Still going strong

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By: Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

Barely shaded from a sun still blazing on this early Wednesday evening, Rod Foster begins his shift. He is posted up just inside the main gate at Vince Genna Stadium, helping direct fans to their seats as they file in for the Bend Elks’ West Coast League summer collegiate baseball game against the Klamath Falls Gems. But by the third inning, “Hod Rod” Foster, as he is commonly known, emerges from the shadows ready to rouse the ballpark crowd.

After a few swings through the grandstands, offering peanuts, Cracker Jack and other candy from a vendor’s tray strapped over his wide shoulders, the heavyset yet lively Foster makes his way to the bleachers down the third-base line. The concessionaire extraordinaire rests his tray on the railing in front of the first row, and he turns to the fans in the stands, giddy with anticipation for what will ensue.

“Are you guys having a good time tonight?” Foster roars to the crowd, which offers an equally boisterous and affirming response.

“I can’t HEAR you!” he bellows back, repeating: “Are you guys having a good time tonight?”

Foster sure is. He always has — in all of the 40-plus years he has been around baseball at Genna Stadium.

“What’s not to love about this?” says the 49-year-old Foster, a 1984 graduate of Mountain View High School who calls himself the biggest Elks fan there is. “I love every moment of every game. It gives me goose bumps. I love everybody here.”

As a kid, Foster lived on McKinley Avenue, just down the street from Genna Stadium — it was known as Bend Municipal Ballpark then. Since he was 8 years old, he has competed in Special Olympics in sports ranging from golf to bocce to the softball throw.

Even earlier than that, when he was 7, Foster began his working career selling programs for the Mid-Oregon Motormen, an American Legion team that played its home games at Bend Municipal and then Genna Stadium. And here he is 42 years later, on a sizzling July evening, still going strong — still enjoying every last minute of his job.

———

Foster has worked almost his entire life. Everything he has accomplished, he has done so on his own. Since his childhood, he took initiative, navigating his way through life’s challenges and establishing himself as an inspiration to those around him, including his current employer.

“He’s part of the fixtures (of baseball in Bend),” says Jim Richards, owner and general manager of the Elks since he founded the team in 2000. “You can’t have what we have without Rod Foster here.”

Richards’ claim is a testament to Foster’s dedication. He has no job title. He has washed uniforms, cleaned the ballpark from bleachers to bathrooms, sold programs and, as Foster puts it, “hawked food around the stadium.” His role, he says, is simply to please the fans, the players and, most important, Richards.

“If it wasn’t for the boss,” Foster says, “there would be no Rod.”

Foster loves baseball, there is no disputing that. But just having this job means much more to him than the game. Because this gig, with its game-day shifts that typically last only a few hours for only a few months each year, is all the employment he has — aside from an occasional workday at the Bend Fieldhouse, Richards’ baseball gear and apparel outlet and indoor practice facility adjacent to the stadium. That is why Foster continues to return each and every summer. That, and the community that has embraced and supported him unconditionally for more than 40 years.

“I just needed a job,” says Foster, who over the years has missed just a handful of games — and then only to take part in Special Olympics competitions. “Since my mom passed on last year, it’s harder and harder. … The fans, everybody just keeps encouraging me to keep coming (back).”

———

For a man with mental challenges, Foster does not forget much, Richards points out. Information that enters his brain bank is safely stored and rarely lost — from jokes he picked up from a magazine he read in high school (“What did one hot dog say to the other hot dog?” Foster poses. “‘Hi, Frank.’”) to TV trivia.

He recalls future big league stars who have come through town over the years, such as former longtime California/Anaheim Angels outfielder Tim Salmon (who played for the Bend Bucks in 1989) and current New York Yankees star Jacoby Ellsbury (an Elk in 2002 and 2003).

Foster concedes he is obviously not nearly as famous as those two. But after 42 years around baseball in Bend, after mentioning how many local baseball fans know him personally and greet him by name, Foster begins to lean the other way.

“Maybe I am famous,” he says. “Yes, I will say that.”

Foster’s Iron Man streak pads his reputation.

He was here in 1978 when the Timber Hawks began playing in Bend as a short-season Class A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. He was here in 1981 when the Philadelphia Phillies installed their short-season affiliate, the Bend Phillies, owned by Jack and Mary Cain. For the 14 years the Cains operated a minor league club in Bend (Phillies, Bucks and Rockies), Foster showed up to work at Genna Stadium.

“He’s the lovable kid that he is,” Jack Cain says. “I call him a kid — he’s almost 50 years old. But he’s just lovable.

“I don’t remember him missing a game, in all those years,” Cain continues. “It’s his dedication. If you ask Rod to do something, he will do it to the best of his ability. And he’s not going to flake out on you, I know that.”

Even after the Cains moved the Rockies to Portland before the 1995 season, they would occasionally call on Foster to travel to the Willamette Valley to work. Not surprisingly, Foster would oblige.

When Richards founded the Elks, he spoke with Jack Cain. Cain was willing to help out Richards in any way he could in return for one favor: Take care of Rod Foster.

“He (Foster) was one of the first calls I made,” Richards recalls. “Jack gave me his number and he’s been here ever since. Whatever happens to me, if things change where I’m no longer part of this program and somebody else new comes in, I’m going to tell them the same thing: Take care of Rod Foster.”

Why? Because Foster is family. Not just to Richards. Not just to the Cains, who live in Vancouver, Washington, now and have a standing Thanksgiving invitation for their old friend each year. Foster, Richards says, is “like family to us all” — to the entire Bend community.

That kinship was evident several years ago when Foster, who for years has lived on his own, was the victim of a home break-in, leaving him, according to Richards, with next to nothing. Fortunately, Foster’s “family” was there as a backstop.

“Amazing” is how Richards describes the community support Foster received. “New TV, groceries, cash. Everybody just rallied behind him and took care of him. That’s how we all look at Rod. Whatever we can do to help him, the community embraces him with an open heart.”

That is why you will rarely, if ever, come across an anything-but-spirited Rod Foster.

“Why should I be in a bad mood?” he asks. “I love people.”

Rather, you will find Foster striking up conversations with complete strangers, or roaming through the grandstands leading chants of “Let’s go Elks!”

“I just like to make everybody happy,” Foster says. “That’s what they paid their money for, to see some action going on around here. Wouldn’t you agree?”

You will see Foster cheering on his favorite team and the Elks players he has endeared.

“I love these players with all my heart, and don’t you forget that,” Foster says from a seat on the barbecue deck down the third-base line. As he speaks, two Elks players pass by, greeting him with a friendly fist bump.

“I love these players!” he bubbles. “They’re my buddies! It spirits me to get them to smile at me. They know me by heart.”

He carries a copy of the Elks’ schedule in his pocket, which not only allows him to stay on top of the team’s itinerary but doubles as his work schedule.

“I have to know when we play,” Foster says. “I need it, so I can get my own schedule without the boss telling me I need to be here on a certain time.”

———

Summers pass all too quickly for Foster. And sometimes the offseasons seem interminable. But from the middle of August to late May, he counts down the hours to opening day of Elks baseball, to each season’s first crack of the bat, to the first ‘Let’s go Elks!’ chant. Each offseason, he counts down the hours to what he cherishes most.

“Most of my family members don’t even care about baseball. But I do,” Foster says. “I’ve been around it for years. And I’m loving it. I just love the game. I don’t care about the beers. I don’t care about the smell of the hot dogs. All I care about is the people themselves here.”

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