King of the Elks
By Grant Lucas
His name sings royalty, and his mere presence is just as influential to teammates as his swing. Billy King has been a mainstay for the Bend Elks, the Oregon State slugger now playing in his third season for the West Coast League baseball franchise.
He has known disappointment and has been lifted by elation while at the bottom of a dog pile to celebrate a league championship.
King has been the newbie and is now the seasoned veteran. He had no choice but to come here three summers ago, and now he won’t leave. Even if he could — and he could — he would not desert the High Desert.
In their struggles during the early weeks of this WCL season, the Elks boast a quiet yet determined leader who could help them reverse course and begin climbing the South Division standings. King is that leader — the big brother who is helping this Bend team get back on track.
“I kind of have to take it upon myself to be a leader,” says King, an infielder from Anacortes, Washington, who will be a senior next season at OSU. “I knew I was going to be one of the older guys. I understood. Being at Oregon State this year, I was one of the upperclassmen, so it wasn’t that hard of a transition to summer ball, aside from the fact that there’s a lot of guys that I didn’t know.”
Yet there were plenty of Elks who knew King, enough so that in his first game with the team nearly three weeks ago, the team’s collective mindset began to shift.
“From the first game he was with us (in Bellingham, Washington, for Elks’ eighth game of the season), his presence in the lineup immediately … it was infectious,” recalls Elks coach Casey Powell. “His swing has kind of rubbed off on others, with his approach and what he’s doing, which is what we were preaching for a week. He shows up and he’s doing what we’ve been preaching.”
King’s arrival “gave us a little boost of confidence,” adds Elks infielder George Mendazona, a Ridgeview High senior this past spring who will play with King at Oregon State next season.
“He’s nice to walk onto the field with. He’s done it before. He was a champion last year (when the Elks won their first WCL title). … I think it turned our mentality around from the beginning, when we were trying to figure things out, to now when we’re trying to make a push and make the playoffs.”
Heading into that June 10 game at Bellingham, Bend was 3-4, averaging just more than two runs per game while hitting a paltry .190. In the 14 games since, the Elks (9-12) are just 6-8, but they are scoring more than four runs per contest and batting .300, led by King’s .340 average.
“Not to bring down anyone on our team, but I think he filled some holes that we had, offensively especially,” Mendazona says. “We were struggling offensively early, and I feel like since he’s joined, we’ve really improved there. Without a doubt, it’s a lot to his credit.”
Two years ago, after King’s freshman season at Oregon State, Beavers assistant coach Nate Yeskie arranged for him to play for the Elks. Following a forgettable loss in the WCL playoffs that summer, ending with a walk-off Corvallis home run that eliminated Bend from championship contention, King came back the next summer to help the Elks to the franchise’s first WCL championship. Now, King is back for a third season and hopefully a second league title.
“You’re getting a quality person and a quality baseball player,” Powell says. “Last year I think he kind of came in with a leadership role in a quiet way. He’s not a rah-rah guy; he definitely leads by example but has an intensity about him. He hates to fail. Guys look up to him, absolutely.”
It was Vince Genna Stadium and the fans who filled its seats that King fell in love with; the stadium’s atmosphere, he says, is unmatched by any other facility in the 11-team WCL. He has returned twice, he says, because there is no better place to be, because Bend is the ideal spot to unwind after grueling Pac-12 seasons.
King — who batted .336 last summer, whose lone home run was a grand slam that put the Elks ahead for good in the series-clinching WCL championship against Kelowna and who was an all-WCL first-team selection — has taken advantage of a more open schedule, spending his extra time in the batting cage or on the field at Genna. As a result, his career arc at Oregon State has hit an upturn. King hit a mere .091 in just eight games during his freshman season.
After K.J. Harrison, the Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2015, joined the Beavers and became the regular first baseman, King moved into a designated hitter role. He has played in 88 games at Oregon State over the past two seasons, and he has a combined 40 RBIs while batting .280.
“It’s definitely helped guys get better, and I’ve definitely taken advantage of it over the past few years,” King says of playing with the Elks. “It’s really important to work on the little things over the summer that you struggled with during the season. I’ve done that.”
In the process, King has become a respected elder with the Elks — the big brother to a number of new and younger teammates.
“He’s got a good demeanor about him,” says Mendazona. “I don’t know him very well, but he just carries himself very well. He’s pretty quiet but he says the right things when he needs to. He’s a pretty natural leader, does everything right on the baseball field. I really respect that about him.”
“Some guys definitely look to me, I can tell, like George (Mendazona) and Elliot (Willy, an OSU-bound utility player from Bend High) and a couple younger guys from Oregon State,” King says. “I try to help them out as much as I can and get them ready for what they’re going to experience, trying to make sure they’re prepared for that in any way I can.”
The Elks struggled out of the gate this season and are fighting just to get back to .500. But the reigning WCL champs can take heart thanks to the league’s new split-season format, in which the second half of the schedule is a whole new season. And they can rally around the sage King, who brings a calming influence to the clubhouse.
“I’m just trying to tell guys that we’ll be all right,” King says. “There’s always teams that have a rough stretch. Last year, we were the best team from start to finish, but we had a stretch when we were just playing really bad, losing to teams we shouldn’t lose to. It was frustrating … but we just have to realize that it’s a long season and it’s something we’ll get out of.”