John Blanchette: Looking at the great ‘what if’ had the Spokane Indians remained a Triple-A team

Pictured (Clockwise from top:) A modern Triple-A team in Spokane might have included a young Felix Hernandez, would-be managers Casey Parsons and Bobby Brett and a rehabbing Jay Buhner all performing in Kendall Yards in a fancy stadium overlooking downtown. (Staff photo illustration by Ralph Walter / Photos: The Spokesman-Review archive, Associated Press)

“It’s a great day for baseball, and an even greater day for Spokane. The game has an extraordinary tradition in this community – dating back to when Hall of Famers like Stan Coveleski and Highpockets Kelly played at Recreation Park, through the great Dodgers team of 1970 with Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes, and right up until recently, when Northwest icons Jay Buhner and Felix Hernandez have worn the Spokane uniform. I’m proud to be a part of the heritage myself. Now, thanks to the vision of Bobby Brett and his organization, the community’s tremendous support and the hard work in Olympia by State Rep. Andy Billig, I’m honored to dedicate this glorious new stadium and continue the legacy of Class AAA baseball. Let’s play ball at Kendall Yards!”

Former Spokane Indians pitcher and ex-mayor Dennis Rasmussen, April 12, 2013

In the summer of 1982 alone, no fewer than 30 men who either had or would play Major League Baseball suited up at the ball field at the fairgrounds – and that was just for the home team.

Sometimes they were in a Spokane Indians uniform one night and on your TV screen the next – though back then, viewing options, like flavored vodkas, were limited.

These players became MLB All-Stars, won Gold Gloves, wore World Series rings. And they were the fringest of the fringe, too – making the major-league minimum during eye-blink call-ups and never cluttering up anyone’s fantasy draft.

But they were all a phone call away from The Show. And by extension, so was Spokane.

Back when it was a Triple-A town.

That doesn’t sound like much of a distinction, no. But c’mon. Just in a baseball sense, the players are more skilled – the swings smoother, the curveballs curvier – because they have to be. And some of the ports of call in the Pacific Coast League were major-league cities in other sports – Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, Edmonton – and in other ways.

You’re known by the company you keep, and all that jazz.

But that same year, a $23 million complex was going up in Las Vegas, which included a 9,300-seat baseball stadium in need of a tenant. That meant baiting a team to abandon its city. Hawaii sniffed. So did Portland.

Guess who bit?

Which is why, come the summer of 1983, Spokane found itself scuffling in a low-minors league with the likes of Bellingham and Walla Walla.

OK for high school basketball tournaments. Not so much for the civic dignity.

“My heart was in Spokane,” insisted Indians managing partner Larry Koentopp, after ownership had skedaddled to Las Vegas with the Triple-A jewels. “I was born and raised there and went to school there. But it didn’t have a lot of potential.”

Well, that depends on your imagination, pallie.

On Friday, the Spokane Indians begin their 36th season in the Northwest League and Class A ball since the Vegas Vamoose – a run that, despite some early stumbles and resentments, has become an unqualified success.

But what if Spokane hadn’t lost its Triple-A team? Maybe the timeline would have looked something like this:

April 1, 1983: Having eroded goodwill by flirting with Las Vegas, the Koentopp ownership group marshals a massive public relations campaign with the slogan “Spokane Doesn’t Suck at Baseball.” Season attendance falls to half its 1982 level, the city not being ready for that kind of irony for another 30 years.

Aug. 31, 1985: Attendance at Indians Stadium surges to a franchise-record 301,042 thanks to a great run of weather and an innovative marketing strategy.

Sept. 1, 1985: Club owners reveal they’re ready to sell or go bankrupt, and that Koentopp’s innovative strategy was giving away tickets in hopes of making it all back and then some on beer and hot dog sales.

Oct. 1, 1985: The Indians are sold to Bobby Brett and brothers Ken, John and George – who originally were shopping for a Class A team – for $700,000. The Angels take their Triple-A business elsewhere, so the Bretts land a player development contract with the Chicago Cubs. Behind 20-year-old pitcher Greg Maddux, the Indians make Brett a pennant winner in his first try.

Nov. 11, 1987: The Cubs decide to move their affiliate closer to Chicago, so Brett maneuvers to steal the San Diego Padres away from their tie-up with Las Vegas. Sandy Alomar and Joey Cora lead the 1988 Indians to another PCL crown. “This place feels familiar,” Cora says as he wipes away tears, “like I was here in another life.”

April 17, 1991: Dennis Rasmussen, the slow-working 6-foot-7 lefty who helped the Indians to the 1982 title series, returns to Spokane, trying to keep his career going with the Padres. “I was here in another life,” he says.

Oct. 23, 1991: Figuring Brett blood is thicker than whatever they drink in Omaha, the Kansas City Royals abandon their forever Triple-A affiliate as a courtesy to franchise icon George Brett. Alas, the K.C.-supplied Indians are a flop in two seasons, but guess shows up in 1993? Dennis “Groundhog Day” Rasmussen, who becomes a fixture in the starting rotation.

May 14, 1994: Another year, another parent club – the San Francisco Giants. Just for good measure, they sign Dennis Rasmussen, still keeping his career on life support. “It’s a good thing, too,” he says. “I left my wedding ring in my locker in Spokane last year.”

January 8, 1996: Coming off a dismal 85-loss season and with attendance flagging, Brett and the Giants ask Spokane’s own Casey Parsons to postpone the launch of his home-inspection business and return to uniform after several years managing in the Oakland chain. He agrees – until seeing all the dry rot in the Indians’ clubhouse. Contractors are hired instead.

March 24, 1996: Dennis Rasmussen retires to Spokane. “All my stuff is here anyway,” he says.

July 2, 1998: Bobby Brett begins agitating for a new stadium, noting the recently opened facility in Fresno and another in the works in Sacramento and calling his ballpark the “Havana Street Hovel.” But, he cautions, “I want the same rent or we’ll have to consider moving,” dusting off his “Good Neighbor Bob” persona that threatened to torpedo the Spokane Arena bond vote years earlier. But he reclaims his civic white hat over the off-season by wresting the Seattle Mariners’ player development contract away from Tacoma.

August 14, 2001: Jay Buhner is on rehab assignment from the M’s and it’s Buhner Buzzcut Night at Avista Stadium – and Gonzaga basketball star Dan Dickau is wielding the clippers for charity. “You should open up a barber shop,” Bone suggests.

July 30, 2005: General manager Andy Billig brainstorms a new promotion – a “King’s Court” section in the left field bleachers on nights when 19-year-old Felix Hernandez is pitching for the Indians, with T-shirts and special edition Spokesman-Review K cards for the fans. “I probably should trademark this,” Billig muses.

Nov. 6, 2007: Political newcomer Dennis Rasmussen is elected mayor of Spokane in a tight race over Mary Verner. Incumbent Dennis Hession was eliminated in the primary after Rasmussen uncovered embarrassing video of the notorious sidewalk shouting match with Bobby Brett that mysteriously never showed Brett blocking the mayor’s path.

Feb. 11, 2008: Using the power of eminent domain, mayor Dennis Rasmussen claims 78 acres of land on the north bank of the Spokane River slated for development as Kendall Yards but stalled by financing issues and the slow economy. He announces plans for a new $60 million baseball stadium, funded largely by city bonds.

April 7, 2009: Mayor Dennis Rasmussen is removed in a special recall election sparked by public outrage over his stadium project.

March 1, 2011: Newly elected state representative Andy Billig saves the stadium project by convincing his colleagues in Olympia to divert funds from Spokane’s North-South freeway project to the new ballpark. “Like that thing is ever going to get finished anyway,” Billig reasons.

April 12, 2013: The Indians christen their new stadium in Kendall Yards with a 7-4 victory over the Salt Lake Bees, highlighted by Mike Zunino’s opposite-field grand slam that lands in the Spokane River.

Dec. 4, 2014: Northern Quest Casino and the Kalispel Tribe purchase the Spokane Indians from Brett Sports and Entertainment to spite the Spokane Tribe for building a rival casino in Airway Heights. The Spokane Tribe sues.

Sept. 6, 2015: With attendance stagnant because of lingering resentment over the stadium funding, the ballclub announces a mascot and nickname change to the Garbage Goats, hoping to tap into a lucrative market for licensed apparel of wacky minor league baseball teams. The Spokane Tribe sues.

June 11, 2018: The Kalispel Tribe announces it’s moving the baseball team to Las Vegas in 2019 when a new stadium opens in suburban Summerlin, Nevada, and is purchasing territorial rights from the current PCL Las Vegas team, which will fold.

June 15, 2019: Northwest League baseball returns to Spokane. Manager Dennis Rasmussen predicts a pennant for the Garbage Goats.