Indians relish pennant
Team chemistry played key role
Kolette Bailey prepared a big barbecue feast Monday night for her houseguests. Joey Butler and Jacob Kaase just returned from winning the Northwest League pennant.
“They called me (Sunday) night and they had dumped champagne all over each other’s heads in the locker room,” Bailey said.
But Monday morning, Butler and Kaase, two of the Spokane Indians’ stars this baseball season, were exhausted after a long bus ride from Keizer, Ore. They got to Bailey’s house about 6 a.m. and hit the sack.
After going 51-25 in the regular season, by far the league’s best record, the Indians finished the job Sunday with a 6-5 victory over the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, winning the best-of-5 NWL championship series three games to one.
“It’s kind of like living up to your expectations,” Kaase said. “This team has been dominant in the Northwest League; it would have been crazy for us not to win the championship.”
It was a heck of a postseason.
“Bizzare,” as Indians manager Tim Hulett put it.
The Volcanoes beat the Indians 5-3 Thursday at Avista Stadium, sending a message that they meant business. But the next day, the Indians showed they did, too, winning 11-10 in a 10-inning slugfest that featured one of S-K manager Tom Trebelhorn’s signature rampages against the umpires.
The bus ride south to Keizer didn’t cool off the series. Another 10-inning extravaganza Saturday ended with another 11-10 Spokane victory, after the Volcanoes blew a 10-2 lead, setting the stage for Sunday’s 10-inning slugfest finale.
“I thought we’d sweep them every game,” outfielder Eric Fry said. “But it was a battle.”
Perhaps the Indians were caught a little off guard. For more than two months, Spokane waltzed through its NWL schedule. The Indians went 10-4 in June and 22-7 in July, jumping to the top spots on the league’s batting and pitching lists along the way.
August was a little different. Spokane went 16-14, stumbling off its perch as the league’s best hitting team as the East rival Boise Hawks started knocking on the first-place door.
“I think if anything, we just got complacent because our lead was so big,” Hulett said.
Nevertheless, the 51 wins are the most since the 1987 Indians won 54 games, and surpassed the 2003 team’s 50 wins. The championship was the eighth for the Indians and the third in six seasons as a Texas Rangers farm team. The others came in ’03 and ’05.
Now all that’s visible from this season is the “2008” painted on top of the home-team dugout at Avista Stadium, where the team’s championships are displayed. Most of the players won’t be back in town next summer.
“They’ll move on to bigger and better things; the next level to conquer,” Hulett said. “And, hopefully, they’ll take this and build on it.”
But the work isn’t over.
Fry, who by the postseason was the only holdover from last year’s Indians, has a week to see his family in Lake Charles, La. Then he’ll be off to Arizona, as will Butler and others, for the instructional league this fall with the Rangers organization.
Kaase, who for the past two weeks has been studying in his spare time with a full college course load, hopes to graduate before next season.
Most won’t know until spring what league, what team, what level of pro baseball they’ll be in next summer.
One man who said he’d love to be back is Hulett, for a third season with the Indians.
But it’s all too soon to know.
“It was a great year,” he said. “I enjoyed this year tremendously. They were so easy to manage. The guys bought in from Day 1.”
The Indians’ success was aided, in no small part, by a strong team chemistry. Long bus rides across the Northwest, from Spokane to Boise to Keizer, have a way of doing that.
“It just feels good that the entire team has your back,” Fry said. “Last year was a little selfish, I guess you could say. But this year there was team chemistry.”
“Team chemistry is something you develop like you develop other things of the game,” Hulett said. “The first thing I told the guys was to respect each other’s differences.”
Togetherness helped keep the Indians focused through the ups and downs of the season.
Bailey said the players’ temperament was so even, “They’d come home and I wouldn’t even know if they’d lost or won.”
She said that was the best thing her 11-year-old son, Conner, could learn from Kaase, Butler and, before he broke his hand and left, second baseman Jason Ogata. The Indians, to all their host families, are as much role models as they are guests.
Butler even went to see Conner play in one of his Little League games.
“They start out as these stranger ballplayers and end up as part of my family,” Bailey said.
For Kaase, this season was about more than just baseball.
“It’s really great, to have a kid – have a community – that looks up to us,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling to know you’re going to make such a difference in someone’s life.”