When the three-time defending West Coast League champion Corvallis Knights invade Borleske Stadium on Tuesday for the Sweets’ opener, it’ll mark a milestone for the Walla Walla franchise.
This will be the 10th Sweets season, tying a mark set by the Walla Walla Padres, the Single A minor league team of San Diego’s major league franchise, who played at Borleske from 1973-82.
Future Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Tony Gwynn played in Walla Walla during the Padres’ time here.
The 10-year run by the Padres was the most of any professional baseball team that’s been associated with Walla Walla — until the Sweets’ 2019 season matches that mark.
And that’s a feather in the cap for Sweets team president Zachary Fraser, who has guided the franchise since its inception in 2010.
Walla Walla joined the WCL five years after it began as an independent, collegiate wood bat league.
Fraser points out that more than 400,000 fans have flocked to watch the Sweets play at Borleske, the oldest continually active athletics stadium of any real size in the Pacific Northwest.
Borleske opened in 1926 and has been in continuous use since, with Whitman College, previous pro teams like the Blue Mountain Bears (an unaffiliated semi-pro team that survived a year), the Walla Walla Islanders (for a single 1972 season, with actor Kurt Russell on the roster) and summer baseball teams calling it home.
Other older facilities are no longer in use (Civic Stadium in Eugene, Fraser notes) or have undergone renovations (Husky Stadium in Seattle) that have prevented use for at least a year.
Some of the reasons for the Sweets’ success may be tracked to the franchise’s success in the first few years of existence. The fledgling Walla Walla program advanced to the WCL championship series in its second season in 2011.
The Sweets lost to Corvallis in that title series, but the stage for Sweets’ success in Walla Walla was set.
That coincided with improvements to Borleske Stadium, which made it much more fan-friendly, Fraser said.
“It’s a good market, we’ve got good fans,” Fraser said of the success in Walla Walla. “We’ve had a good front office, and a good brand of baseball.
“And it’s more and more difficult to find things a family can do for under $50 a night,” he said. “And we’re under $40! All those factors play into it.”
The improvements made to Borleske over the last decade, totaling more than a million dollars funded by the Sweets’ ownership group and collective organizations running the stadium, have continually improved fans’ experience at games, Fraser said.
For the inaugural season, two new rows of seats were added behind home plate, dugouts and the hand-operated scoreboard in left field were constructed, and the team store, beer gardens and concessions added.
The next year, more seating behind home plate was added, along with a new press box.
Over the next years, additional concessions, a fan services booth, field boxes and a new concourse connecting the stadium’s entrance with stands and the beer garden along the third-base line were finished.
Oh, and last year, safety nets were added.
For the Sweets’ 10th season, the franchise has teamed with tech start-up Chatler for online ordering and delivery of ballpark concession favorites to fans in the stands.
“Our goal is to provide a memorable customer service experience night-in and night-out,” Fraser said when announcing the new online service. “The ability to order ballpark staples from your seat — not need to wait for a server to take your order — and have it delivered provides a premium experience.”
Fraser said seven to 10 top ballpark favorites will be available through Chatler in Facebook Messenger, such as hot dogs, bottled water, canned beer, carmel corn, peanuts and pop, and can be paid for online — no need to make change.
Those top items are available to quickly deliver to fans in the stands without spending time waiting in line.
“We’ve intentially kept it simple, so there are not a lot of menu items, but they can be quick,” Fraser said.
Instructions on how the delivery system works will be available on the Sweets website and on informational cards at the gate.
The new food service will get it’s first run-through at a FanFest and preseason game at 6:35 p.m. on Saturday night against the Seattle Studs, a member of the Pacific International League.
“It’s a chance for the players to get geared up, and for the coaches to see what they have to work with for the season,” Fraser said of the preseason game. “It’s also a chance for our players to get comfortable with Borleske — it’s a new stadium to 80 percent of our players.”
The nuances of Borleske have provided a homefield advantage for the Sweets, as they’ve gone 66-42 on their home field over the last four years, Fraser said.
“Our teams like playing there!” he said.
And, it’s a chance for the Sweets’ food and beverage, and game-day, staff to have its first chance to operate with a crowd in the stands, Fraser said.
Tickets for the FanFest and preseason game are just $3.
As for the team itself, Fraser said he’s leaving roster decisions to Sweets general manager J.C. Biagi and manager Frank Mutz, who is back for his fifth season at the helm.
“Everybody looks good when we start!” Fraser said, as the team welcomes mostly new college players from around the country every summer. “I trust their (Biagi’s and Mutz’s) judgement. I think it looks good, I like what we have.”