Civic and PK: The Tale of Two Ballparks and One Franchise

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Civic and PK: The Tale of Two Ballparks and One Franchise

Nate Gartrell, EDN

In August, the Springfield Museum opened an exhibit dedicated to the Eugene Emeralds, and their history. Two current Ems players, relief pitcher Will Scott, and catcher Jeremy Rodriguez, attended the opening, and spent their time there chatting with fans and inspecting Emeralds memorabilia.

An Ems game at Civic Stadium, in 2004

At one point in the evening, Rodriguez noticed a photograph of South Eugene’s Civic Stadium, the Ems’ home from 1969 through 2009. In the photo, Civic’s grandstand, built in 1938, was full of fans, and its field, full of Emeralds. Rodriguez’s face lit up.

“Hey, check this out,” said Rodriguez, excitedly tapping his teammate on the shoulder. “That must be the old stadium.”

There was once a time, of course, when every Emerald knew Civic by name; it was their field for more than 40 years, the longest time span of any Ems ballpark. Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt played there, as did long-time major leaguers Mike Sweeney and Bob Boone, to name a few.

But, as the Ems continue their tenure at PK Park, that era of Ems baseball becomes increasingly distant. By moving, and hiring a largely new staff, the Ems organization has indicated its willingness to begin a new era, at PK. Still, a lot of questions about the future remain, both for Civic, and the Ems franchise.

Among them: Can the Ems franchise sustain itself, given that they angered some in the community when they left Civic, after 2009? Will baseball ever be played at Civic Stadium again? And, more to the point, what does the future hold for the 72-year-old stadium, and its iconic grandstand?

PK Park, during an Ems game in 2011

With regards to the former question, the Ems organization seems to be heading in a more prosperous direction, after a post-Civic drop in attendance raised concerns. Their average attendance for their last three seasons at Civic, 2007-2009, was 126,093. In 2010, the Ems’ first year at PK Park, the organization drew much less: 107, 561.

PK Park’s capacity is significantly less than Civic’s; Civic held 6,500, while PK can hold roughly 4,500. Still, many attributed the attendance drop-off to the fact that the Ems were no longer at Civic.

“We had senior citizens who would come to that park every home game, get up in the bleachers, and just root for the Ems, win or lose,” George McPherson, the Ems’ center fielder during their championship 1974 and 1975 seasons, said. “And we lost that whole senior community (after the move to PK).”

The two parks couldn’t be more different; Civic was built as a Works Progress Administration project, and it’s grandstand is made of wood. PK, built 70 years later in 2008 by the University of Oregon, is made of concrete and metal.

After the move, grumbles about PK started mounting. Some fans complained, for instance, that PK’s net, which extends from dugout to dugout, blocked out the field of play. Or that PK’s bleacher section, a small metal grandstand in left field, didn’t compare to Civic’s, which allowed more room for children to run around.

“We knew that there were going to be some struggles with the move from Civic to PK,” Onalee Carson, Ems Director of Community Outreach, said. “It was disheartening to have so many people boycott it, when they hadn’t even seen the product that we have at PK Park.”

In 2011, though, the Ems’ fan base showed more of a willingness to accept PK Park as the Ems’ new home. Regular season attendance increased, to 114,690, and the Ems ranked third overall in attendance in the Northwest League.

“We really didn’t change much from last year to this year,” Carson said. “I think what’s drawing people in is, in this offseason, we were out in the community a little more. For instance, our mascot, Sluggo, did a kids’ reading program.”

Part of the credit, though, undoubtedly goes to the Emeralds players, who turned heads this year when they secured the Ems’ first division title since 2000, and broke a 38-year-old win streak record in the Northwest League, with 14 straight victories.

The outside of Civic, which has yet to be leased, despite offers from around the community.

Another cause of the jump in attendance was the Ems’ willingness to run marketing campaigns in the Springfield area. PK Park, located next to Autzen Stadium, is significantly closer to Springfield than Civic.

“We’ve been developing relationships with (Springfield) and North Eugene,” said Carson. “We had our second annual Springfield Community Day at PK Park this year, so Springfield feels like they have some ownership of the Emeralds.”

That game drew 4,661 fans, the biggest crowd of Ems fans ever to attend a game at PK Park.

Carson is on her second year with the team; her tenure started after the Ems left Civic. Additionally, the Ems’ General Manager, Allan Benavides, as well as their assistant general manager, food and beverage director, and director of corporate sales, all joined the franchise in 2011. All of this emphasizes that the Ems franchise is in restart mode.

Civic’s future, meanwhile, is still up for grabs. The Ems, when they left in 2009, cited a number of problems with the field, including limited locker room space, bathroom availability, and similar structural issues. Two years later, the ballpark has yet to find a new team, or frankly, a purpose.

The 4J School District, which owns the property, has yet to even lease it to anyone. The city council, meanwhile, recently rejected three proposals that would have allowed the property to be changed into a YMCA facility, a soccer stadium, or a Fred Meyer outlet. In the meantime, Civic’s grandstand remains empty.

But some in town are trying to change that. The community group Save Civic Stadium is currently working in partnership with a local YMCA chapter and local business owner Rick Wright, to accommodate both the YMCA, which wants to build a facility on the property, and Save Civic, which wants to preserve the grandstand and renovate Civic into a soccer stadium, rather than hold out hope that the field will be used for baseball again.

A view of PK during a 2011 night game. Photo taken by Jeff Matarrese

“I don’t think (baseball’s return to Civic) is in the stars, as much as it would be wonderful,” Dennis Hebert, Chairman of Save Civic’s Board said . “Soccer’s the latest, greatest thing, and we’re just going to go for it. Everyone we’ve talked to, and the study we had done last year, show that there is a big demand for soccer right now.”

Save Civic has also been organizing Civic clean-up days, which usually take place on weekends. Hebert, a once-avid Ems fan, who attended a handful of Ems games in 2010, but couldn’t bring himself to go during the 2011 season, said the group will continue to maintain the field indefinitely.

“No matter what happens, we’re going to try and keep looking good,” Hebert said. “After the Ems left, 4J just kind of let it go. That was disconcerting to us as well as a lot of people around town.”

Hebert pointed to Civic’s history, as a football stadium, then a baseball field, which housed everything from independent lumber mill leagues, to high school teams, to professional baseball. Just as the Ems are trying to adapt to their new home at PK, Hebert said his organization is trying to begin a new era at Civic.

“This is part of a history that tens of thousands of people have ownership in; every football player in town from 1938 to 1969 played football there,” Hebert said. “And they had graduation there until 1974 for South Eugene High School. How could anyone think of tearing this place down? It’s an icon in the community.”

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