Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch is a standard part of any baseball game.
But Walla Walla is probably the only place in the world that throws a sweet onion.
Borleske Stadium, home of the West Coast League’s Walla Walla Sweets, is just one of a handful of places around town where visitors are reminded of the region’s connection to Washington’s state vegetable.
Though the town has gained prominence as a wine tourism destination, with world-class restaurants and tasting rooms taking up much of the downtown real estate, the city has a few onion-related quirks.
One is a tradition at Whitman College, dating back to the early 1990s, where the admissions office mails a box of sweet onions over the summer to each student in the incoming freshman class.
John Bogley, the college’s vice president of development and alumni relations, said the tradition was inspired by an alumnus of the college, Carl Schmitt, who ran a bank in Palo Alto. Every year, he had a truckload of onions delivered to the bank as a thank-you to customers for their business. Schmitt told the story to then-college president Tom Cronin, who adopted it.
The onions are packed in the field in boxes of six, then mailed to students with a letter explaining their origin. Locati Farms supplies the onions now, though Whitman has used different suppliers in the past, Dean of Admissions Tony Cabasco said.
“We really want to find ways to celebrate Walla Walla and the community here, and I think that’s kind of a nice way to also do that,” he said.
Every year, he said, he gets a few calls from students in the spring who have been admitted and want to know where their onions are. Cabasco has to explain that they’re only for students who actually decide to enroll.
International students can’t receive them thanks to the difficulty of shipping produce abroad. Cabasco said some students receive their box, which has holes in it, and think the college has sent them a hamster or small dog.
The annual cost to the college is about $10,000 a year, and shipping costs more than the onions themselves. The tradition was on a list of nonessential programs considered for cuts during the 2008 recession, when the college’s financial aid needs rose, but Cabasco said the entire office was opposed.
“It’s a thing at Whitman, and we can’t not do it,” he said.
For the Walla Walla Sweets, onions aren’t just a projectile. They’re the core of the baseball team’s brand.
The team’s mascot is Sweet Lou, a surprisingly endearing winking onion with legs who roams around the stadium high-fiving kids and runs a number of contests between innings. He frequently races children around the bases, though thanks to his size 19 feet, he rarely wins those contests.
The Sweets’ website describes him as the “friendliest and most energetic onion you’ll ever meet,” noting that he sleeps in an onion patch at night but otherwise lives at the ballpark.
Sweets President Zachary Fraser declined an interview request on behalf of Sweet Lou.
“Lou’s a silent onion,” Fraser explained. “He needs an interpreter.”
Fraser moved to Walla Walla to form the team in 2009, and worked with a sports branding agency to come up with the Sweets brand. He had the finished logo done before fans officially voted on a team name, but fortunately the signature onion won by a wide margin.
The onion mascot, with his visor and wink, was part of the package. Fraser chose to announce the new team in a press conference at Sharpstein Elementary School, where children were given rally towels to cheer. After the announcement, Fraser took questions and one student asked him what the onion was named.
“I’d thought of everything,” he said, except, somehow, a name for the team mascot. “On a whim, I blurted out Sweet Lou and everybody cheers.”
The name earned him flak from one of the team’s owners, Jeff Cirillo, a former Mariner whose conflicts with former manager Lou Piniella are well-documented. But the name stuck.
Because the Sweets rely on college baseball players, the roster changes year to year. That makes it hard to build a fan following based on star players, so Sweet Lou fills the gap.
“Sweet Lou has become a face that we can market year in and year out,” he said.
Fraser said he hopes the team can help preserve the onion’s place in Walla Walla history, even as the wine industry grows in prominence.
“The first thing people came to know Walla Walla for was the onion,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that.”