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John Blanchette: Jewel on Havana Street


The Spokane Indians baseball team and the team from Salt Lake City line up before the National Anthem on opening day of the 1960 season. The Spokesman-Review archive
 (File photos  archive / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Indians baseball team and the team from Salt Lake City line up before the National Anthem on opening day of the 1960 season. The Spokesman-Review archive (File photos archive / The Spokesman-Review)

You can tell a lot about a town by its ballpark.

So over the course of its 50 years, what has that precious diamond on Havana Street revealed about Spokane?

Well, all its good qualities - and some of the bad.

Resourcefulness. Vision. Industriousness. Cooperation. Pride.

Neglect. Acrimony. Craziness.

And finally, reconsideration, reconciliation - and appreciation.

From getting it built to keeping it upright to filling its seats and ultimately preserving its future, Spokane has been around the horn with the yard originally conceived as Fairgrounds Recreation Park and now known as Avista Stadium.

And now there’s a new foundation in place for a second 50 years - which begins Tuesday night when the Spokane Indians launch another Northwest League season.

The park is more popular than ever - an Indians short-season record 192,021 spectators turned out in 2007, and never in the 105-year history of professional baseball in Spokane has the per-game attendance been greater than last year’s 5,503.

This for a team that finished nine games worse than .500 - after a 26-50 disaster in 2006. Spokane won two NWL titles in the previous three seasons and has seven since Triple-A baseball abandoned the community after 1982, but obviously it’s not just winners that bring out the people.

It’s a hot summer evening and a cold beer. It’s a $6 ticket. It’s a goofy mascot and the same, corny-joke recording of glass breaking whenever a foul ball sails behind the grandstand. It’s a helpful teenage usher and an accommodating 20-ish player who isn’t too jaded to enjoy being asked for his autograph.

And it’s the ballpark.

Fifty years young.

Indians president Andy Billig is hardly a neutral party in this matter, but he knows what he likes.

“It has the character of an old stadium,” he said, “and the amenities of a more modern facility. Really, you get the best of both worlds.”

The old? The box seats are still in actual boxes, separated by railings. The inner concourse allows in-game traffic to keep an eye on the proceedings - and for teenagers to see and be seen by one another. The scoreboard doesn’t explode with high-tech graphics.

The modern? Cupholders on the high-end seats. Skyboxes along the stadium’s rim. The right-field “grotto,” the minor league version of a bullpen pub.

But nothing is more modern at the stadium these days than what’s underfoot.

Thanks to an infusion of $4 million of state funding - amounts larger and smaller also went to minor league stadiums in Tacoma, Yakima, Pasco and Everett in an $18 million package - the concrete risers throughout the stadium have been replaced over the past two winters, making the joint sturdy and safe “for another 50 years,” according to Indians vice president Otto Klein.

It came at a cost - of about 400 seats - as aisles were brought into line with current building codes. A sellout at the stadium will now be 6,803.

The impetus for this update came from the stadium itself. In 2004, two different sections of concrete in left and right field slid about 8 feet toward the playing surface - “a stadium just showing its age,” as Klein said.

A committee impaneled by the county commissioners compiled a list of needed facility improvements that totaled $8 million. Upgrades to concession buildings, restrooms and offices remain, but the state grant took care of the biggest need since, well, the stadium itself.

Spokane had been without professional baseball in 1957, but the westward relocation of the major leagues to Los Angeles and San Francisco created three Pacific Coast League openings for 1958. The Dodgers were most interested in Spokane - if the community could provide a suitable ballpark. Ferris Field required considerable renovation, but seemed the only realistic option - since it was already November.

“We won’t have a place to play for two years if we don’t use Ferris Field,” insisted Henry George, a baseball booster and one of the city’s leading contractors.

But Ferris Field also came with debt as well a remodeling tab, and barely more than a week after George’s declaration city and county officials agreed to build a new stadium at the Fairgrounds (originally, the site was to be the northwest corner, near Broadway). It wasn’t a 50-50 split - the city would only agree to funding 37.5 percent of a stadium that was supposed to be capped at $400,000 - but it was an inspired bit of civic cooperation, spurred by county commissioner W.O. Allen.

Just as inspired was the building schedule. Groundbreaking came on Jan. 9, but work on the earth berm didn’t begin until February and the legend is that construction on architect Ken Norrie’s design was completed in 45 working days in time for the April 29 home opener against Seattle.

The infield sod came from Underhill Park, the outfield turf from Ferris Field. The lights - 270 of them - were transplanted from Gilmore Field in Hollywood, where the old Stars had moved to Salt Lake City. Eventually, the price climbed to $534,700 - but the 8,402 fans who turned out on opening day considered it a bargain. And when attendance that first year topped 270,000 and the Dodgers paid $10,000 more than the minimum $16,000 rent, Spokane had a winner - though the county would eventually buy out the city’s interest in 1962.

The hard times would come later.

As it did throughout the minor leagues, attendance in Spokane leveled off in the 1960s and the Dodgers took their business to Albuquerque, N.M., in 1972. The condition of the facility became an issue between the county and the new operator, Bill Cutler, who complained of a lack of proper upkeep and a punitive rent (though it was less than what the Dodgers paid). His case seemed to be made in 1977 when the sorry state of the infield forced the county to resurface it - and yet broken glass and even a couple of railroad spikes were found in the dirt of the completed project.

That sparring continued through two more ownership groups, but the insane low point came in 1985 when a Spokane Interstate Fair official acknowledged that the possibility of razing the stadium for parking had been discussed. A week later, as the county approved a $17,000 expenditure for the stadium, commissioner Grant Peterson huffed that “We’re not going to tear it down - we never considered that.”

But it wasn’t until Bobby Brett and his brothers purchased the Single-A franchise that year, put his marketeers to work to increase attendance and forged an alliance with the county that the possibilities of the place began to be realized.

“The great success of the stadium,” Billig claimed, “is that the Indians and the Bretts have always contributed to the improvements - and that the county has been a willing partner. That relationship has set Spokane apart.”

And Spokane has responded.

Marnie Rohrholm is a 20-year season ticket holder - section K, row 1 - who also works for another stadium tenant, the Spokane RiverHawks. She, too, knows what she likes about the Fairgrounds jewel.

“They’ve taken what was a Triple-A stadium and changed it over the years to make it intimate enough to house a short-season (Class) A team,” she said. “It’s just right. It’s sold out on the big nights and never looks empty. It’s small enough that everybody gets to see everybody else, and the county and the ballclub have made changes at a gradual pace - but there’s something every year.”

Which makes it a tough pace to keep up for the second 50 years.

 

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