Ike Olsson, co-owner of the Drifters, and Tim Hertzog, project manager, oversee last-minute touches to the field last week before the wooden-bat team’s home opener.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that want to prove themselves,” said Richards, who will lead the Drifters into their home opener against Cowlitz Friday night at 6:35 p.m. at Hamlin Field. “They are hungry to make a name for themselves. We might not have as many Division I players as some other teams, but what we do have is guys who want to be here. The theme of our team this summer is to prove themselves.”
Hamlin still draws raves
The Drifters became the 16th franchise in the West Coast League – a wood-bat summer league featuring college-eligible players – when they opened the season Tuesday at Bellingham. Springfield will play 59 games, including 32 at its new home stadium that can seat up to 2,000.
“Holy moly, that stadium, I don’t know if I have the right words for it,” Richards said. “It is one of the nicest facilities in the country.”
Reserved seats behind home plate are $10 per game while general admission is $6. A party deck is also available for larger groups and food trucks will help feed the fans.
Local businessmen Kelly Richardson and Ike Olsson brought the Drifters to Springfield, joining Portland, Bend and Corvallis as Oregon affiliates in the league.
“When we have a chance to add a team in our geographic footprint, we will jump on it if everything works,” said Rob Neyer, the well-known baseball journalist who has served as commissioner of the WCL since 2018. “We have to have a combination of location, a solid stadium, and we want a good ownership group. Springfield checked off all the boxes.”
The Drifters have 37 players listed on their roster, although some will not show up until their college season ends. There are also six players opening the season on a 10-day contract.
“I’m excited, this will be great,” said catcher Ryne Hays, who arrives after playing at Yakima Valley College. “I have been keeping up with the stadium and how it is looking. This will be a great opportunity and one that is rare. You don’t usually get to be part of an inaugural team in something. That is something I look forward to being a part of.”
Roster has PNW flavor
The roster features mostly players from the Northwest, including Thurston High graduate Cade Crist, who plays at Tacoma Community College.
Outfielder Taylor Holder is a freshman for Oregon while outfielder JT Rican and infielder Dominic Hellman will join the Ducks next season. Outfielder Canon Reeder of Bend will play for Oregon State next year.
The Drifters also features players out of Washington State, UC Santa Barbara, Hawaii, Pepperdine, University of Portland, and Seattle University.
The West Coast League was founded in 2005 and has become one of the top collegiate summer leagues in the nation. There were 33 players on Opening Day major league rosters with experience in the WC.
“We’ve done various studies on our league in relation to other summer collegiate leagues,” Neyer said. “I am a numbers guy, so I try to be careful and not say things I don’t trust so I don’t say this lightly, but if you combine the various metrics, we are one of the top five or six collegiate summer leagues anywhere. The Cape Cod League has the most talent and has for years, but once you get past that, it is difficult to say who has the most talent among the summer leagues so that is why you look at the metrics. The West Coast League is the top summer collegiate league in the western half of North America.”
Richards is in great position to lead the first-year club after getting Bushnell’s baseball program started earlier this year. The Beacons went 11-37 in their inaugural season, including a 9-14 mark in conference play.
“This feels similar and I love that,” Richards said. “Building things is a lot of fun, doing foundational work. I said at Bushnell that we were recruiting kids from good programs and creating relationships and it feels the same with the Drifters. This is a little more temporary, it is just a one-summer contract whereas at Bushnell you are playing for four years, but we are still trying to make relationships with quality programs and earn trust down the road. We are creating our system of checks and balances that are new and unique to our organization.”
Richards, a former Washington State infielder, played in the WCL for Bend in 2009 and 2010, earning league MVP honors in his second season when he hit .364 to claim the batting title.
“I remember when I played in Bend, there was a sign up that said ‘Who is going to play hard? The guy with a million-dollar contract or the guy trying to get there,’” Richards recalled. “In my time as a player in the WCL, some guys sent out a vibe that this was just summer ball and they were only out there because their coach told them to be there. Some guys were more interested in what happened after the game than the work that took place before and during the game. Our guys will be focused on what happens before and during the games because they want to prove themselves as players and we want to prove ourselves as coaches.”