I love minor-league sports.
The romanticism – literally and figuratively – of the ‘80s classic baseball movie Bull Durham hit me at an impressionable age.
As a young sports reporter for a tiny daily newspaper in the Midwest back in the ‘90s, covering Major League Baseball in Kansas City meant writing more than my fair share of stories about the Royals’ farm teams in Wichita and Omaha. It was at those incredibly hot and humid Wichita Wranglers games that I first fell in love with the action between half innings at minor-league baseball games.
Even if the team stank – and that era’s Royals pretty much stank at all levels, as we can attest even here in Spokane, which was Kansas City’s short-season affiliate between 1995 and 2002 – at least the goofy promotions kept things interesting and entertaining when the game lacked both of those qualities.
So, when I watched my first Spokane Indians game last summer from the comfy confines of Avista Stadium, I felt right at home when fans went on the field to throw rubber chickens over their shoulders to friends holding big fishing nets. Or when people raced on oversized, bouncy hamburgers.
These things aren’t just accepted, but encouraged. Especially during a game when the umps are committing more errors than the players are. And the players have four through the first five innings.
But something also felt a little different to me at that first Indians game.
It wasn’t until the person sitting next to me at the ballgame – the incredibly talented and super knowledgeable Spokesman-Review photographer Dan Pelle – explained the team’s unintelligible jersey to me that I first started to see the difference.
A jersey written in the Native-American language originally spoken in the area? That’s not only unique, but shows a social consciousness that you just don’t see at other ballparks.
And people here are proud of it.
When I walk around town, I’m more likely to see a t-shirt or ballcap with “Sp’q’n’i” on the front than I am “Mariners.” That simply doesn’t happen in other communities.
Oh sure, the Spokane Indians have all the things you’d expect at minor-league baseball games. Dollar hot dogs. More Macarena than anyone really wants or needs. A recycling super-hero with the best dance moves this side of Downtown Spokane’s Bro-muda Triangle.
There’s also that fire-juggling guy on a unicycle – which, by the way, never disappoints. And fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks.
Promotions like this are the lifeblood of minor-league sports.
The Stockton Ports have Asparagus Night, complete with uniforms that are covered with the vegetable. The Hudson Valley Renegades held a “Toilet Seat Cushion Night” in 2007 where the first 3,000 fans in the ballpark were given toilet seats.
The Erie SeaWolves are holding an “Alternative Facts” Night in August. The team will give the first 1,000 fans replica championship rings from the team’s 2016 Eastern League championship … except the team has never won a league championship.
The SeaWolves’ stadium holds 6,000 people, but the team is expecting “1.2 million fans” to attend that night’s game.
As fun as “Alternative Facts” Night is, especially to a journalist, every team is playing for second place in my mind.
None of these promotions measure up to the crazy creativity I saw as an editor in Las Vegas for four or five years.
The Las Vegas Wranglers hockey team were the perfect minor-league team for a place nicknamed Sin City. For more than a decade – and sadly ending in 2014 – what happened in Vegas rarely stayed in Vegas because this team’s off-the-wall promotions were always ending up in the national media.
The team once had uniforms that looked like a naked body so they could play “topless.” Some games started at midnight so that those who worked in the casinos when most of the team’s games were played could watch their hometown team play.
The Wranglers had R-Rated nights that aren’t that easy to explain in a family newspaper. In 2006, after the Dick Cheney hunting incident, the team had a “hunting vest giveaway night.” They once wore prision uniforms for “Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night.”
The team’s home rink was even in a casino – The Orleans, which also is the home of the WCC’s post-season basketball tournament, AKA Gonzaga’s second home court.
When the Wranglers qualified for the playoffs one season, there was even a sign congratulating them on the strip club across the street from the casino. These were the things you’d only see in Las Vegas, but also always made you giggle.
Or at least made me giggle.
For years, my personal litmus test for minor-league awesomeness was the Wranglers’ brand of madness.
Spokane’s baseball team now holds that honor, but for completely different reasons.
There’s a huge difference between dreaming up a promotion that makes ESPN’s Sportscenter and dreaming up one that makes it into baseball’s hall of fame in Cooperstown.
That’s exactly what happened with the Spokane Indians’ historic Salish jerseys.
And that’s what tonight’s promotion at the Indians’ game feels like to me, as well.
Our area’s native redband trout is in trouble. It’s not considered endangered, though some conservation groups say it should be. Either way, its numbers are way down.
What the fish needs is a good, strong rally.
If you’ve been paying much attention to the Indians this season, you know they could stand for a solid rally, as well.
So bring on the Redband Rally.
Tonight, the Indians will debut their new redband trout uniforms. They’re both colorful and cool, with the fish’s distinctive black and red speckles down the sides. The team’s matching ballcaps have a jumping redband trout on the front and are easily one of the most distinctive and locally relevant hats in all of baseball.
When you buy one of the official game hats, or one of the replicas, $5 goes to conservation funds aimed at helping the fish. Mark my word, the limited inventory of the hats will sell out quickly.
The team even knows that. The game doesn’t start until 6:30, but the hats go on sale at 10 a.m.
Throughout the rest of this summer’s games, kids in attendance will receive cool redband rally headbands that are also loaded with interesting facts about the fish and what we can do to help save it.
But the biggest thing happening at tonight’s game is the reveal of the team’s new mascot, who will join Otto, Doris and the Avista crowd-favorite, Recycle Man.
The team has kept uncharacteristically quiet on what it looks like. Though from the silhouette issued by the team, it’s clear it’s a fish with legs, which should make Darwinists happy.
The idea that the rally trout might have legs – as in the ability to survive the test of time – isn’t that goofy. Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim/Orange County/California/Whatever They’re Called This Week have the Rally Monkey – an ode to the team’s 2002 World Series team.
I couldn’t even count the number of times I saw the Angels down late in games and the Rally Monkey would get the crowd pumped. The horrifying little creature even became the team’s unofficial mascot.
You wouldn’t believe how many of these little monkeys get sold at the Angel’s souvenir stands. Only no money goes to monkey conservation.
None of us have any idea whether in ten years we’ll be scratching our heads over the idea behind a baseball team using a fish in this manner or trying to remember the time before the rally trout, which would then be referred to as TBRT on second reference.
Either way, I’m taking my family to tonight’s ballgame.
This is exactly the sort of thing our entire community should get behind. Even if you don’t like baseball. Or if you like baseball, but can’t believe the Indians already are in last place. By kind of a lot.
This is what happens when a team balances having fun with having both a soul and conscious.
I’ve always loved minor league sports, but with things like the redband rally, the Indians give Spokane one more reason to be proud of their role in our community.
It also gives me a reason to buy a new ballcap. Or two.