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Only memories remain

EUGENE — Bob Beban took his last look at Civic Stadium on Sunday when his grandson, who was visiting from Milwaukee, Wis., wanted to see the place where he threw out the first pitch on his fourth birthday.

Beban parked in the lot behind right field and got out with his grandkids, 9-year-old Mason and 12-year-old Audrey, to see the site where he worked for 28 years.

“Audrey made a comment about how hard it was to look at it as it was,” Beban said on Tuesday, one day after the 77-year-old structure burned to the ground. “It was in such a state of disrepair, to be honest, it is not a surprise at all. Nobody took care of it. The grass was high, it was dry, it was just there for the taking. It was inevitable. That’s the worst part, nobody was there to really take care of it.”

Beban was the general manager of the Eugene Emeralds from 1982 until the franchise moved to PK Park in 2010. He lives about a mile away from Civic and was driving north on Willamette Street toward the stadium when he saw smoke, then flames, and fire engines pulling up to scene.

“It is like a member of the family died,” Beban said. “Twenty-eight years, every day. There is not a spot in that stadium that I have not been to. Not a thing we haven’t done in it.”

Beban’s wife, Eileen, worked in the front office with him while his two boys, Chris and Bryan, worked every odd job at the stadium from batboy to scoreboard operator. When Beban was hired in 1982, the offices were in a double-wide trailer on the northwest side of the property before moving to an office on the northeast side in the late 1990s.

“Eileen and I looked down when they towed the trailer away and I had a tear in my eye,” Beban said. “It doesn’t compare to this.”

The Bebans were the face of Civic Stadium for nearly three decades and Bob Beban said he started receiving texts immediately after news of the fire broke, including many from numbers he didn’t recognize. Each member of the family had similar communications.

“I’m getting messages from people I had not talked to in years,” said Bryan Beban, a former assistant general manager of the Emeralds who now works as the sales and marketing manager at Ford Idaho Center in Boise. “It is so gratifying that people recognize what the stadium meant to them and that in turn says a lot about what we were able to do to keep it viable. To keep it a place to have minor league baseball.”

The Emeralds moved to Civic Stadium in 1969 as a Triple A affiliate for Philadelphia and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was among the future Phillies who played there until the franchise went back to Single A in 1974. Eugene won the Northwest League title in 1974 and 1975, the last two outright championships it has won.

“It is just sad,” said George McPherson, who played for the Ems on those two title teams and has been the official scorer for the club since 2004. “I posted some stuff on Facebook and I got a lot of response from the old Emeralds. I was remembering the night we won the championship in 1975, being out on the field with the fans and having champagne and celebrating in front of home plate. There are so many memories.”

Greg Riddoch served three stints totaling 10 seasons as manager of the Emeralds, including 1975 and a co-championship in 1980 before managing the San Diego Padres in the majors from 1990 to 1992.

“I managed in the bigs, did all that, but my favorite year was 1975 with the special chemistry we had and a special place like Eugene,” said Riddoch, noting that more than a dozen of the players from that team will meet for the 40th anniversary in August. “The kids called Civic ‘The Castle’. I had about eight messages saying ‘Our castle is gone’. A lot of former players are so sad, they said it was one of their favorite places to play.”

The stadium was owned by the school district when the Ems played their last game there on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 — which also marked Chip Kelly’s debut as Oregon football coach in a loss at Boise State.

“After that last game, I remember all those people coming onto the field for two hours and digging up home plate and the mound and taking giant chunks of turf because that is where their grandparents brought them and their parents before that,” said Riddoch, who has retired from baseball and lives in Longmont, Colo.

The facility went dark after the Ems left and multiple attempts to sell it finally resulted in a $4.5 million purchase by Eugene Civic Alliance, which planned to renovate the old grandstand while building athletic fields.

“Disbelief and sadness,” Bryan Beban said. “After everything that the various nonprofit groups and the school district and the city went through for five years to get a resolution and then it finally gets settled. Now to have this happen, is just awful for all involved.”

Added McPherson: “I got angry because I think if the city and the school district and franchise had kept it up, it would still be a viable place.”

Now the future of the site is uncertain.

“You think of the thousands of players who played there, the hundreds of major leaguers and some Hall of Famers that started their career there, it is mind blowing,” Bryan Beban said.

McPherson heard from many of those former Emeralds in the aftermath of the fire.

“In unison, they all said how sad it is to see such a great venue go up like that,” he said.

A firefighter stops to take a photo of the smoldering remains of Civic Stadium Tuesday in Eugene. AP PHOTO