Many of the fuzzy-cheeked youngsters in the short-season Class A Northwest League are fresh from the college ranks. They arrive starry-eyed with dreams of future major league glory, but most will see their dreams die after a year (or two, or three) in the minor leagues.
But professional baseball will be part of the Spokane landscape long after the current Indians have left the game. Here are seven reasons that Indians fans of today can take pride in their team's past.
1. Except for a one-year break in 1957, Spokane has fielded a minor league team every season since 1937. Spokane bounced in and out of pro ball from 1890 to 1920, then went without a minor league team from 1921-36. Semipro "town" ball was the best baseball Spokane had to offer when the pros were absent prior to and immediately following the Great Depression.
2. Four players in the Baseball Hall of Fame are former Spokane players: first baseman George "Highpockets" Kelly, starting pitchers Stan Coveleski and Don Sutton and relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm. Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda managed in Spokane, as did Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider. Current Indians part-owner George Brett is a Hall of Fame third baseman.
3. Avista Stadium, which has gone through several name changes, has been home to minor league baseball since 1958. The ballpark was constructed in barely three months after the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and sought a new home for their Los Angeles Angels PCL franchise. The Dodgers operated Spokane's PCL team from 1958-71, then moved the franchise to Albuquerque, N.M.
4. Baseball America magazine named the 1970 Indians the greatest team in modern minor league history. Manager Tommy Lasorda's roster included future major league all-stars Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Charlie Hough, Jerry Stephenson, Doyle Alexander, Tom Paciorek and Geoff Zahn. The PCL champion Indians (94-52) were led by shortstop Bobby Valentine, the Minor League Player of the Year. He led the league with a .340 average, 211 hits, 39 doubles and 16 triples, but he gained more fame as a manager than player in the majors after a broken leg shortened his playing career.
5. Center fielder Willie Davis, just 20 years old, hit a PCL-record 26 triples for the 1960 Indians and was named Minor League Player of the Year. Davis, who later starred for the Dodgers, led the PCL with a .346 average, 216 hits, 126 runs and 30 stolen bases. Taking the caliber of play into consideration (there were only 16 big league teams in 1960), Davis' season may be the best ever for a Spokane player.
6. Seven of the 19 league championships won by Spokane teams have come since 1987, including two in three years since the Texas Rangers replaced the Kansas City Royals as Spokane's parent club. Last year, the injury-plagued Indians stunned Vancouver in the playoffs to become the first pennant winner with a losing record in the regular season (37-39).
7. Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the Snoqualmie Pass bus crash that killed nine Indian players. The June 24, 1946, accident remains the worst in U.S. professional sports history for lives lost.
The Spokane Indians open defense of their Northwest League championship on Monday, June 19, at Avista Stadium at the Spokane County Fair & amp; Expo Center. All five games in the opening homestand with Salem-Keizer are set for the standard starting time of 6:30 pm. A sellout or near-sellout of some 7,000 fans is anticipated for the opener; Spokane has led the Northwest League in attendance six straight years. Tickets are priced from $4-$8. As usual, all lower box seats have sold out as season tickets. Other tickets may be purchased by visiting the Indians office at Avista Stadium; phoning the Indians at 535-2922; or contacting Tickets West at www.ticketswest.com, 535-SEAT or local outlets. KJRB (790 AM) broadcasts all 76 games through early September, with Bob Robertson calling the play-by-play.