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Minor Pleasures of Eugene Fandom

September 11th, 2018 by dk

Eugene offers some pleasures that are not talked about enough, because those pleasures have minor complications. The Eugene Emeralds did not win as many games this year as fans may have hoped, but they finished gloriously and won their league championship. More importantly, the players continue to learn the game.

Fans will always root for their team to win, but here we hold almost parental pride in the competition itself. It’s not win-at-all-costs. There’s also, “That looked like fun out there,” and “I hope somebody learned a lesson,” and even “Just please don’t get hurt.” We’re invested in the game, but more so in the players’ futures. That pays us extra dividends.

The Emeralds compete in an Instructional League. None of the players want to stay on the Ems roster for any longer than necessary. Their goal is to reach the Big Leagues — to play someday in Wrigley Field for the Chicago Cubs. They came here to prove themselves and to learn new skills.

Winning is secondary to learning. A pitcher is mastering a slider against lefties. A catcher is perfecting a pickoff move to first base. Batters learn to run out their ground balls. (Or not.) Pitchers learn to keep their balance atop the pitcher’s mound. (Or not.)° It all plays out in front of us.

They are learning to be good players, good teammates, and good learners. If their career progresses, their lives will soon get complicated with celebrity and agents and business. The joy of the game could get left at the Eugene station to make room for all that new baggage. We see them while they still have both hands free.

As they improve their skills, we’re glad to see them learn their limits. Best of all, we witness pure joy. It bursts out during competition — but it’s rooted in their learning. Mastery is deeply satisfying. That satisfaction cannot be hidden.

Watch Sabrina Ionesco and Ruthy Hebard execute a perfect pick and roll for the Oregon Ducks.° Their joy of mastery is infectious. Any of the university’s non-revenue sports will give you a similar pleasure.

Rooting for the Oregon Ducks football team has gotten a bit more complicated. Are they playing for today, or protecting for tomorrow? Some see Eugene as a layover on their way to destiny. Others put down roots. We can tell the difference.

No one in Eugene was surprised that Royce Freeman earned a starting role as a rookie with the Denver Broncos.° Many of us will get weather alerts for Tennessee in the months ahead, because good weather still brings out the Hawaiian kid in Marcus Mariota. Four years in Eugene didn’t change that because, you know, it never rains at Autzen Stadium.

Dana Altman’s basketball program has begun attracting athletes who will play in Eugene only until their professional stock rises.° If they contribute to the Ducks’ success, that’s good. But if the lessons they learn while they’re here have a lasting impact on their lives, that’s better.

It’s not uncommon for athletes to return to Eugene after their professional careers, even though they were born and raised elsewhere. This may have been the last place where their sport and their self fit seamlessly together. We play a role in that.

I remember Luke Ridnour flying home from Eugene one spring, with a basketball as his carry-on luggage. Or Ashton Eaton pausing to check where the nearest exit was when instructed to do so by the flight attendant. Or Mariota handing food to a homeless man stationed at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Coburg Road.

Those unguarded moments are behind them now, but those are the moments we’re privileged to observe. I can tell you what sort of dog Hebard and her roommate have, because I saw them buying pet supplies on a Saturday afternoon in south Eugene.

The Ems won the Northwest League championship this year. It was an improbable end to an otherwise lackluster season. They’ve finished as league champs twice in the last three years. But you know what? We’re fortunate that it doesn’t really matter.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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