They milked about all the spectacle they could out of Tuesday evening at Avista Stadium: a home-run derby, a helicopter, a Hall of Famer. The initial Northwest League-Pioneer League All-Star Game – the actual game – wasn’t an afterthought, by any means, but you don’t dream up something like this and then aim for understatement.
Now the clock is ticking to see which of the young participant players is the first to make it to MLB’s mid-season Circus of the Home Field Advantage.
Because down here in the low minors, it’s all eyes ahead. Teenage talent. Two developmental leagues. Even the all-star concept – brand new and clearly a hit with 7,083 fans – suggests the obvious question, “What’s next?”
But the thing about baseball? It’s a deep weave, and there’s always a thread to be followed back, back, back.
For Dick Schofield, 33 years back.
In the dying throes of Spokane’s Triple-A baseball pretentions, he was the Last Hero. And because he was just 19 – the same age as a few of the Pioneer All-Stars he managed Tuesday – it was like a glimpse into our future summer nights at the ballpark.
In August 1982, the Indians were trying to fumble away a Pacific Coast League playoff spot. Worse yet, their best player – a dynamite hitter named Steve Lubratich – had his season ended by a fastball to the forearm. So the parent Angels dispatched a little shortstop from the California League to fill in.
And he won Spokane the Northern Division pennant.
In seven games, he hit .300 and drove in 12 runs. In the clinching win at Tacoma, he smoked a fastball over the left field fence for a grand slam. And in the clubhouse celebration, he tugged on a bottle of champagne before thinking to ask, “What’s the drinking age in this state?”
Twenty-one, he was told.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he pleaded.
He had five more hits – including a two-run single in the deciding third game – as Spokane beat Tacoma in three to reach the PCL championship series, and six more before the string ran out.
“I was 19, but there was no pressure at all,” Schofield recalled. “I just got thrown in there. I guess when I got drafted, I just thought that’s what you’re supposed to do – go up through the system.”
The temptation was to welcome him back Tuesday, except that by a quirk of that 1982 schedule only the last three games were played in Spokane, and one of them in front of just 431 customers – fans being in little mood to support the club owners of that era who were pirating the franchise to Las Vegas.
So there were no familiar faces at the ballpark Tuesday.
“Timmy, can we use your fungoes?” Schofield hollered across the diamond before batting practice.
“Yeah,” cracked Spokane manager Tim Hulett. “I’ll send you a bill.”
A few days ago, Schofield peeked at the all-star rosters and noticed that the Northwest manager was a kid he’d first seen playing at Lanphier High School in Springfield, Illinois, which was 10 minutes away at Griffin. Both were first-round draft choices (Hulett in the old January phase). Later, they’d occasionally end up in opposite dugouts during major league careers that stretched 12 years for Hulett and 14 for Schofield.
“You know, it’s so different in the major leagues – the pressure, playing in front of big crowds all the time,” Hulett said. “So, yeah, it’s always nice to see a familiar face.
“Dick could really play. He could really pick it for a high school shortstop – do all the things the pro guys could do. He just had great hands. And for a little guy, a lot of power.”
It’s hard to know if either of them saw themselves back in the low minors cultivating the kind of promise that was once their currency. Hulett, of course, is in his ninth year in Spokane; only one other minor league manager has a longer sequent run in his current town. Schofield, meanwhile, won the 2014 Pioneer pennant in his first try as a manager after a few years of coaching.
“Sometimes this level can be frustrating, but it makes you have patience,” he said. “I’ve made the mistake of thinking a guy isn’t going to make it and you look up three years later and he’s in the big leagues or Triple-A. Some guys are just so raw. It may take four or five years before they get something and then it just clicks.”
Is it clicking any faster for the stars that came out in Spokane? Could be. If nothing else, being a part of the spectacle here will have them looking ahead to bigger things.
“And I’ve always believed,” Schofield said, “that competition tells you if you’re any good.”
For Dick Schofield, it only took two weeks in a Spokane uniform to get the picture.
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