Baseball is a game rife with rituals and superstitions.
Never talk to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. Never step on the chalk lines when you're running on or off the diamond. Eat the same meal every game day. I'm just a baseball fan, and I start every season with a Bull Durham viewing and reading a new (to me) baseball book, just to get in the spirit of a new season.
For the Spokane Indians, all the joy of life at the ballpark went on pause last year thanks to COVID-19. It doesn't take the team's senior vice president, Otto Klein, more than a couple seconds to recall the last time fans were allowed in Avista Stadium to take in America's pastime: Sept. 4, 2019.
Now the Indians organization is preparing to welcome fans back for a new season, and the world has changed both inside and outside the baselines for the Spokane squad and its fans. Some of the changes are obviously COVID-related, but not all of them. In fact, the biggest is purely about baseball.
Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, major league baseball and its minor leagues underwent a major restructuring. In some markets, that meant the loss of their minor-league club. In Spokane, the Indians changed from being a "Short-Season A" affiliate of the Texas Rangers to a "High-A" affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.
What does that mean? Basically, the team moved up a couple levels in competition in the minor-league hierarchy, and they're going to play full-season baseball, meaning a first pitch for a home game on May 4 this season instead of mid June as it's been for decades. They'll be playing twice as many games at Avista Stadium each season than they used to.
"It means that we're going to be seeing a better brand of baseball here, with older, bigger, better, faster, stronger players," Klein says. "We're going to see players more developed in their skills in baseball, and they will not be first-year professionals like we've seen in the past. It will probably be more of the seasoned players who have a year or two under their belt in professional baseball."
The Indians have long been successful at grooming young players to eventually make the big-time of the major leagues; now players will be just a couple steps away from the majors when they arrive in Spokane.
"With the Texas Rangers, we graduated, if you will, over 75 players to the major leagues, and that was from a lower level," Klein says. "You're going to see a lot of guys play in a Spokane uniform that are eventually going to make it to the big leagues."
The Indians' opponents will look familiar, as several foes from the old Northwest League made the jump up alongside the Indians, including squads from the Tri-Cities, Everett and Vancouver, B.C. They'll open the season with a six-game series against the Eugene Emeralds.
Actually taking in a game in person will feel a little different for a while, thanks to COVID-19. Mostly, the changes are safety-related and temporary while the community continues trying to bat down the pandemic.
The team will open to crowds at just 25 percent of capacity at Avista Stadium, which Klein says pencils out to about 1,750 fans each game. Masks will be required for all fans throughout the season, tickets will be all electronic, and some concessions will be available for ordering through fans' phones. All the on-field promotions are on pause to keep players and fans safely distanced, and while there will be fireworks on opening night, there's likely going to be less of those themed promotional nights until at least July.
In many ways, though, the experience will feel familiar, just with a bit more space between fans. You'll be able to grab a hot dog and a beer and sit in the bleachers while the sun sets. You'll sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch as you root, root, root for the home team, of course.
Even with the challenges of being shut down for a year and doubling the number of home games during a pandemic, Klein is confident the team will be able to create the "culture" of going to an Indians game so many locals have enjoyed in some form or another for 119 years. It's a "huge amount of work" to get the stadium up and running and the field prepared for pro baseball, but it's well worth it for everyone involved.
"We feel like we're opening up summer for the community. We want to be the safe entertainment choice that opens up summer every year, and especially this year, and there's nothing like going to the ballpark," Klein says. "We understand what that means for the community. We understand what that means for households, and in entertainment and a distraction from work, life and everything else. We're going to do everything in our power to provide that escape.
"That's a really powerful thing, and we're going to be ready. We can't wait to get started, because we missed doing our jobs last year." ♦
The Spokane Indians open their season Tuesday, May 4 at 6:30 pm against the Eugene Emeralds at Avista Stadium. Visit spokaneindians.com for tickets and more information.