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Spokane Indians opening day provides hope after year lost to pandemic

UPDATED: Tue., May 4, 2021

The Spokane Indians warm up before Tuesday night’s High-A West opener against the Eugene Emeralds at Avista Stadium.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Indians warm up before Tuesday night’s High-A West opener against the Eugene Emeralds at Avista Stadium. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Opening day of baseball season traditionally signals the arrival of spring, with renewed hopes for the coming season.

Those hopes take on extra meaning this year. And it’s not just for fans who missed time with their “summer families,” or the minor league organizations that missed out on an entire year of revenue.

The players and coaches – some of whom missed a summer of baseball for the first time in their lives – are just as eager as anyone to be back playing the game they love.

The Spokane Indians started their High-A West 2021 campaign Tuesday with a 9-5 loss against the Eugene Emeralds, but the bigger picture is the return of the national pastime to the Lilac City.

Even though some of the traditional extras that make minor league baseball the entertainment value it is were altered or missing, the game on the field remained the game.

Aaron Schunk, a third baseman ranked No. 5 on the Colorado Rockies’ prospect list according to MLB.com, offered the prevailing thoughts of most of the players.

“We’re pretty pumped to be back out on the field, obviously to come out to our affiliates,” he said before the game. “Glad to be here in Spokane. Been a long time since we played a game where the box score meant something, so I know the guys are really excited for that.”

It’s the first major sporting event in Spokane since the pandemic that has welcomed fans back.

“Hearing people cheer us on and being able to enjoy the stuff that we love, I’m definitely excited for that,” Schunk said. “Spring training was a little weird just because we were playing kind of an empty game, so I think everybody’s excited. There’s been a little bit of nervous energy in the clubhouse.”

Manager Scott Little, a veteran minor league manager, coach and scout, said he’s just looking forward to getting the players back on the field.

“I haven’t seen a real baseball game in what seems like two years now,” he said. “I’m ready to start, I’m ready to watch these guys play.”

The roster contains eight of the Rockies’ top 25 prospects. Many played for the Boise Hawks in 2019, who were the Rockies short-season affiliate in the Northwest League.

“Some guys that played (in Boise) two years ago are here and, you know, there’s a couple of kids that really hadn’t played much and are probably where they were going to be anyway,” Little said.

“It’s going to be catch-up baseball, and I think we’re ready to go. I think we had enough games (in spring training) to get ready to participate and actually to start winning. We’re on one mission and that’s just to keep getting better and better.”

First baseman Michael Toglia was one of the players who came through the Northwest League in 2019, and he has fond memories of his first trip through the loop.

“Yeah, it was my first pro game here against the Indians,” he said. “I remember the fans in the stadium and having kind of that (caboose) out in right field, thinking that this is different from anything I’m used to.”

Toglia has another Northwest connection – he’s from Gig Harbor, Washington.

“My family is about three hours away so I think they’re gonna be coming out to a lot of the home games,” he said. “My brother goes to Washington state, so he’s literally like 10 minutes away so I’m going to be seeing a lot of family out here.”

Schunk is looking forward to playing at Avista Stadium as well.

“My first professional home run came here,” he said. “So, pretty, pretty cool memory again to be back in the stadium where that happened, still have the ball so excited about that. Glad to be back in the Northwest League, just because it’s kind of familiar. But, glad to be a part of the Indians now.”

Pitcher Chris McMahon wasn’t able to finish his college career in 2020 due to the pandemic. That didn’t keep the Rockies from drafting him in the second round last year out of University of Miami.

“I’m very excited to get going and get the professional career started this week,” he said.

Last year didn’t go the way any of these baseball prospects wanted.

“Yeah, it was definitely a little different,” McMahon said. “Obviously, the college season getting banged then the draft happening and still kind of not having a season over the summer then waiting until October for instructional league.

“So it is a little frustrating, but I think the wait was worth it.”

Outfielder Brenton Doyle, was the Rockies fourth-round pick in ‘19 out of Division II Shepherd College in West Virginia. He spent 2019 in the Rockies’ rookie league affiliate in Grand Junction, Colorado.

“If anyone tells you there’s no butterflies, they’d be lying to themselves,” he said. “We waited a long time for this moment.

“These are the games that (stats) are going to go on your baseball cards. There’s definitely gonna be some nerves, but once you get that first hit, that first fly ball in the outfield out of the way, it’s smooth sailing and you’re just ready to roll.”

Catcher Willie MacIver played in college with the Washington Huskies, then in Boise after being drafted. He’s looking forward to helping a young pitching staff find its way.

“Being a catcher, you kind of really get to know all the pitchers as well as all the position players too, so it’s a really unique position and one that I really enjoy being in.”

MacIver said the year off was “weird.”

“Ever since we were, you know, 7, 8 years old, we’ve been playing baseball all summer long every year,” he said. “So it was definitely weird, but I think a lot of us took the time to enjoy with our families, which is rare for us, especially when you’re on the road all year.”

“There was so much unknown,” Toglia said. “Normally we have a set schedule – you have instructs, then spring training – certain dates that you prepare for and then you know that you got to schedule your body to be ready to go on a certain date.

“This past year, nobody knew anything so you didn’t know if you should be ramping up. We were in this weird limbo of trying to stay in peak shape without burning out for a date we didn’t even know existed. So that was probably the hardest part, at least for me personally.”

“I think you can ask anybody here that baseball is in our DNA,” Schunk said. “So finding out that the whole world was on pause was pretty tough. For me, it was just kind of getting ready and staying ready in case something happened.”

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