7/24/2017 2:28:00 PM WATCH: Portland Pickles reach out to churches and there is a Catholic flavor at the ballpark
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Portland Pickles outfielder Griffin Mueller bats in front of a crowd at Walker Stadium in the Lents district of Portland. Catholics are involved at all levels, from the field to the stands to the concessions booths.
Archbishop John Vlazny and Portland Pickles consultant Mark Helminiak chat in the stands during a July 8 game. Helminiak, a member of St. Henry Parish in Gresham, is helping the team reach local faith groups.
On a fragrant Saturday evening in Southeast Portland, Adam Richards, Corrine Montana and Rosie Berg are making their way out of Walker Stadium. The Portland Pickles baseball team has lost, but the trio from Portland’s L’Arche community are beaming anyway. They were able to secure a foul ball, a memento that will go back to the Catholic-inspired house where people with disabilities and their assistants live together.
On any given night at this intimate ballpark, Catholics are all over the place. Some go poetic about the links between faith and the sport.
“Pope Francis talks about the good things in sports and I think we can experience it here,” says Pedro Rubalcava, a leader at Portland-based liturgical publisher Oregon Catholic Press. Rubalcava, a member of St. Henry Parish in Gresham, cites the fine weather, the family atmosphere and the simple-heartedness of the players. He points out that baseball has the most Christian of plays — the sacrifice bunt, in which a player gives himself up to advance a teammate. He muses that “bases loaded” has a sacramental ring to it.
Christian hospitality is involved. Over the summer, Rubalcava and wife Kristin host Pickles players, college students who might be good enough to go pro, but want to stay in school.
Jay Pearce, a member of St. Mary Cathedral, gives a home to two players. “It’s been a fantastic experience and it’s a good level of play,” Pearce says.
Eleven Pickles come from Oregon, including University of Portland players Tate Budnick and Daniel Lopez and Jesuit High graduate Jack Gordon.
The stadium holds about 2,000 fans and most of the seats are full most of the time.
“The Lord gives us a full life. The game is not over until you play nine innings,” says Mark Helminiak, a former Portland Rockies general manager who now consults for the Pickles. A member of St. Henry Parish in Gresham, he wanders the stadium with Buddy, his tiny Lhasa Apso.
Helminiak cherishes a mix of faith, baseball and humor. As Buddy pants patiently, his owner relays a story: In a series with the rival Pittsburgh Pirates decades ago, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda attended Mass with Pirates manager Chuck Tanner. After Tanner lit a votive candle, prayed for the Pirates’ success and headed out of church, Lasorda snuck over and blew out the flame.
Helminiak hopes for more Catholic-Pickles connections in the years to come, perhaps a Knights of Columbus night or a game when fans bring cans of food to donate to St. Vincent de Paul.
Archbishop John Vlazny, former head of the Archdiocese of Portland, attended a recent game. A knowledgeable fan, he offered insight on players and teamwork. He chatted and laughed with people in the stands and investigated how the team got its wonderfully goofy name. It turns out local school children came up with the idea.
There are Catholics behind the stands as well as in them.
Collin Wilson, who attended Holy Redeemer School and Jesuit High, is concessions manager. A University of South Carolina student, he began his sports life in CYO and moved on to football and baseball at Jesuit. In his ballpark job, he puts into practice the Jesuit mottos: “Be men and women for others” and “Age quod agis” (Do well whatever it is you do).
Dylan Gabriel, who cooks in the stadium pizza stand, will be a senior at Central Catholic next fall. He plays football and lacrosse and is a member of the math club. Faith and sports are melded for Gabriel, who also began in CYO sports and attends a Mass before each Ram gridiron game. Not only has Gabriel discovered how to cook, but he also has learned the Gospel lesson about not judging others; he came to adore a few characters who at first glance he intended to avoid.
Two Catholics from the arts world are regulars on the concourse, not far from the lavatories. Pickles management invited them.
Linda L. Graham shows and signs copies of her book, “Indiana Summer.”
“The essence of my book is the joy of summer as a child,” says Graham, a member of St. Therese Parish in Portland. “I think we are losing that. What I see at the game brings that back.”
Claudia Mesa, who runs an academy called Kids Like Languages, is also a painter. She shows her work at the game and sells it to raise money for underprivileged children in her home city of Barranquilla, Colombia. “God gives us everything that we have, and if we share the talents we have, based on our faith, then we are going to touch the lives of so many,” Mesa says during a break between innings.
The Pickles front office likes the link with churches, because that’s a way to get families and youths to the ballpark. Admission costs between $7 and $12, a fraction of a major league ticket price.
“One of the things that makes this an exciting job is the fact that you get families just coming out to have a good time,” says Kevin Herbst, senior vice president of ticketing.
“We get multiple generations,” says Bill Stewart, one of the team owners. “We have grandpas coming out with grandsons. It’s absolutely the most fun thing to see. It’s families getting together in the summer.”