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Spokane Indians

John Blanchette: More baseball is usually better, but will it pay off for the Spokane Indians

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

After a year of locked stadium gates and abridged schedules, it would be bad form to complain about more baseball.

Actually, that would be bad form any year.

More baseball is always better – just one reason why the runner-on-second-to-start-extra-innings contrivance is so wrong-headed.

Except history tells us that less baseball in Spokane – as in the short-season kind, played from mid-June through the first few days of September – has enhanced the prosperity of the local operation, the Indians, to say nothing of the game-going experience.

And history isn’t wrong. It’s just subject to amendment.

As Major League Baseball, having taken a chain saw to the minor leagues, has so deftly shown us.

Opening Day is upon us, baseball fans – only six weeks ahead of the rhythms we’ve lived by for nearly 40 years.

For Otto Klein, the Indians’ senior vice president, and his rejuvenated stagehands, this is none too soon. COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season altogether, which meant a summer of doing inventory and waiting with some angst for the details of MLB’s purge and shuffle.

“We felt – I don’t want to say helpless, but we weren’t in the know,” Klein said. “Baseball operators, we’re control freaks, but in a good way. We like to be able to forecast our business and you just couldn’t.”

And now he can forecast, well, about 60% of it.

The rejiggering of the minors lopped 40 of the existing 160 MLB affiliates off the roster, though some have scrambled to reinvent themselves as independent clubs. Short-season baseball was deep-sixed outside of the rookie leagues based in MLB training complexes. Six of the eight former Northwest League teams survived, but will now play two rungs up the ladder in what will be called High-A West, until MLB can sell the naming rights to Starbucks or Starkist to milk another dollar.

And they’ll play a 120-game schedule this year instead of the old 76. That means the Indians have 24 home dates scheduled before what used to be their opening day – in weather that’s less predictable, on school nights, with youth baseball in full swing and amid any number of conflicts for potential customers they haven’t battled before.

Come 2022, the season figures to start as early April 10. Brr.

COVID-19 protocols will make this season “the biggest challenge we’ve faced in my 29 years here,” Klein said, starting with the 25%-of-capacity lid that will limit ticket sales to about 1,700 for any game.

But the greater challenge is messing with happy – and reorienting an audience that was more than comfortable with the short-season way as refined in 34 years of Brett Sports ownership.

“I had always thought a May 15 start would be ideal for us,” managing partner Bobby Brett said. “That’s another dozen home games.

“Now you’re going to have some nights that aren’t as conducive to watching baseball. Those games may not be profitable; they might be a loss leader. But you still have the core of the summer months and you have loyalty built up, and you’ll also have a higher level of baseball that people will appreciate. A longer season isn’t going to be a death knell for the baseball here.”

Expenses will rise – Brett estimated at least 5%. But two key financial factors remain in place:

“We still travel on buses and not airplanes,” he said, “and it’s MLB paying the players. If this is the price of doing business, it’s a small one compared to footing the bill for player salaries as an independent team.”

And the weather issue, well, that can be overstated, too.

It’s not as if full-season baseball isn’t played in northern states in other parts of the country. Dayton, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; Lansing, Michigan, and Portland, Maine – all those and many other cities see more rainfall and more precipitation days than Spokane and draw as well or better.

Spokane did, of course, play April-September at the Fairgrounds for more than two decades at the Triple-A level, and for a few years after it was spirited away in 1982, the laments echoed among baseball devotees.

But in the past 10 years of short-season ball, the Indians drew more than 400,000 more spectators than in any 10-year stretch in their Triple-A history – in roughly half as many games.

That’s a reflection of an organization that knows how to market entertainment – and of the ballpark improvements shared by the Indians and their county landlords that have made it an appealing destination. That partnership grows in importance because MLB is insisting on substantial facility upgrades – locker rooms, weight rooms, kitchens – over the next few years.

For all of the rationale about streamlining and equalizing their clubs’ organizations and treating the farmhands better, it also seems MLB owners took note of the soaring value of minor league teams and figured those operators should have more skin in the game.

And yet now they’ve increased that value.

“You’re one of 120 teams with affiliation instead of 160,” Brett noted. “It’s a bigger asset for your community. And who’s to say down the line MLB doesn’t say, ‘We’re cutting to 90.’ Then you have to look people in the eye and ask, ‘How do we become one of the 90?’ ”

More baseball is always better. But it can come at a price.