Blown Away: The Story Behind the Tri-City Dust Devils

Mention Washington State to most people and the words evoke images of a lush Pacific Northwest climate, with misty waterways and layers of green in the temperate rainforests. But on the east side of the Cascade Mountains—roughly two-thirds of the state—you’ll find a much different scene.

Erik “The Peanut Guy” Mertens has lived most of his life in eastern Washington’s Tri-City area, which consists of the towns of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland, and has served as the celebrity concession vendor for the short-season Single-A Tri-City Dust Devils for the entirety of the team’s existence.

“I have worked for the team for all 19 seasons, and we have had one rainout in that entire time,” Mertens said. “We don’t even own a tarp. But we have had multiple dust outs.”

That dry climate is the inspiration for the team’s unique brand.

“Where the name came from, our area, we are kind of a desert climate, a lot of dirt, farmland around,” said Derrel Ebert, the team’s Vice President and General Manager. “We’re pretty big in the agricultural industries around here. With all the farms and all the dirt, we also have a high amount of wind that comes through. We literally get dirt devils, dust devils, those types of mini-tornado type things that come barreling through here at times.”

Prior to moving to eastern Washington before the 2001 season, the Dust Devils played as the Portland (Oregon) Rockies from 1995 to 2000. With the move to Pasco, Washington, came the long-overdue decision to pick a nickname appropriate to the team rather than its parent club. While they ditched the Rockies name, they didn’t immediately ditch the color palette associated with the purple mountains’ majesty.

“Originally the colors were going to be purple and khaki—in fact, the first giveaway item we ever did was a purple Dust Devils hat in 2001,” Mertens said. “One of the reasons is because we were a Rockies affiliate at the time, so we were going to keep purple, but also, each city of the Tri-Cities has its own color associated with it, based mostly on the high schools, and Pasco’s color was purple.”

Before the team took the field, though, they settled on the colors fans know today. If locals to the Tri-Cities wondered where those colors came from, all they had do was look around.

“If you drive through the Tri-Cities,” Mertens explained, “the three main things you’ll notice, it’s in the desert, so the sky is huge, it’s big sky country, and that’s obviously blue; the Columbia River is the main geographic feature, and that’s a deep, dark blue; and the hills are kind of a brown, khaki color.”

The team’s primary logo features Dusty the Dust Devil, a look that has remained largely unchanged since 2001. The original logo (above) features a baseball with red stitches, which were changed to blue when the team worked with New Era to formalize the specific navy blue the team uses today.

Brandiose worked with the team to develop a TC cap logo, but otherwise, the team’s brand has not changed in nearly two decades—which in the topsy turvy world of minor league baseball feels like an eternity. The team has considered refreshing the look, but not abandoning Dusty altogether.

“We’re not going to change just to change,” Ebert said. “We’re considering, is it a change or is it an update, a freshening up? A full name change I don’t think we have a strong stance one way or the other on that, probably a slight lean to not changing that, but recognizing the brand needs a refresh.”

When the Dust Devils were introduced, Mertens was one of the first to sport the new look in town. When he wore it into the grocery store, he was crestfallen that the locals didn’t recognize it.

“The cashier was like, ‘What hat is that? I’ve never seen that.’ I was like, ‘This is our hometown team, come on!'”

But the most important ingredient in the recipe for building a brand is time.

“Now, every time I’m home, I wear a Dust Devils shirt or a Dust Devils hat around the Tri-Cities and everyone—EVERYONE—recognizes it,” Mertens said. “Some people yell out, ‘Go Dust Devils,’ or they might recognize me and say, ‘Hey peanut guy!'”

Photo by Matt McGee

While Major League owners and players quibble over millions of dollars to determine whether fans will have baseball this season, the Dust Devils, who, along the rest of affiliated Minor League Baseball are on a COVID-19-induced hiatus, represent everything that is good about smalltown minor league baseball. Mertens, who works in campus ministry at Gonzaga University, determined his career choice in part based on having his summers available to work for the Dust Devils.

“I love the Dust Devils more than I love most things in life,” he said. “It’s not just a job. The reason I wanted to work there is because I was so excited when they came to town in 2001. I was an 18-year-old kid with no job, no money. I was considering getting a mini-plan. I was going to be out there all the time spending money. My best friend had gotten hired on as a peanut guy, and he heard me talking about that, and he was like, ‘Hey man why don’t you just come work with me? They need a second peanut vendor. You’ll get paid to be at the ballpark.'”

The rest is history. Merten and his friend became personalities at the ballpark, serving as de facto mascots, creating a theme song for the team, and providing pre-game entertainment, juggling at the entrance gate as fans entered. Merten’s friend Johnny moved on after a few seasons, but Mertens has grown into the role of emcee, on-field host, peanut vendor, and the team’s number one fan.

Of course, all of this in peril, thanks to the trials and tribulations of Minor League Baseball amid Major League Baseball’s intention to de-affiliate 42 teams in 2021, not to mention teams’ ability to withstand the economic damage inflicted by the COVID-19 crisis. While some other Northwest Leagues will be spared, and even promoted to full season, the Dust Devils were on the preliminary list of teams to be cut by MLB. MiLB has indicated that that leaked list is not fully accurate, but the possibility of de-affiliation has raised the specter of uncertainty in the Tri-Cities.

Mertens, though, maintains a joyful and hopeful outlook even in these toughest of times.

“I pray to God that we can keep an affiliation,” he said, “but regardless of what happens, there will be a baseball team in the Tri-Cities. I hope they’re still called the Dust Devils. I hope they still rock the navy and khaki. But whatever team is there or whatever iteration of the Dust Devils is there, I’m still going to be there.”