The customers who passed through the gates of what was still known as Indians Stadium on June 24, 1983, were an amalgam of the curious, the bitter and the baseball starved, mixed in with a few who just liked the sound of a ballgame and a beer on a Friday night.
There were 2,509 in all. By the modern standard of Spokane opening nights, the joint was a ghost town.
The city’s Triple-A franchise had relocated to Las Vegas nine months earlier in a hijacking both ham-fisted and acrimonious. After mulling the notion of razing the ballpark to add parking for fair visitors to the livestock barns, the county turned the keys over to a group optimistically named Sunshine Baseball, Inc., which installed a short-season Class A team with professional newbies.
Steve Wolff was one them, drafted to play second base and blissfully unaware of any local perfidy or civic arm-twisting that resulted in him being assigned to a summer in Spokane and not, say, Walla Walla.
Also, those 2,509 looked like 25,009 to him.
“It was hard to believe,” he said, “how well they supported their team, a bunch of guys from all over.”
That was Year One of Spokane’s new baseball reality. Year 31 opened on yet another Friday night. The ballpark is brighter, better appointed and busier now.
Sunshine Baseball long ago sold out to Brett Sports, which has made the club a model operation of its kind. The Texas Rangers assign the players. Spokane fully embraced life in the low minors, happy not to be shivering through April nights at Triple-A prices.
There’s still a Wolff in uniform, however.
A baseball generation has now cycled through the stadium. Sam Wolff is a right-handed pitcher who has about 5 inches on his father and a mid-90s fastball that carried New Mexico into the NCAA playoffs this spring and turned him into a sixth-round draft pick. What he shares with his scrappy infielder dad is an appreciation for the chance he has.
“Like he says, in the end it’s a game,” said Sam. “You’re supposed to go out and have fun with it no matter where it takes you.”
For Sam, that’s been pretty much all over the West. After graduating from Stevens High School in Rapid City, S.D., he played a year at the University of San Diego and one at Southern Nevada Community College before landing at UNM. So he’s already pretty adept at processing different pitching philosophies, though he always has an ear open for fatherly advice.
“Getting his side of the game has really helped me as a pitcher,” Sam said, “just as far as what goes through hitters’ heads – understanding what they look for in certain counts, what they’re sitting on. “
Steve Wolff was a standout himself in Rapid City’s renowned Legion program before playing at Oral Roberts, and arrived in Spokane as a 13th-round draft choice. In that home opener he had three hits and scored the first Indians run in a 4-0 victory which, alas, was more or less the high point of a 23-46 season. He’d lead the team in hits and was the only regular to walk more than he struck out.
Not that there weren’t memorable characters. One of his teammates was Mitch Williams.
“He was fun,” Wolff recalled. “His arm was incredible. He could throw five or six innings and the next day stand at home plate and throw it over the center-field fence.
“But he really was the ‘Wild Thing.’ He’d only throw two, three or four innings and probably hit that many guys.”
After his rookie season in Spokane, Wolff made full-season A stops in Miami and Reno, and was offered a contract for a fourth year but opted to start a teaching career instead. Eventually, he would move back to Rapid City, and serve as an assistant to Dave Ploof, Legion baseball’s winningest coach, for the Post 22 Hardhats who won the 1993 Legion World Series. The star of that team? Mark Ellis, the Dodgers’ second baseman now in his 11th big league season.
Who also started his pro career here.
“You’re kidding,” Wolff said.
Steve Wolff didn’t send his son off to Spokane overburdened with old war stories or bits of wisdom beyond “work your tail off.” Nobody 30 years ago so wowed the Northwest League that they were whisked straight to the majors, and nobody this year will be, either. The rules are simple: Embrace the opportunity, weather the failures and enjoy the successes.
“I just hope to get caught up in the process of learning the game,” Sam said. “One day, you’ll lift your head up and see where you are and it’ll surprise you.”
Whatever else changes at the ballpark, that never does.