Summer in Eugene means a lot of things, but perhaps nothing epitomizes it more than Eugene Emeralds baseball games and Civic Stadium. Nestled in the south hills just a few blocks from the University campus, the relic of a ballpark has been home to professional baseball in the Willamette Valley for the last 30 years.
Its faded gray paint has presided over a lot of sporting events since the first timbers were put in place in 1938 and through the decades, generation after generation of Eugeneans have passed through Civic’s gates. But now the guard is changing.
Starting in 2010, the rickety grandstands and hand-operated scoreboard will no longer be part of Ems baseball. The team is moving out and vacating not only one of the oldest minor league stadiums in the country but a historical landmark.
“We have been blessed to have a facility of this stature for the years we’ve been in Eugene,” Ems assistant general manager Bryan Beban said. “But it was the business part of things that determined what we did. It was 100-percent financial.”
So where are the Ems moving to? PK Park, the new baseball stadium for the University’s team. The paperwork has yet to be signed, but unofficially the Emeralds have verbally agreed to a 20-year lease with the University that would see them pay $200,000 in rent a year.
“It’s a natural fit,” Beban said. “It helps the franchise, the business and player development. It’s more in line with the rest of baseball. For Class A short season, it’s going to be over
“We are sometimes cast as the villain in all of this,” Oregon associate athletic director Joe Giansante said of people’s reactions to the move. “But we wanted to keep the Emeralds in Eugene. That’s how we looked at it. We want them here and we’re extremely excited; it has been a good partnership.”
But while PK Park may be over-the-top for minor league baseball, people such as longtime fan AJ O’Connell don’t see the move as a good thing. He says that the new bells and whistles of a bright and shiny PK Park won’t have the same effect as Civic Stadium because it will lack one thing: character.
“It’s the park,” O’Connell said. “It’s this old, wooden ball park. It’s the wow effect. People watch a game and go, ‘wow, this is what a game was like back in the ’40s and ’50s. This is the way it’s supposed to be played … you go to PK Park and it’s going to be a lot more expensive and it’s going to be a more sterile environment. A lot of these newer parks all look the same and it’s not going to have the unique quirks that these old parks have.”
O’Connell, who was born in Creswell, Ore., and grew up going to Ems games, has worked the last seven seasons grilling for parties held on the patios at Civic. The 2009 Oregon graduate and four-year Duck track and field high jumper says the deterioration of the stadium has been more than noticeable, but it never detracted from the experience, and it probably enhanced it.
“It seriously needs to be renovated, I’ll be the first to admit that,” he said. “Over the years the Band-Aids started to pile on and we started to see them. But it didn’t detract from the experience. The food was still good, the beer was still cold and the baseball was still being played there. People went there for that experience.”
The rub is that Eugene School District 4J owns the property and was the party leasing to the Emeralds. The district made the team take care of all maintenance on the field and facilities, and with an already tight budget, things weren’t done. This led to a steady decline in the stadium’s condition.
However, now that the Emeralds have given their notice that they plan on moving across the river next summer, 4J is slowly working through its options on what to do with the stadium. But don’t worry; you won’t see bulldozers shattering more than 70 years of memories anytime soon.
“If we sell, we would look at a number of options on the table,” 4J superintendent George Russell said. “Of course our druthers would be to keep it as a public property. There are a lot of questions if we were to keep it how could we justify spending money to maintain a facility that we aren’t using … but we recognize that it’s a community asset with historical value. We have been working on ways of preserving it.”
That’s where the organization Save Civic Stadium comes in. For the past two years, the group has been trying to raise awareness to help keep the historical site around. Jonathan Brandt, the vice president of the board and media relations representative says the group’s mission is to pave the way for a solid future.
“Basically the Save Civic effort is designed to raise awareness about the value of this architectural gem that we have in the community and show the rich history of it,” he said. “But we also want to make it clear that there’s potential for a tremendous future as well. It could easily go another 70 years if it gets a little TLC. It’s time for a new era where we get a few new activities in there and fix up the stadium.”
Save Civic Stadium is trying to secure a lease from the school district so it can proceed with plans to give the site a face-lift. The group wants to bring in architectural specialists to give estimates about how much it would cost to renovate and draw up a plan for executing it.
“We really want to keep it with the old-time feel,” Brandt said. “There are a few things that we can add to it. The buildings surrounding the stadium can be demolished and new things added. The sorts of things we need to see on site are things like really good locker rooms, maybe even some weight room facilities, more concessions and bathrooms.”
Restoring the timbers in the roof and redoing the grandstands would also be in order, but in short, Brandt and the group believe Civic can be a big draw for a multitude of events.
“One key thing is that we want to make sure the stadium is used,” he said. “Right now it’s being used only 38 times a year for the Ems and a few times for high school baseball and soccer. It can be used for a lot more things.”
While nothing is yet set in stone for the future use of Civic, locals can rest assured that no one will let the facility wallow and decay. Memories of the moon above the hills and warm nights spent sipping cold beer on the baseline patios will make sure of it. The worn bleachers are cherished by too many people in the community for the stadium to be forgotten.
“It’s not so much one experience as much as a state of mind,” O’Connell said. “It was just living up the ambiance and getting the experience. That’s what I’m going to miss.”
“We will never be able to replicate what we had at Civic Stadium with the moon over the south hills and Spencer’s Butte in the horizon, but we hope to start a new chapter at PK Park,” Beban said. “I can guarantee there won’t be any broken seats or holes in the grandstands.”