Krulish: Kitsap is a sports desert in the summer

Mark Krulish

Mark Krulish

I must admit, I feel an occasional twinge of jealousy when I look at what my colleagues to the north have to cover in the summer.

Up at our sister paper, the Peninsula Daily News, our reporters have the Port Angeles Lefties, a West Coast League baseball team and local American Legion baseball teams to cover, along with a smattering of other outdoor events to keep them busy when the preps are out of season.

Even my pals to the south at The Columbian have a brand-new WCL entry, the Ridgefield Raptors. Both the Raptors and the Lefties have been well-received by their local communities.

Things are much quieter here in Kitsap County, though I have managed to keep fairly busy. By far, the biggest local event of the summer was the Little League softball state tournament hosted by the North Kitsap Little League, which finished third. It was a lot of fun to cover, but it obviously doesn’t have widespread appeal.

Despite a population more than double that of Jefferson and Clallam counties combined, Kitsap becomes a bit of a desert for a sports reporter in search of an oasis.

We still have youth travel teams playing select ball — the Silverdale Sluggers recently won the 15U GSL championship to keep it in Kitsap for another year — but none of it has the traditional, homey vibe of American Legion. And games are often played out of the area.

The Oly-Pen Force men’s and women’s soccer teams just wrapped up their seasons and provided some of our local players with a chance to keep in shape in the summer. But they only play a few home games and summer amateur soccer leagues seem to end just as they are beginning.

So what happened here?

The Kitsap Bluejackets played 12 seasons at Gene Lobe Field between 2004 and 2016. The Kitsap Pumas were an excellent team in the Premier Development League and once regularly drew good crowds at Bremerton Memorial Stadium. Ownership for both teams, however, cited declining attendance as a major reason for folding operations.

It couldn’t have been the quality of play keeping folks away. Unless you’re jetting off to the Cape Cod League in New England, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more competitive and high-caliber summer wood-bat league than the West Coast League.

This past year alone, more than 90 alums were drafted by Major League Baseball teams, including No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman, No. 3 overall pick Andrew Vaughn and No. 23 overall pick Michael Toglia, who played for Gig Harbor.

The Bluejackets themselves have two major leaguers that once wore the navy blue, gold and white — Rhys Hoskins, the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman who hit 34 homers and drove in 96 runs last season, and Adam Cimber, a submarine right-handed relief pitcher with a 2.86 ERA for the Cleveland Indians.

Shane Bieber, one of Cleveland’s starting pitchers, was named MVP of this year’s All-Star baseball game. He played for Cowlitz in the West Coast League in 2014. Other WCL alums in MLB include Seattle’s own Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger, along with Jacoby Ellsbury, Chris Davis, Jason Hammel and Nick Pivetta.

Clearly, this a league that draws plenty of talent and should be enjoyable to watch for any baseball fan.

The Bluejackets tried to make a go of it in 2017 after ownership moved the team to the Pacific International League, but they didn’t actually play any games in Kitsap. Three home games were played at North Mason and the rest were at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey. That’s the last we’ve heard from them since.

The Kitsap Pumas folded following the 2018 summer season for largely the same reason — empty stands at the county fairgrounds.

It’s a shame because the Pumas were once a vibrant club with well-attended games in the Premier Development League. More than 1,200 people showed up to Bremerton Memorial Stadium when the Pumas beat Laredo to win the PDL championship in 2011. Their keeper was Bryan Meredith, who was drafted by the Seattle Sounders in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft that same year.

The Pumas were regular participants in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and even got the chance to face the big league club — the Sounders — in 2016 at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. Notable players, such as Jordan Morris, Chad Marshall, Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso, shared the pitch with the Pumas in that fourth-round match in which the Sounders prevailed 2-0. But it was still a watershed moment for a small local club.

But the fans didn’t follow the team to the more remote Gordon Field. They averaged about 150 spectators in their final years, a big drop from the 800 who came out on average when the team was in Bremerton.

The location of the fairgrounds is likely a factor. It’s a bit more far-flung, sitting out in unincorporated East Bremerton in a quiet, residential neighborhood with little commercial activity.

Teams tend to benefit playing in more dense locations with nearby businesses and restaurants. The Lefties’ new home at Civic Field is a good example of that — it’s just a couple of blocks from the main drags in Port Angeles and a quick drive from the waterfront. That also helps lure folks who are in town for a weekend away from the East Sound. The fairgrounds, location, meanwhile, isn’t well-suited to bring in tourists.

The area is growing and should be easier than ever to draw a crowd — these games also tend to be very affordable for families and older folks on fixed budgets. But all recent evidence suggests the support just isn’t there.

Do you have suggestions? I’d love to hear them. I don’t know what it will take to bring these higher-caliber teams back to Kitsap, but I do know I’ll be there to cover them, if and when they return.

Mark Krulish writes for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at mkrulish@soundpublishing.com.

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