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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Otto Klein pitches the Spokane Indians to business success

Otto Klein, senior vice president of the Spokane Indians, is the inspiration for the franchise mascot. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Otto Klein, senior vice president of the Spokane Indians, is the inspiration for the franchise mascot. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Otto Klein’s introduction to professional baseball was harrowing.

“When I was seven, I went to an A’s game. At one point my brother and sister took off without me, and I got lost in the enormous Oakland Coliseum. I probably cried, someone found me and got me to the right spot. But it was traumatic.”

Perhaps that partly explains why today Klein – senior vice president of the Spokane Indians baseball organization – describes himself as “kind of a control freak” when it comes to managing the team’s home field at 602 N. Havana.

“We like to control our whole environment,” he says. “The cleaning, the parking, the ushers, the maintenance, all the cooking and concessions, the front office, the marketing, promotions, security – everything is under our umbrella.”

Everything, that it, except the Spokane Indians minor league baseball team, which is recruited, trained, paid and managed by the Texas Rangers organization.

The Indians’ 38-game season runs through Sept. 5. The team hosts the Boise Hawks this Monday through Friday before heading to Everett to face the AquaSox.

During a recent interview, Klein discussed brainstorming, triple-A versus single-A baseball, and partnering with the Spokane Tribe.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Klein: Missoula, Montana.

S-R: What were your early interests?

Klein: I played basketball and football, skied and hunted. I’ve fly fished my whole life.

S-R: How about early jobs?

Klein: I’ve worked since I was 16. I mowed lawns. I did a little construction. One summer I painted rail cars – that was really hard work.

S-R: Where did you go to college?

Klein: My father wanted me to try a new experience, so I went to the University of Portland and studied business.

S-R: Did you have a career in mind?

Klein: Not until I took a class taught by a friend’s father, who turned out to be the guru of sports marketing. His name was Jon Spoelstra. He’d worked for the Portland Trail Blazer, and was writing a book on sports marketing. Taking his class changed my world.

S-R: How so?

Klein: I didn’t realize you could have a career doing something you were passionate about.

S-R: Were you passionate about baseball?

Klein: No, but I loved sports in general. And I didn’t know you could have a career in sports without being a professional athlete.

S-R: Then what?

Klein: In 1991 and ’92, I took paid summer internships with the Boise Hawks and worked morning till night learning about tickets, marketing, promotion and customer service.

S-R: Is there a particular lesson you learned from Jon Spoelstra that has helped guide your career?

Klein: The No. 1 thing I learned was how to brainstorm. Throw ideas up on the wall, and the ones that get the funniest, most ridiculous, no-way-we-could-ever-do-that reaction are the ones you pay the most attention to.

S-R: How old were you when you joined the Spokane Indians organization?

Klein: Twenty-two. Bobby Brett bought the business in 1986, and Jon recommended several of us to help redo the front-office management, which had only five people. My first job was marketing coordinator.

S-R: How does the Northwest League differ from Major League Baseball?

Klein: Every Major League team has a farm system, which typically includes a triple-A team, double-A team, three single-A teams and rookie ball. We’re what’s called short-season single-A, and we are in our 14th year with the Texas Rangers.

S-R: How old are your players?

Klein: Eighteen to 23.

S-R: How much do they earn?

Klein: First-year players get $1,100 a month, plus a one-time signing bonus that can range from a couple of million dollars for a first- or second-round draft pick to $1,000 and a plane ticket for a 30th-round pick.

S-R: How much does the Spokane Indians roster fluctuate during the season?

Klein: Five to 10 percent. Players go up or down, get hurt or quit. The less movement, the more we like it.

S-R: Are you paying the Texas Rangers for this arrangement, or are they paying you?

Klein: Neither. We have a simple, one-page contract, and no money flows back and forth. We’re the house, and they put the furniture inside.

S-R: And the county owns the facility?

Klein: Yes. We are the tenant, and we have a long-term lease.

S-R: What are your sources of income?

Klein: Ticket sales, concessions, sponsorships and merchandise – team uniforms and caps.

S-R: How has the business evolved since you joined it 23 years ago?

Klein: We’ve gotten bigger in every way. My first year here, attendance was 140,000. This year we’re hoping to reach 200,000 visitors for the first time. And as we’ve gained more fans, we’ve added more staff.

S-R: Does the team’s performance affect attendance?

Klein: No. And that’s another difference between major and minor league baseball. Major league teams build their brand around personalities and winning, and when they don’t win, their attendance slides. We want to win, too. However, when you come to an Indians game, it’s about the experience – a fun, safe, family-oriented environment where you spend three hours. We have good food, good music, free parking. As soon as a family steps through our gates, they’re in our world, and we do everything we can to help them forget their problems.

S-R: Spokane used to host the Dodgers’ triple-A team. How was that different than today’s single-A experience?

Klein: The 1970 triple-A team – Tommy Lasorda, Steve Garvey, Bobby Valentine – won the Pacific Coast championship and was voted the best team in minor-league history. Yet last year we outdrew them in attendance with only half as many game. One reason is that our climate isn’t conducive to triple-A baseball. Triple-A starts in April, when it can rain or snow here. We go from June 17, right after school ends, to early September. And our ticket prices range from $5 or $6 for a bleacher seat to $14 for a box seat. If we brought back triple-A baseball, ticket prices would triple and fans would have to pay for parking.

S-R: Why would prices jump?

Klein: Because we’re responsible for players’ transportation. We bus our players to road games. In triple-A, everyone flies.

S-R: How do you attract visitors who are not die-hard baseball fans?

Klein: We have eight fireworks shows a season, four $1 family feast nights, Star Wars night, a laser light show, breast-cancer walks and 5K runs before games, and concerts afterward.

S-R: What’s your typical work schedule?

Klein: Off season and when the team is on the road, we work traditional banker’s hours. When we have home games, we’re here from 9 in the morning to 11 at night. And all of us in the front office work the games – trouble-shooting problems, entertaining clients, greeting sponsors and season-ticket holders. Wearing so many hats is what keeps it exciting.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Klein: I love waking up every day knowing I’m going to a ballpark.

S-R: Is it baseball you like, or the business of baseball?

Klein: The business of baseball. But I’ve also gained an appreciation for the game. I didn’t know a lot about baseball growing up, which is a bit ironic now, since I get paid to watch it.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Klein: I feel like I’ve left a lot of marks on the stadium. But what I’m probably best known for is the mascot. In 1993, mascots were just gaining popularity with teams. We didn’t want anything that might be construed as derogatory to Native Americans, so we created a funny, blue dinosaur with floppy ears and a big nose, and invited fans to suggest names. We narrowed it to three, but when (club co-owner) Andy Billig announced the finalists, he added my name as a joke. And based on audience applause, “Otto” won overwhelmingly.

S-R: What else are you proud of?

Klein: Our partnership with the Spokane Tribe. We’re the first professional sports team to work with a Native American tribe on brand identity. We worked with them in 2006 to change our logo. And now the word “Spokane” on the front of our uniforms is written in Salish, the tribe’s native dialect, to bring attention to the fact that the language is dying.

S-R: Anything you wish you’d done differently?

Klein: I’m pretty good at forgetting my failures. I’m already looking ahead to our 2017 season – partnerships can we cultivate, new promotions can we offer fans.

S-R: What’s it take to succeed in this business?

Klein: You have to be willing to sacrifice time. I don’t know what it’s like to take a summer vacation.

S-R: Players here dream of moving up to Major League Baseball. Do you see yourself managing Safeco Field someday?

Klein: A lot of the kids we hire in the front office have something bigger as their ultimate goal. But me personally? No. I’m comfortable right where I am. I love my job.

This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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