'I guess some rancher shot a logger and the game was on'
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
The three masked men sprint in a crouch through the rain, desperately dodging a shower of ammunition that strikes around them with a rapid thwap-thwap-thwap.
Each man pauses behind an inflatable column and peers across the muddy grass field toward his targets.
The field is peppered with paintballs, the choice of ammunition for these players armed with "marker" guns loaded with a canister of compressed air and balls full of pink and orange dye.
The soggy, cool weather didn't deter 35 players from participating in Baker City's first paintball tournament on Saturday that pitted teams of three against each other for five-minute games.
Sean Rea, 32, and his paintball team dubbed "Fly Bye," worked to recruit sponsors and players for this rookie tournament. Rea worked in conjunction with Scott Robinson, who owns Pacific Paintball in Coos Bay.
"Scott and I used to be on the same team," Rea said. "I did this so I could bring paintball to Eastern Oregon."
Rea, who works full time for Charter Communications, moved to Baker City from Coos Bay four months ago, and started recruiting potential paintballers right away.
Fly Bye is a rookie team that practices each Sunday in Keating near Eagle Cap Nursery. Rea is the team's manager and captain. His teammates include Donna Reedy, 40; Mike Lunyou, 19; Tanner Denne, 18, and John Mayo, 20.
Reedy, who lives in Baker City and works as Huntington's city recorder, made the rounds through town to ask businesses and individuals for their sponsorship.
It wasn't tough to garner support.
"This town has been unbelievable. Even my attorney sponsored a team," Reedy said with grin.
The team also helped prepare the field for Saturday's tournament.
"We were out here until midnight putting this all together," Reedy said.
Saturday's event was an introductory tournament for the Eastern Extreme Paintball Series. Rea plans to organize at least four rookie tournaments next year.
Tryouts for Team Fly Bye will be scheduled next March.
"I'm hoping to have a solid nine (teammates)," Rea said.
For some, Saturday offered a chance to clutch a paintball gun and track a target across the field for the first time.
Paintball is an extreme sport that's growing in popularity, Robinson said, citing statistics that show 9.8 million U.S. residents are active paintballers.
Even Baker City has seen an increase in paintball enthusiasts.
"We've had about 12 to 15 core players in Baker City," said David Blair, 32, of Blair's RV, which carries paintball supplies.
That number is a bit deceiving, though. He said the store's occasional paintball customers number between 60 and 70.
Blair's RV started stocking paintball equipment 2 years ago.
"Before that, I was selling supplies out of my house," he said.
The draw to the sport, he said, is that it defies any age or athletic limitations.
"The top age? I'm 32 and I've played with people 50, 60 years old," he said. "There's no physical limitations."
Paintball also bridges the generation gap. "I think the greatest thing is you see kids start, then mom and dad get in on it," Rea said.
That's exactly what happened to Scott Mitchek of Spence Industrial, another paintball supplier in Baker City.
"My son and I got into it," he said. "This is going to be a big thing for Baker, I think."
Pat and Colleen Williams didn't don protective gear and take to the field on Saturday, but they stood outside the mesh fence to support their sons.
"It gives the kids something to do where everyone can compete," Colleen said. "It's good, clean fun you're not getting broken bones or crushed."
Indeed, paintball is all about strategy and teamwork.
"It's like a mix between chess and tag," said Danny Mahler, 19.
But what about the game's combat-like play with guns and ammunition?
The markers used in paintball play were originally used by ranchers to tag livestock and by loggers to mark trees, Robinson said.
"I guess some rancher shot a logger and the game was on," Robinson said with a laugh. "It's a team sport now, an athletic sport. Teams have practices just like any other sport."
Now teams sport matching jerseys emblazoned with their name; equipment can range from $100 up into the thousands. Players advance through the levels of rookie, novice, amateur and professional.
Just don't let anyone convince you that a hit with a paintball traveling 300 feet per second doesn't sting.
"A lot of people say it doesn't hurt but yeah, it does," Robinson said.
Saturday's tournament was "speed ball" play, and paintball games can take place in jungle, desert and woodland scenarios. The premise is the same in all games any player hit by a paintball is "killed" and sits out for the rest of the game.
Paintballs are biodegradable and consist of fish oil, starch and coloring encased in a gelatinous coating.
"Just like a Tylenol gel cap," Robinson said.
Though paintball games like Saturday's tournament include guidelines for safety and conduct, not all paintballers play by the same rules.
Rea said paintball's reputation is stained when the equipment is used for activities other than organized games, such as "marking" houses and cars.
Rea is working with the local police to identify those behind paintball mischief. He said he will ban troublemakers from the tournament series.
"And I'm very strict on it," he said.
After all, there's a certain etiquette for the sport of paintball.
"Be smart about it," he said. "(Paintball) is great to have fun with, but have fun the right way."
That's where team practices and tournaments come in, he said.
"I'd rather teach them to take charge with their guns and be responsible," he said.
To learn more about paintball or find out about team tryouts, contact Rea at 519-6960.