The Portland Barbers have started the AAA American Legion season as hot as they were at the end of last season. The metro-area baseball club has won its first nine games.
"This team is special," says Barbers coach Joe Duran, who is entering his fourth season with the club.
The Barbers have players from Central Catholic, Madison, Liberty and Reynolds high schools. Madison is their home field.
The Barbers opened the season with a doubleheader sweep against the Canyon Crushers, a Stayton-based team that won the AAA Legion championship last season. The Barbers dismantled the Crushers 15-1 and 11-1.
In the first game against the Crushers, Cole Stringer of Central Catholic gave up no runs in six innings.
"He faces the Crushers team, which is loaded, and strikes out nine on 73 pitches and gives up two hits," Duran says. "He's a lefty who sits at 83 (mph), touches 85, which is hard for a crafty lefty."
The Barbers also won 14-3 against
Athletes in Motion, another of the state's elite teams.
"Athletes in Motion had kids going to Oregon State and Oregon," Duran says.
Last weekend, the Barbers downed the Alpenrose Red Sox (Wilson High) 22-1, then defeated North Willamette Valley 5-1 and 8-1 and the Hillsboro Sky Sox 7-1 and 6-5.
The only other game the Barbers did not win going away was their third game of the season against Oregon City, which they won 5-1.
"We battled with Oregon City," Duran says. "Not to make excuses, but they were using what they call 'Blem Balls,' and they don't go anywhere."
The Barbers will play close to 50 games this summer. Duran says other elite Legion teams charge their players up to $3,000 to play for them. The Barbers require players to pay $500, or about $10 a game.
"We have Madison kids, we have Reynolds kids," Duran says. "They're blue-collar at best. We have poor kids."
The price tag on the season could be even lower if the Barbers had a major sponsor.
"It's maddening that we don't have a sponsor," Duran says. "We were one of the best teams in the state last year and we don't have a sponsor? I've talked to people who say, 'If you were down south, you'd have all kinds of local companies putting their names on you.' "
The Barbers have 12 starters who started at times on last year's team, which won its final 17 regular-season games and compiled the best record in the state (38-10). The team has two conference player of the years in Robby Heiberg of Madison, the two-time Portland Interscholastic League player of the year, and Jay Rogers from Reynolds, who was the Mt. Hood Conference player of the year this spring.
"We broke 16 team and individual records last year," Duran says. "This team is going to break those. Our 18th guy would be other teams' No. 3 hitter. Everyone has stepped their game up. We have nine tough outs. I can't tell who is the leadoff, or the nine hitter."
On top of the team's talent, the players have quickly become comfortable playing together.
"I had a dad call me and he said his son told him that he's never been on a team where the unity is instantaneous," Duran says. "This team has already gelled."
That is due in part to the character of the players Duran has recruited. It's also due to Duran's approach to coaching. Duran played for Roosevelt High in the 1990s and went on to play second base on the now-defunct Portland State baseball team. He learned about coaching as an assistant for Mike Clopton at Wilson High. Duran's coaching philosophy centers around requiring his players to take the game seriously, yet allowing them to enjoy the beauty of the game.
"It all counts," Duran says. "I have my guys taking 100 groundballs before the game, even though you may not get any in the game. I don't get fancy on them. I get them pumped. I get them positive. I get them aggressive."
As good as the team was last season, the Barbers entered the 2014 summer season with a bitter taste in their mouths. Last year, they reached the state tournament for the fourth consecutive year, but ran into some bad luck and finished fifth.
"We peaked at the end of last year," Duran says. "We won 17 in a row going into the state tournament. But you can face one good arm and your season is over. I say, 'Fellas, someone is always working just as hard as you, and anyone can win. That's the beauty of the game. It's life lessons. Sometimes this game isn't fair.'"
Team members are pitcher-first baseman Stringer, shortstop Rogers, utility man Gabe Scanlon of Central Catholic, catcher Mak Hutson of Madison, third baseman-outfielder Tyler Parker from Liberty, pitcher-first baseman Kevin Lave of Liberty, second baseman Charlie Farrenkoph out of Central Catholic, first baseman Skylar Johnson from Reynolds, pitcher Lane Evans of Reynolds, first baseman Adam Wright of Madison, third baseman-outfielder Joel Enterline from Madison, pitcher-outfielder Brady Ching of Reynolds, second baseman Cameron Sheets from Reynolds, third baseman-shortstop Alec Denhart of Reynolds, outfielder Zach Chitwood from Liberty, catcher Aiden Fetters of Madison, and pitcher-outfielder Ryan Kaser from Liberty.
Duran makes no secret about what he and the Barbers want to accomplish at the end of the summer.
"The goal," Duran says, "is a state title."