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Remembering Eugene, Oregon's Civic Stadium

One former Eugene resident fondly remembers spending large parts of her childhood at Civic Stadium. The stadium burned down on Monday.
July 1, 2015, 2:35pm
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Before the University of Oregon became one of the best collegiate football programs in the country, before Portland became the darling of The New York Times travel section, before the neighboring Seattle Mariners and Seahawks up north on Interstate-5 produced winning seasons, there was Civic Stadium and Eugene's fledgling minor league baseball team, the Eugene Emeralds.

Watching the Emeralds lose game after game was a critical part of my childhood even though they were consistently one of the crummiest teams in their division.

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And when my older brother texted me on Monday night telling me that the team's longtime home, Civic Stadium, had burned to the ground, I had the same thought as many Oregonians.

"There went my childhood."

Then, and now, major league sports attract all the glamour—the big paychecks, the ballooning broadcast deals, the megawatt athletes glimmering with endorsement deals, and even more recently, espionage.

But much of the heart of American sports happens at places like Civic Stadium, where the smell of stale hot dogs hang in the air, sandals often stick to the sticky-beer-coated wooden bleachers and tickets are affordable for the masses.

Our Emeralds may have stunk, but they were still ours.

Civic Stadium was one of the ten oldest active minor league baseball facilities in the country, according to the Register-Guard, born out of a public-private partnership between the Eugene Chamber of Commerce, the Eugene School District and the federal Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era program championed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The stadium was on the National Register of Historic Places and has been sporadically threatened by the elements and developers.

On the West Coast, we have a penchant for destroying what few things remain from older days—especially sporting venues—since much of our timeline is shorter than the rest of the country's. For one, the people of Seattle seemed to have relatively few qualms about imploding the Kingdome in 2000.

The cause of the fire at Civic is still unknown. Fire trucks were called in late Monday afternoon after a sudden plume of smoke appeared all around town. The wooden benches and old architecture of the stadium helped the flames spread quickly. The stadium's dramatic end seems befitting the conclusion of a Northwest coming-of-age novella I will likely never write: intense, apocalyptic, and sad.

Baseball still induces sepia-wrapped memories despite steroid scandals, big TV money, and raging egos. It would be easy to coat mine at Civic Stadium in saccharine, too, even as minor league baseball, by most measures, continues to be a dreary shadow of its grown-up counterpart. Players complain of poor pay and treatment, attendance figures can be dismal and few athletes actually make it to "the show."

Civic Stadium, like many minor league ballparks, had a dumpy charm of its own. It looked barren during the rest of the gray, rain-filled months of the year. High school kids smoked pot by the bleachers. Stray cats roamed in and out of the parking lot. As the University of Oregon football team began winning games and selling out Autzen Stadium down the road, there was still plenty of room to beach yourself on the wooden bleachers at Civic. Ice cream was served in plastic baseball helmets and fans were induced with giveaways of silly freebies like bats and balls, all of which felt glorious because of the mere fact that we didn't have to pay for them. I'm not sure if smoking then was prohibited or not, but it definitely happened, as did a fair amount of inappropriate heckling.

Like for many daughters, baseball games represented spending time with my father that didn't involve him cursing at a lawnmower or having to use my smaller hands to help repair the kitchen sink. In a move that my dad would call "thrifty" and I would call "cheap and humiliating," he would regularly enter the park clad in a coat lined with snacks smuggled from home. And bless the people of Eugene for not verbally judging a tall man wearing a jacket to a baseball game in August. It was seedy bliss.

Against this backdrop, July 4th firework displays reigned, families bickered, crushes were nursed. Unlike when you attended Mariners games, fans at Emeralds games could actually interact with players after every single game. Families like ours, who weren't rolling lumber dough, could even sometimes sneak up to the usually-empty box seats after the 7th inning and masquerade as the Eugene glitterati that we weren't.

In 2010, the Eugene Emeralds moved to the University of Oregon's PK Park, near gleaming Autzen Stadium where the football team plays, a part of town that has been completely transformed by the fortunes of Nike and Oregon alum Phil Knight. They share the venue with the Duck baseball team and have since adopted a new Northwest-appropriate mascot, the sasquatch. (It should be noted that no pocket of sports does mascots like minor league baseball. The Northwest League alone boasts a mascot formed from volcanic crater, one made of barley, another made of dust and "Otto the Spokanasuarus.") The Emeralds finished the 2014 season with a 30-46 win-loss record.

The Emeralds moved to PK Park in 2010. Photo via Wiki Commons

With its team gone, the school district struggled with what to do with the orphaned stadium. Eugenians wondered; would it be blitzed for condos? A Whole Foods? A parking lot?

A local group, Friends of Civic Stadium, formed a grassroots campaign to try and maintain the venue and brought attention to the site as an "endangered place" in the state. By this spring, the Eugene Civic Alliance had successfully raised $4.1 million to purchase the stadium grounds. Among its members was one of my elementary school teachers, Jim Watson, who faithfully taught his fourth grade students like me a unit devoted to baseball history along with spelling and math. It was supposed to be an underdog victory on soil known for decades of Charlie Brown losses.

I always made a point of jogging by the stadium when in Eugene visiting family, including during an ESPN reporting trip this March when I delved into the history of another Eugene legend, Steve Prefontaine, who died in a car crash in the nearby South hills. Maybe it was because I had morbid narratives on the brain, but Civic looked particularly sad and lonely, so I was thrilled to hear it was poised for a renaissance.

That's what makes the news of the fire at Civic that much more crushing for those of us who kept rooting for a happy ending there, even years after the team had left the field.

Cal Ripken Jr. once said, "you could be a kid for as long as you want when you play baseball." But I think that's true for watching it, as well, especially if you're the little girl watching your home team fall in the third inning, your family members get red in the face at the umpire's calls and you're scarfing down nachos draped in faux cheese.

It sounds corny, but childhood itself often feels like a baseball season, long lasting at the time, but ultimately shorter than you think it will be. And so, too, turned out to be the case with Civic Stadium. But at least we can be thankful for those seasons, even if in the end, they were cut short.