The Spokane Indians have played professional baseball since 1908, and evenings at Avista Stadium have been a staple of summer for generations of fans.
But baseball is also a business, and the landscape of that business has undergone significant changes over the past couple of years.
Major League Baseball is now requiring its affiliates to upgrade the working conditions and facilities that minor league players, coaches and umpires face on a daily basis. That means Avista Stadium, which opened in 1958, needs major work .
“This is not just a Spokane thing,” team president Chris Duff said . “This is not just a Northwest League thing. This is all of minor league baseball, and all 120 markets are working through this process right now.”
The areas where the public ventures – seating bowl, concessions, team store, ticketing – are in good shape. The areas of the park that fans don’t access – the clubhouses, dugouts, workout facilities, dining areas – need more than a facelift.
The club will go before the Spokane County Commission Monday with a presentation on those potential renovations and a proposal for how to fund renovations. The details have not been disclosed, but the team envisions a “public-private partnership” to provide an estimated $22.8 million to cover the cost of the upgrades required by Major League Baseball and some select fan amenities to the county-owned facility.
If the project to renovate Avista Stadium falls through, MLB-affiliated baseball in Spokane may have a limited future.
“This is not specifically our choice, but we have an opportunity to comply and to do all the things necessary to preserve baseball in Spokane for years and years to come,” team senior vice president Otto Klein said.
‘A forgotten group’
Minor league baseball leagues used to be independent entities, organized under the bigger umbrella of Minor League Baseball. In 2020, MLB took over operation of the minor leagues and reduced the number of teams from 160 to 120, requiring the remaining franchises – including the Indians – to sign “player development licenses.”
MLB eliminated the short-season classification and many of the teams at that level. The Indians now play in a full-season (132 games), six-team Northwest League in the High-A classification as an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. Two teams in the previous iteration of the NWL, Boise and Salem-Keizer, were not invited by MLB and now play in nonaffiliated independent leagues.
Part of the agreement standardizes player health and safety conditions. For many older stadiums, such as Avista, that means some signification renovations.
“The journey’s hard. And (the players) are going to grind through it,” Rockies Director of Player Development Chris Forbes said. “You’re on the bus a lot. There are some playing surfaces (throughout the minors) that were not even high school-level quality. The spaces in the clubhouse and that other stuff they’re trying to do; It just didn’t match up to being a professional player.”
MLB approved the affiliates and provided the operating licenses, but in order to comply with the timeline in the license, the owner of the facility or the team – or some form of partnership between the two – are needed to fund these projects.
“There is no funding coming directly from Major League Baseball,” Duff said.
The terms of the agreement are not public, but Baseball America magazine published an extensive look into the “matrix” that governs the standards for the expected ballpark facility renovations, the timeline in which they must be completed and the points system MLB will use to enforce compliance.
Every affiliated minor league team must meet minimum square footage requirements for dugouts, clubhouses, coaches’ offices and workout spaces. They must also provide indoor hitting cages and training facilities, indoor dining areas separate from the clubhouses, and separate facilities for female coaches, trainers and umpires.
Avista Stadium is not compliant in any of those requirements.
In addition, the stadium must be equipped with the capability to stream games live on MiLB.com, which means upgrading lights, installing cameras and providing space for operators.
“I’m ecstatic that MLB is finally truly putting the emphasis on the minor league player,” Forbes said. “It seemed like a forgotten group for years.”
The agreement provides for teams to become compliant over several years, but no later than 2025. Teams in default of the requirements risk losing their license.
“I think ultimately what’s being required by Major League Baseball is reasonable,” Duff said. “But we do have a short time frame, and we do have a long way to go, partly because our facility was built in 1958. We’re coming from old short-season standards to now greater than new Triple-A standards. So, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s all very doable.”
‘The game has changed’
When Avista Stadium was built in 1958 – for the price of $534,700 and in just four weeks to accommodate the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A franchise – no one could envision the multibillion-dollar industry the game would become.
“You’ve got specialized coaches now, you have female staff – umpiring, training, coaching,” Duff said. “Meals are catered, workout rooms are required on site. Covered batting cages. All those things that unfortunately weren’t required several years ago now are required.
“So, the game has changed. And a lot of those elements are things that the fans don’t necessarily see when they’re sitting in the stands.”
Duff has been the point person with ALSC Architects, the design firm contracted for the renovations.
“They’ve got a lot of experience with the facility,” Duff said. “They’ve been a good partner of the Indians and also the county for years.
Although most of the improvements will come on the player side, the club also hopes to provide certain upgrades in-stadium.
“One of the strategies that we’re using through this whole project, both with the county and with ALSC, is we want to try and be creative with these spaces,” Duff said. “When we are doing a player-specific project, we’re hoping to find some ways the fan will be able to experience something with that as well.”
The project was developed in “phases,” and Phase I was completed prior to the season, with weatherproofing to the concession areas and improved – but temporary – drainage under the playing surface, all necessitated by the move to full-season baseball and soggy April weather.
Phase II would begin soon after the conclusion of the season and include potentially moving the home clubhouse to the third-base side and expanding the square footage, construction of the indoor batting cages and workout facility – to include umpire and women’s locker rooms – and upgrading the lights and installation of broadcast/streaming equipment.
Duff said Avista Stadium has “good bones,” and a total rebuild isn’t necessary.
“We’re really fortunate where we think we’re going to be able to do this in a very cost-effective manner and actually renovate the facility as opposed to having to build new – which a couple of teams in our league are looking at having to do right now,” Duff said.
Duff said the funding proposal the team will bring before the county on Monday covers all phases of the project over the next several years.
‘We are Spokane’
Klein has seen a lot in his 27 years with the team. The COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the restructuring of the minor leagues, has been as challenging a time as he can remember.
Despite that, he sees renovating the stadium as another opportunity for the team, county and community to come together for a common goal.
“The county has done a great job of providing professional baseball with this asset of the stadium and the campus here at the fairgrounds,” he said. “And this is our opportunity now to preserve it for years to come. We have a big vision for keeping baseball, and this is what our community wants and needs.”
Klein said the team has fought for “great public schools,” better roads and improved libraries.
“We are Spokane,” he said. “We fight for great traditions. We have great universities. And we fight for professional baseball. We’ve been here for 126 years. We want to be ready for the next 100. And this is a great opportunity for us to do that.”
Klein mentioned the team’s historic partnership with the Spokane Tribe of Indians and with Fairchild Air Force Base as two examples of how ingrained the team is in the community – and how that might be lost if the stadium upgrade proposal doesn’t find funding.
“We understand as an organization our responsibility and what that means and what we need to provide,” he said.
“I think we have a great path forward and we have good momentum to carry this to the future.”
Klein stressed that although the project is dependent upon approval from the facility owners – Spokane County – there are a lot of entities involved in the process.
“We’re all coming to the table and we’re all contributing,” he said.
“I think that’s rare to find this type of public-private partnership in any community in the country, in which the team pays their share and bears the responsibility by also being good community citizens and also being staples in the community.”
For their part, the Rockies are happy to be in Spokane. Through prior affiliation with Boise and Tri-City, the parent club was familiar with the Indians’ front office and excited at the chance to work with them.
“We were looking and sort of vetting out communities that we wanted to be in,” Forbes said. “Obviously, Spokane was very high on the list because of not only the community up there, the Northwest market, but just the people.”
Duff said the Rockies did their due diligence when it came to previous stadium improvements.
“It’s been a really good partnership so far,” Duff said. “It’s still early on. And you know, it was strange coming off of an 18-year partnership with the Texas Rangers working through COVID and Zoom calls and everything else and developing a relationship with the Rockies through that process, but we’ve been very impressed.”
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