It's not quite official yet, but the Yakima Bears' imminent exodus from the east side of the state is pretty close to being finalized.
The owners — Mike and Laura McMurray — and the city of Hillsboro, Ore., have already reached an agreement on a 20-year offer sheet that should land the Bears in a brand-new 4,500-seat, $15 million ballpark to be build alongside Highway 26.
The only thing remaining is to agree on the lease, and no hiccups are expected there.
So is it bad news for the Northwest League one of the league's charter cities is left without a team? Or does a new and exciting demographic create more dynamic possibilities for a league that has always thrived on new talent?
NWL President Bob Richmond believes the latter. He's held office for 30 years and has seen plenty of franchises switch locations, but he feels pretty good about this particular move.
"We spent a lot of time working on this to see if this made sense," Richmond said. "It's a good demographic and a good situation for the league and owner."
Minor league baseball in Yakima goes all the way back to 1920 as a member of the Pacific Coast International League. After the PCIL fizzled two years later, Yakima re-emerged in 1937 as part of the Western International League, which later became the Northwest League in 1955.
Yakima held a NWL franchise from 1955-1966 and then started up again in 1990. The Bears have been a mainstay in the NWL ever since.
"You always feel bad when this happens. Most of the people over there understood the situation," Richmond said, referring to the ongoing attendance issues that plagued the club.
In 1994, Yakima averaged 2,249 fans a game, but the Bears haven't been able to crack the 2,000 barrier since 1998. Yakima has been dead last in attendance for the last eight seasons, averaging between 1,356 fans in 2004 to 1,1918 fans in 2009 during that stretch.
"Attendance (in Yakim) is not what we like to see, and the ballpark is definitely dated. It needed huge amounts of updates. We tried for many years to get the city fathers over there, but it wasn't forthcoming," Richmond said. "All you're going to do is lose money year after year."
The NWL has enjoyed a 12-year stretch with its current eight teams. That's the longest stretch without a franchise moving to a different city since 1956, when teams Eugene, Lewiston, Portland, Salem, Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Wenatchee and Yakima went six seasons without a switch.
Asked if Yakima could possibly re-join the league at a later date, Richmond didn't dismiss the possibility but said there was work to do if the city is interested in courting a new team.
"They're going to have to build a new ballpark," Richmond said.