The West Coast League enters its seventh season on a roll.
The league has added Klamath Falls, one of the top available markets in the Pacific Northwest. The expansion Gems will start their first season on Friday, June 3rd, hosting the Bend Elks at historic Kiger Stadium.
The West Coast League All-Star Game, on hiatus the past two summers, has been revived. The Corvallis Knights will host the Midsummer Classic at Goss Stadium on Tuesday, July 26th.
The tremendous popularity of the Walla Walla Sweets and Cowlitz Black Bears in their first year in the WCL helped boost 2010 attendance to a league-record 225,706, a 21-percent increase from 2009. It was the sixth consecutive year that attendance had grown.
So WCL president Ken Wilson was understandably optimistic as he previewed the upcoming season, which starts on June 3rd, in a recent Q&A with Corvallis Knights Director of Public Relations Brooks Hatch. Wilson is confident his fourth season at the helm will be the league’s biggest and best yet.
Here’s a transcript of that interview.
HATCH: Can you provide a brief preview of the 2011 WCL season?
WILSON: “I’m excited. Teams have so many players from major programs. I believe the level of talent has never been higher. I’m eager to see how the two expansion teams from last season do this season on the field. I hope both the Cowlitz Black Bears and Walla Walla Sweets are vastly improved, which should make both divisions even more competitive than usual.
“Tight pennant races are exciting, and having all of our teams in the thick of things near the end of the season is great for our fans. Our expansion team, the Klamath Falls Gems, looks like they’ll field a strong team out of the gate.”
HATCH: Last season the WCL drew 225,706 fans and set an all-time attendance record. Are you pleased with the steady growth and stability of the WCL, even with the loss of the Moses Lake Pirates, who suspended operations after the 2010 season?
WILSON: “In three short years, we’ve removed two underperforming clubs (Spokane and Moses Lake) and replaced them with three exceptionally strong franchises (Cowlitz, Klamath Falls and Walla Walla). That naturally increases attendance, but our top franchises (Bend, Corvallis and Wenatchee) continue to increase their attendance. “We expect to go over an average of 1,000 per game in attendance this season. And, we plan on continuing to grow our attendance across the board. Our league’s many attributes have made it the diamond standard of summer collegiate baseball.”
HATCH: How will the loss of Moses Lake impact the league?
WILSON: “We all appreciate the efforts made in Moses Lake. However, it’s difficult to succeed without an owner with a strong economic position.”
HATCH: How will the addition of Klamath Falls strengthen the league?
WILSON: “Klamath Falls has always been a great baseball market. The original Gems were a Philadelphia Phillies farm team from 1948-1952 and had exceptional attendance. After years of supporting Babe Ruth and American Legion baseball, it’s time for Klamath Falls to again have a minor league-like franchise.
“Corporate support has been outstanding. We’re expecting strong fan support in Klamath Falls this season.”
HATCH: Also, the former Spokane RiverHawks could be revived as early as 2012, relocated to Coeur d’Alene, if a new ballpark is built in that Idaho resort city.
WILSON: “The efforts to build a stadium in Coeur d’Alene continue on track. We’re not sure when the stadium will be ready, but we have extremely strong ownership in place to make Coeur d’Alene a premier franchise.”
HATCH: Are there plans for Olympia and Medford, two WCL-sized markets? How about more expansion in Canada, or even into Alaska?
WILSON: “We’re actively working on a number of fronts to expand the West Coast League. We’d like to be in the Olympia/Tumwater/Lacey market. We’ve worked diligently there, but it’s a long-range project, as we have to come up with the financing for a new stadium.
“We’ve developed strong partnerships in Medford and plan on having a West Coast League team there sooner than later. We’re making progress on adding Victoria, British Columbia and New Westminster, British Columbia. It’s a question of being able to come up with strong ownership in both markets.
“We have had introductory discussions with other Canadian markets, and we have great respect for the history of the Alaska League and what their member teams might do in the future. The West Coast League has an expansive future.”
HATCH: What about Portland, which doesn’t have any minor-league baseball with the move of the Beavers to Tucson and then to the San Diego area?
WILSON: “We’re frequently asked if the West Coast League is interested in the Portland market. The answer is yes! We all hope a new stadium will eventually be constructed in Portland, but in the meantime we’re working with authorities to renovate an existing city facility into a top-notch West Coast League ballpark.
“We’d like to provide the fans of Portland with the affordable summer family entertainment they deserve and have had for so many seasons with the Beavers.”
HATCH: If the All-Star Game is a success this year in Corvallis, will it continue, on a revolving basis?
WILSON: “We’re excited to have the All-Star Game back in 2011. Corvallis is the perfect market for our first All-Star Game since 2008. We’ve developed fresh ideas for the game and we’re going to make sure that our all-stars and our top professional prospects are all showcased.
“Six of our markets have requested to host the West Coast League All-Star Game. It seems clear that the All-Star Game is here to stay.”
HATCH: Any thought on possibly expanding the playoffs, or do you anticipate the present format will remain?
WILSON: “Our format of having four teams in the post-season has worked very well. Even with expansion, most of our options include the inclusion of four teams in the post-season. One idea in the works is to eventually have four divisions and four division champions move into the playoffs.”