Bill Hogeboom loves baseball so much, he's willing to lend support to the old adage that the best way to make a small fortune in baseball is to start out with a large fortune.
Hogeboom is the sole owner of the Spokane RiverHawks, a new franchise in the amateur Pacific International League. Hogeboom estimates he'll lose at least $10,000 on his $40,000 investment this summer, but he says it's all worth it to provide a quality entertainment option for the community and a top-notch summer baseball league for local and out-of-town college players.
"I think it will help baseball in Spokane get better," says Hogeboom, a former Cheney High School baseball player who runs a musical instrument parts manufacturing company in Spokane. "Maybe it will help some of these kids reach the major leagues."
Seventeen PIL graduates have advanced to the major leagues since the PIL was formed in 1992. The alumni list includes current big leaguers like ex-Washington State basketball star Mark Hendrickson (who played a little baseball at WSU) with Toronto, Willie Bloomquist with Seattle and Jeff Zimmerman with Texas.
The RiverHawks have scheduled 30 games -- 15 home, 15 away -- starting Saturday at 4:30 pm and Sunday at noon (a doubleheader) against visiting Everett. Season tickets go for just $35, or you can buy six tickets for any game(s) for $20.
All home games have afternoon starting times at Spokane Falls Community College. SFCC's immaculate baseball diamond does not have lights, but will have a beer garden set up down the rightfield line during RiverHawks games.
"That's huge," Hogeboom says. "It's hard to imagine summer baseball without beer, especially when games are at 4:30, 5 in the afternoon."
Beer sales, business sponsorships, program ads, outfield signs, live radio for all home games, all-new uniforms and equipment, including dozens of wood bats (mandatory in the PIL)... Hogeboom is putting his wallet where his mouth is, partly as a favor to his good friend Dave Keller, the baseball coach at the Community Colleges of Spokane.
It was Keller who approached Hogeboom last year with the idea of backing a PIL team in Spokane. Keller has put in umpteen hours as the unpaid general manager of the team. The field manager is Kevin Stocker, the Central Valley High and University of Washington product who played in the major leagues from 1993-2000. Former Ferris High star Eric Sandberg, an injured Seattle Mariners farmhand, is serving as a coach.
"I'm just feeling fortunate to be able to come back and share some of what I have learned," says Stocker, who lives in Liberty Lake. "But these kids are pretty serious about baseball, or they wouldn't be out here."
Stocker, 33, played PIL-level ball in Seattle in 1990, just three years before he started at shortstop for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1993 World Series. His first managing experience will have him dealing with players from major colleges, small colleges and junior colleges near and far. The team's first practice was Wednesday -- just days before opening day.
"Right now, I could go and coach or manage in the (pro) minor leagues," Stocker says. "But that would take me away from my family for six or seven months out of the year. That's why I retired, because I was sick of the travel, of being away from my family.
"I mean, right now, I'm coaching my daughter's Tee Ball team, my son's Tee Ball team -- I'm going to be doing that at the same time that I'm doing this."
Most RiverHawks games are scheduled on weekends. Business manager Matt McCoy, the club's only paid employee besides Stocker, says he's hoping to draw "300 or 400 people" for each of the home dates with Everett this weekend.
"We haven't spent a lot of money on ads, because we don't have the money," McCoy says. "We're going by word of mouth."
Of course, McCoy can only guess what the local sporting public's initial reaction will be to the RiverHawks. Summer amateur ball has never before been tried at this level of financial commitment and skill level in Spokane, though former Washington State coach Bobo Brayton briefly operated an Alaska League team in Pullman filled with Cougars (go figure) before the NCAA limited summer teams to four players from any one Division I school.
Longtime local radio personality Paul Seebeck will handle the play-by-play duties on KSBN (1230 AM). His color man is Stu Evey, one of the founding fathers of ESPN. Pregame shows start 15 minutes before game time. The first pregame shows feature Evey's taped interviews with major league broadcasters Jerry Coleman (a former New York Yankees infielder) of the San Diego Padres on Saturday and George Grande (one of the original anchors of ESPN's SportsCenter) of the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday.
As is the case with most summer baseball teams, there's a minimum of glamour attached to the life of a RiverHawk. The team is still actively seeking homes for players to stay in rent-free -- the players pay for their own food, while home owners receive season tickets -- and players travel in vans to road games. College rules forbid players from being paid for playing, but their travel expenses are covered.
The PIL consists of 11 teams divided into two divisions. Spokane plays in the North Division with Bellingham, Everett, Kelowna and Wenatchee. The South Division includes Seattle, Portland, Kirkland (suburban Seattle), Aloha (suburban Portland), Yakima and Bend.
The regular season ends July 27. The PIL playoff champion receives an automatic berth in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kan.
The crown jewel of PIL franchises is the Wenatchee AppleSox. Wenatchee's isolated location and lack of a pro baseball team in the area provides the AppleSox with a boost at the turnstiles.
"Wenatchee is making money hands over fist," McCoy says. "They had 2,500 fans for one game. They average almost a thousand."
McCoy would be happy with half that, particularly this year. The RiverHawks don't see themselves competing for the local baseball dollar with the pro Spokane Indians, who often draw 4,000 or more fans, and only two of the RiverHawks' 10 home dates (July 3-4) conflict with Indians home games.
"This is good for the Indians, and good for baseball," McCoy says. "It makes the pie bigger."