 'professional' instead of the word 'minor.'

"I think what we bring for them is a connection to the community -- a connection to the baseball community, a connection to the youth baseball community. They're massive in Oregon, but they're massive globally. The more they can connect with their own community just makes them a better company overall."

That company concurs.

"As small as short-season baseball is in the scope of professional baseball, it's a big deal here in Portland," McCormack echoed. "I think with the Hops and our partnership, if it were to ever go away for whatever reason, I think there would be a lot of people that would be hurt, sad, upset.

"I always make sure that the relationship with K.L. and that team is strong because I don't want 5,000 employees on campus up in arms because of something I didn't do," he added with a laugh. "There's a lot of pride in it."

Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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