2020 Freitas Awards: Eugene Emeralds (Short-Season)

The best teams in the country recognize that the minor leagues are about so much more than baseball. The sport is what brings people to the park, but the sense of community is what keeps them coming back.

That sense of symbiosis isn’t formed only through home runs or bobbleheads or fireworks. Instead, it’s forged through the knowledge that the people you see at the turnstiles and on the concourse and behind the concession stands will be there for you well after the final out.

The Eugene Emeralds, who play in the Pacific Northwest, a region that dealt with the double-whammy of the coronavirus and a series of unrelenting wildfires, spent all year doing as much as possible to uplift their friends and neighbors. For their efforts, they are the winners of the Short-Season Freitas Award.

Once it became clear that their season was at the very least going to be impacted by the pandemic, the Emeralds’ staff, helmed by general manager Allan Benavides, went to work.

At first, the ideas were light-hearted, like fitness challenges over Facebook, led by team mascot Sluggo. As the pandemic wore on, the Emeralds’ efforts gained gravity.

One of the Emeralds’ first ideas involved Megan Dompe, the owner of a local textile shop and the wife of the team’s assistant GM.

Together with Emeralds director of community relations Anne Culhane, Dompe used the resources normally put toward pillows and blankets to begin making personal protective masks to aid an area whose resources had run dry in the pandemic’s early days.

“Megan put all those packs together. She cut all the supplies, and gathering the supplies was the hardest thing because fabric got really hard to find and elastic got impossible to find,” Culhane said. “And so then she would get everything set up I would then go to her house, pick everything up and then just make delivery runs.”

Dozens of masks became thousands, and the deliveries of those and other necessities stretched from Eugene to nearby Springfield and Cottage Grove, Ore.

But the Emeralds didn’t stop there. Despite having no stadium to use as a home base—PK Park belongs to the University of Oregon, which was shut down due to the pandemic—the team found places to coordinate blood drives with the Red Cross, as well as calls for diapers and other personal protective equipment necessities for the community.

“It was kind of just like reaching out to our contacts and asking them, ‘What do you guys need? What are you struggling to find? How can we help,’ ” Culhane said.

The response was even bigger than the team could have imagined.

“What was amazing was we thought the drive would be a couple of (pickup trucks) full of supplies and our sponsor, Kendall Auto Group, would bring a couple brandnew trucks for the photo opportunity,” Benavides said. “Well, what we thought would end up being just a couple (pickup) trucks ended up having to be Penske trucks.”

But the Emeralds kept going. In the midst of the pandemic, their region was struck by a series of devastating wildfires that forced mass evacuations and so shrouded the city with smoke that the area seemed to be in near-total darkness. As they did with the coronavirus, the Emeralds immediately began thinking of ways they could answer the bell for their community.

In response, the team coordinated with their baseball chaplain, Ken Brown, and the Red Cross again and eventually settled on setting up supply dropoffs at each of the team’s four partner hotels, where families who had been displaced by the fires were staying. The hotels themselves had shut down due to a lack of tourism in the area because of the coronavirus, so they didn’t have much in the way of food either. So while the hotels provided the shelter, the Emeralds rallied the community once more to provide the food, water and supplies the evacuees needed.

The Emeralds also used their food truck to cook free meals for community members. In November, the team also launched a program in which it would donate a mask to a local school for every one purchased by someone through their website.

The team hasn’t played a game at home since Aug. 26, 2019, but its employees—even ones who have been furloughed—have rallied for a fanbase in need.

“That’s just part of what being a community-based baseball team does. No, it’s not just when the team arrives, when we have a game, when we do things at the ballpark,” Benavides said. “We’ve got to be there year-round.”

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