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July 24th, 2013 WW Staff | Featured Stories
 

Best of Portland 2013: Best Fun and Games

bop_2013(bestcoach)Hillsboro Hops pitching coach Doug Drabek. - IMAGE: Ronit Fahl

BEST PITCHING COACH

In most professions, Doug Drabek wouldn’t be a retiree. The former major leaguer and current pitching coach for the Hillsboro Hops (hillsborohops.com) certainly doesn’t look like one. As he heads out to the mound to calm down a pitcher who has lost sight of the strike zone, you half expect him to grab the baseball, dismiss the kid and throw a few innings of relief himself.

“I do miss it, competing on the mound against a hitter,” Drabek says of his days pitching for clubs like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros. “Once you play, it’s in your blood and it never goes away.”

At 50, Drabek has gray hair and the same Selleck ’stache he had in 1990, when he took home a Cy Young Award during a 22-6 season in which he helped get a Pirates squad led by the young Barry Bonds into the playoffs. That résumé landed the Texan here, coaching the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Class A minor league affiliate. Drabek was a starting pitcher for 13 seasons, racking up almost 1,600 strikeouts and a career ERA of 3.73. He walked away from the big leagues after the 1998 season, saying he felt his abilities were starting to decline. He worked with sons Justin and Kyle, coaching them from Little League through their high-school years. Drabek’s first big coaching success is Kyle, who recently rejoined the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching rotation after surgery.

Since 2010, he has been coaxing future Diamondbacks—like potential National League All-Star Patrick Corbin, who thrived under Drabek’s tutelage during his stint with the Visalia Rawhide—into big-league manhood. In Hillsboro, he hopes to do the same.

“You’re basically teaching them how to pitch,” he says. “Drilling it into them how to get ahead of hitters, how to read swings. You’re helping them find themselves out there.” ROBERT HAM.


BEST UNDERWATER SPORT

The Winterhawks are done for the season, but that doesn’t mean hockey is gone—it’s just moved below water. Every Tuesday at the Mt. Hood Community College Aquatic Center, anywhere from 12 to 20 Portlanders play underwater hockey, donning snorkel masks, swim caps, flippers and gloves for an open scrimmage at the bottom of the pool.

This isn’t just Portland’s patented weirdness. Underwater hockey (meetup.com/Portland-Underwater-Hockey) is an international sport, invented in England in the 1950s. It’s similar to ice hockey, but with no contact, no goalies and a lead puck propelled by plantain-sized wooden sticks. “It’s a 3-D game, because you’re at the bottom of the surface and people can attack you from the top, from the side, from behind,” says Jorge Filevitch, who founded the local club when he moved to Portland two years ago. Another difference? Players can’t talk underwater. “So you cannot say, ‘Hey, pass it to me, I’m open!’” Filevich says. “Everybody has to have a role and there has to be a strategy.” KAITIE TODD.


BEST ROGUE (AND STILL MOSTLY DRY) SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING TROUPE

For performers who call themselves aquatic artists, the Olivia Darlings haven’t spent all that much time in the water. Since forming in spring 2012, they’ve had only one public appearance, a terrestrial routine in a grassy lot behind the Pecularium faux-seum in Slabtown. For that performance, the five women and one man wore sparkly blue swimsuits and caps while twirling in starlike formations and paddling their arms as if underwater. 


“We are not the Olympics,” says artistic director Kristin Wallace. “We are your grandmother’s synchronized swimming team.”

The Darlings’ patron saint, accordingly, is Esther Williams, the swimming champion and Hollywood star known for her aqua-musicals—MGM films from the 1940s and ’50s featuring elaborate underwater routines choreographed by Busby Berkeley. In their routines, the Olivia Darlings hope to pay homage to a time when synchronized swimming was about kaleidoscopic patterns and graceful harmony rather than sequined suits and cold-blooded competition.

That said, they’re no goody two-flippers. Though they have yet to fully submerge themselves, Wallace says the Darlings will stage a series of guerrilla performances in city fountains, ignoring warning emails she’s received from Portland Parks & Recreation. “Kids swim in fountains all the time,” Wallace says. “They were designed to be this way.” REBECCA JACOBSON.


BEST BICYCLE POLO (UNICYCLE DIVISION)

Walk around Alberta Park on a Thursday evening, and you’ll probably see what you would expect: little kids running around on the play structure, a couple walking their dogs and a group playing a pickup game of basketball. You might also see something you don’t expect: a group of 12 or so guys riding around playing unicycle polo. That group would be the Unicycle Bastards, Portland’s most (and also least) fearsome unicycle gang.

Formed in 2007, the Bastards (unicyclebastards.tumblr.com) organize group rides through the city as well as off-road or long-distance rides on mountain biking trails in Sandy Ridge and in Washington. But they’re best known for an anarchic one-wheeled version of bike polo. “There’s not really any rules per se,” Hamilton says of the games, which are open to anyone with a unicycle. “We don’t really discourage each other from cheating. We try to have a good time.” The games admittedly attract more spectators than new players, but, according to Hamilton, they advance the Bastards’ mission of getting the word out about unicycling in Portland. “That’s our other thing,” he says. “We like attention.” KAITIE TODD.


BEST BIKE

Laid off from the Caterpillar plant and confronting double-digit unemployment rates, Blake Hicks weighed his skills and experience against local economic trends and decided on the most practical career path available. He joined the circus.

But Hicks’ rise from Stumptown novelty to renowned BMX rider owes less to chance than to honest hard work, a truly inspired idea and some batteries.

You may know Hicks as the guy twirling a glowing BMX bike amid a rave or along the Willamette in downtown Portland. “Blake Hicks vs. Tron Bike” is a YouTube sensation, with 1.8 million views. Hicks can ride, obviously, but no matter how inventive and physically demanding his flatland technique—“no ramps whatsoever; all creative tricks on the ground; balancing, spinning, the bike floating around you”—the Tron bike he built is as much the star of the video as he is.

The BMX vet tinkered with circuit boards and hand-fashioned batteries to power his trademark steed. The glowing mount may even have drawn a shout-out on Kanye West’s instant classic Yeezus: “My mind move like a Tron bike/pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist.”

Hicks credits one of Kanye’s collaborators: “I’ve got a picture of Skrillex picking up my bike so I know he knows who I am. Maybe they were sharing all kinds of things.”

Hicks’ time with the Wanderlust Circus helped set it all in motion. The Portland troupe’s all-inclusive retinue and thoroughly professional approach proved an ideal showcase for his developing act, which he’s since taken to Tampa Bay’s Busch Gardens, where he’ll perform seven nights a week through August. He’s already turned down autumn shows in Finland and India in order to return to his Portland warehouse, though he’s considering an extended European tour this winter.

He’s devoted all off-hours this summer to further refinements of his signature shimmy, the “stubble duck,” hoping to render it utterly distinct from similar tricks around the world. “With no brakes, without even touching the tires, I’m spinning a 360 one direction while the bike is spinning opposite underneath me super fast, and it looks like I’m in the eye of a hurricane,” he says. Add lights and a Skrillex track, and who knows what’ll happen? JAY HORTON.


BEST FOOSBALL COACH

Apparently Americans do it backwards. Mike Holbert shows me this on his custom Fireball-model foosball table, which he has donated to Beaumont’s Wilshire Tavern (4052 NE 42nd Ave., 284-8083). There are push shots, pull shots, push-pull shots and something called “the snake.” But while Europeans tend to snap the little foosball men forward for a shot, Americans like to whip the shooter into a backflip to build up speed. Holbert, a white-haired man in a biker’s bandanna and short ponytail, has been playing for 40 years now, and he has the patience of a priest, taking into his tutelage any and all beginning players who show up at the tavern after 9 pm on Fridays, where he drinks cola.

Holbert is also an evangelist for the game. He is manager and resident guru for the six tables currently in commission at Nike’s Beaverton headquarters—where he works maintenance—and recently was an assistant coach for the American juniors and seniors teams at the Foosball World Cup. Lately, he is a budding philanthropist. In Germany, he encountered a foosball table made for the wheelchair bound. He commissioned a friend in China to build him a special table that’s low to the ground with bowed legs designed to allow wheelchair players to scoot underneath. He now plans to donate these tables to local hospitals through the American Table Soccer Federation; he’s already donated the original German table to Shriners Hospitals for Children. “You wouldn’t believe the reaction you get when people start playing,” he says. “They’ve been lying in bed. It’s like night and day.” He returns to his table at the Wilshire, where he whips the living tar out of his opponents. “You played a great game,” he says when it’s over. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


BEST PLACE TO PLAY MAGIC THE GATHERING (CHILD DIVISION)

If you’re going to battle with Protogenus, don’t be too confident. Sure, it’s powerful, but most of the Elderazi can destroy it in one blow. Or so one 13-year-old expert informs me about strategy in the wildly imaginative, colorful and consuming obsession known as Magic: the Gathering. This trading-card game of fantasy, swords and wizards enchants players who in another era (and probably this one, too) memorized Tolkien and lost themselves in Dungeons & Dragons.

Many Portland game stores host MTG tournaments, but most cater largely to adult players. That’s why Cloud Cap Games (1226 SE Lexington St., 505-9344, cloudcapgames.com) is the best place for young planeswalkers. This inviting Sellwood game store has a small game room with a big window so parents can discreetly keep an eye on their kids’ journey through the multiverse while mythic warriors appear, mana increases and life points wane. The store also hosts tournaments for that old standby of younger players, Pokemon, as well as game nights for grown-ups. Your kid could go somewhere else for Magic battles, but you might as well face a Spiked Baloth—in other words, it’s a big mistake. BRENT WALTH.


BEST GUNSLINGER

Big Buck Safari ace Nina MacDonald brandishes her weapon.
IMAGE: Ronit Fahl

Nina “Candi” MacDonald first discovered her talent during after-hours sessions at Kerns hangout the Standard, where she tended bar before taking work as a biotechnology research assistant. But she didn’t become a champion until she took a job barreling across the lower 10 from Los Angeles to Miami and back in a Freightliner, riding along as personal chef to a Polish truck driver named Krzysztof. “There was a Big Buck Hunter machine at every stop in the South,” she says. “Krzysztof was a health nut, and he wouldn’t give me money to smoke, so I had to play truckers for cigarettes.” It wasn’t hard to find opponents. “At a truck stop,” says MacDonald, a slender brunette prone to pigtails, “a semi-hot 36-year-old woman is like a 22-year-old supermodel.”

By the time she got back to Portland, she was one of the best female Big Buck Safari shooting-game players in the world. Her score qualified her for the 2011 world tournament in Chicago, where she placed third even though she didn’t even know the format of gameplay when she arrived. She figures she could have done even better if they didn’t have free liquor. She had handily beat the ultimate winner, Sara Erlandson, in the first round. “But she drank beer and I drank Jameson,” MacDonald says. MacDonald missed the 2012 tournament, however, and in the meantime Big Buck has redesigned its games. She’s now writing a play about her time on the Southern roads. The working title? How I Made Friends and Influenced People by Playing Big Buck Hunter. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


BEST REASON TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A ZONE DEFENSE AND AN OFFSIDE TRAP

The future of women’s soccer sits on the rather slim shoulders of Portlander Alex Morgan.

If the sport remains solvent at a professional level, it will probably be because of the Portland Thorns, the new National Women’s Soccer League’s most exciting team. And if the Thorns are to succeed, it will because of the 24-year-old Southern California native.

Morgan is both the Thorns’ best player and the most marketable female soccer player in the world, a worthy successor to Mia Hamm.

Morgan, a striker Sports Illustrated called a dead ringer for Marnie on HBO’s Girls, has become soccer’s It girl. She has explosive speed, remarkable ball control and the lungs of a thoroughbred. When the ball comes to her, you can almost feel the crowd at Jeld-Wen Field tense up, never sure what to expect.

Morgan helped the U.S. women’s team win the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, scoring an overtime goal to lift the Americans over Canada, 4-3, in the semifinals.

Her stats—she leads the league in shots on goal, and is tied for total points—don’t even begin to accurately capture how quickly she can turn a corner, lose two defenders and bullet the ball into the box. Morgan is paired with Thorns forward Christine Sinclair, a former University of Portland standout who is ranked among the 10 best female soccer players in history, according to Bleacher Report. 

Sixteen months ago, it was not clear if Morgan could break into the starting lineup; now people are actually speculating that her reputation might surpass Hamm’s as the greatest women’s player ever.

She is not, however, especially Portlandy; a sharp impatience keys her success.

“I notice that when people cross the street [here], they wait till the crosswalk man goes, even though there could be, like, no cars for two miles,” Morgan tells WW. “They’re just waiting for the crosswalk man, because people are so nice. They’re like, ‘Do you want to go? Do you all want to go? Do you want to go?’” MARK ZUSMAN.

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