One of the great things about minor league baseball is that it caters to so many audiences. The Spokane Indians are a prime example.
When you boil it down, an affiliated minor league team is three things in one: the hometown team, a cheap and wholesome entertainment option for families, and a vital cog in a Major League Baseball organization.
Most folks who take in an Indians game this summer at Avista Stadium won’t think too hard about how the product is made – it’s a given that someone buys the balls and supplies the concession stands, takes out the trash and, for that matter, pays the players and coaches.
Indians executive vice president Otto Klein, who has worked in minor league baseball for 29 years – 27 with the Indians – summed it up perfectly: “We’re an entertainment business that happens to be in baseball.”
Here’s a peek “behind the curtain” to see how the Indians organization works hand-in-hand with their MLB parent club, the Texas Rangers, to provide 38 days and nights of summer entertainment for the area.
The hometown team
The Spokane Indians are a popular draw. How popular?
In 2018, the team drew 198,423 fans, second in the Northwest League behind the Vancouver (B.C.) Canadians – a significantly bigger market. That’s impressive enough, until you consider that the Canadians also led all of short-season minor league baseball in attendance last season.
The Indians ranked third overall in the county in short-season MiLB, behind Vancouver and the Brooklyn Cyclones.
“We think our fans are a good representation of the Spokane community – hardworking, middle class, looking for value for their entertainment dollar,” Klein said.
A breakdown of the demographics shows exactly who is watching the Indians in person: 53% are in the 25-54 age group, 72% of adults attended college and 45% are female – the best gender balance among professional sports leagues.
“Women tend to make the decisions about entertainment choices in the household,” Klein said.
With the seasonal turnover of the roster, the folks who head out to Avista to root, root, root for the home team are predominantly cheering for the name on the front of the roster – and maybe not necessarily the player wearing it.
Klein said Indians attendance has been – for the most part – loss-proof, with a fluctuation of only 1% to 3%, depending on a winning or losing record.
“People come to see us to escape,” he said. “Most folks figure if we don’t win tonight, we’ll get ’em tomorrow.”
The team sets aside 1,200 tickets (from a capacity of 6,803) to sell as part of season-ticket packages. When Klein started with the Indians in 1992, the team concentrated on selling full-season, 38-game plans.
Now the club almost exclusively only sells the full-season plans to businesses that plan to use them on a daily basis.
“We found that with bigger plans, folks wouldn’t come out all the time,” Klein said. “It’s much easier for families to make plans around a five- or 10-game package and actually use all their tickets.”
He stressed how important that is to a business that only has 38 days to make its money for the entire year.
“An empty seat doesn’t buy a hot dog,” he said. “It doesn’t buy a ball cap.”
Attendance has steadily grown as a result. Add in free events such as Monday’s Welcome Player Party and Wednesday’s Fan Fest, and the synergy between the organization and its fans becomes apparent.
“The Spokane Indians are about three things,” Klein said. “The first is family. No. 2 is … family. You can see where I’m going with this.”
He added that there are roughly 100 to 150 fans who attend 25-plus games every year.
“Our first thought with any idea we want to implement is, ‘Is it good for the family unit?’ ” Klein said. “We don’t have to offer free parking, but it’s better for our fans and families when considering how to spend their entertainment dollars.”
The team behind the team
The Indians have 20 year-round, full-time employees: four in marketing, seven in ticket sales and several others in operations, human resources and accounting.
Eight of the full-time employees – including Klein – have been with the organization a combined 114 years, an average of more than 14 years apiece.
“Consistency of teamwork is a large reason why we’ve been able to be so successful,” Klein said.
They add 13 seasonal full-time employees, who usually work from mid-April to September, including the field turf manager, concession manager, clubhouse attendants and front desk staff.
At the beginning of the season, the Indians bring in up to 300 game-day employees: concessionaires, security, ticket takers, section leaders and maintenance.
You might bring your family to a game and just expect balls and bats and hot dogs – and players – to magically appear, but it takes a concerted effort by a lot of people to pull off your seamless evening of fun.
Klein said the ballpark staff occasionally goes through training or continuing education, such as seminars in customer service provided by the Walt Disney Company.
The club also gets ideas from other minor league organizations.
“Minor league baseball has a history of sharing amongst teams,” Klein said. “There’s a constant blend of sharing ideas and seeing what works in a particular market.”
Even though the season runs from late June through Labor Day, the team is in constant activity.
“We start thinking about next season at the last out of the current one,” Klein said.
Making a home
The Indians were the 2018 recipient of the Bob Freitas Award, which recognizes franchises for their community involvement, long-term business success and consistent operational excellence.
Avista Stadium, formerly Spokane Indians Baseball Stadium, was built in 1958 to house the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. It doesn’t feel that old.
The field itself is a gem. The stadium grounds crew has been awarded the NWL award for best playing surface in 12 straight and 18 of the past 32 years – and four times was recognized as the Sports Turf Managers Association national field of the year for short-season Single-A.
New turf manager Levi Weber has his work cut out for him keeping the streak alive.
Ballpark maintenance depends on the weather and starts “as soon as the snow clears,” according to Klein, usually in mid-March. “Though the weather did us no favors this year,” he added.
The Indians have to make a home for the players the Rangers entrust to them. The field and clubhouse are a big part of that, but so are things as elemental as eating and sleeping.
“We have to manage where the players live, work out, eat and play,” Klein said. “The Rangers make a significant investment in these players, and we have a responsibility while they’re here to take care of them.”
Host families provide living arrangements for many of the players, while most of the Latin players stay at the Mirabeau Park Hotel with a Spanish-speaking coach.
The clubhouse managers try to provide a “home away from home” at the ballpark and provide some amenities to the players, who often are living away from home for the first time in their lives.
“It doesn’t matter if the player is the first pick in the draft or from the 40th round, we treat each one the same,” Klein said.
The Indians provide a caterer and implement a nutrition plan dictated by the Rangers. It’s not like in the old days, when the clubhouse spread consisted of leftover hot dogs and flat soda.
This is the 17th year the Indians have been affiliated with the Texas Rangers, and it’s a relationship in which both organizations take pride.
“They like winning as much as we do,” Klein said. “Maybe even more.”
He cited a good product, good communication and good prospects as keys to the relationship.
“Spokane checks all the boxes a big league club is looking for in a minor league affiliate,” Klein said.
The players on the field
How do the Rangers decide who to send to Spokane in June every year? You might be surprised how much effort and planning goes into it.
“It’s a process that really starts the year prior,” according to Paul Kruger, the Rangers’ assistant director of player development.
Kruger described a 16-month program the Rangers implement from the time the player is drafted (in early June) until the start of the next baseball season, when players are assigned to affiliated teams across the minor league system.
A lot depends on the player, whether he was drafted out of high school, junior college or elevated college – or an international free agent, such as J.P. Martinez last season. Hitters, starting pitchers and relievers are managed differently.
“So really, from June of last year to this time, we were putting that plan together,” Kruger said. “And then as we go through spring training, you start to understand who’s going to break with (a full-season) club.”
Those who aren’t assigned in April are sent to extended spring training in Arizona for further evaluation and coaching. Kruger described extended spring training as “Baseball 101” for the younger players. For others, it might be working on a specific pitch or position before being assigned to an affiliate.
It’s time in a more relaxed environment to develop a player as opposed to the daily grind in affiliated baseball. After a few weeks or a couple of months, the Rangers can best decide where to assign these players – including whether Spokane and the Northwest League are the best fit for them
“It’s taking the best of the guys, our young guys that were still in Arizona, and formulating the best team that we can, and to put them in the best position to not only succeed on the field, with wins, but give them the most opportunities to grow their themselves developmentally,” Kruger said.
The Rangers will supplement the roster during the summer with older or more advanced players out of the current season’s MLB draft.
Trusting the process
Sometimes players speed up the plan.
Kruger confided that last year’s top pick for the Rangers, high school starting pitcher Cole Winn, was originally slated to be assigned to Spokane this season. But Winn’s performance in spring training showed the club that the 19-year-old was probably ready for a more elevated test.
“He was doing everything from a strength standpoint, nutrition, health,” Kruger said. “And then he goes to spring training, and everything that we worked on for the first eight months, he was able to put into play. He just kind of accelerated the process.”
Winn has taken some lumps with the Low-A Hickory Crawdads this season, going 0-3 with a 7.98 ERA in five starts, with 13 strikeouts and 12 walks in 14 2/3 innings. But he is also 2.8 years younger than the average player in the South Atlantic League.
“You put together a plan,” Kruger said. “And, I think with like everything in life, and especially in this game of baseball, nothing’s in pen, everything’s in pencil.
“But I think it’s important to give (players) a road map through their first full season.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Indians Opening Day starter Ricky Vanasco was a player Kruger said could have started with a full-season club. But the Rangers specifically wanted him to prepare to be the Opening Day starter for the Indians, like they did with last season’s top starter Hans Crouse, who spent half a season in Spokane before being elevated to Hickory.
“You can’t mimic that buildup,” Kruger said, “and for (Vanasco) to have 2 1/2 months to prepare for this start is something we think is very valuable. It’s just something you can’t replicate unless you experience it.”
The Rangers feel that Spokane offers something special in terms of developing their youngest players.
“It’s not always just who’s going to be the best for that club on the field,” he said. “But it’s who can handle the bright lights of Spokane when you’ve got 7,000-plus (in attendance) compared to, you know, maybe another affiliate that doesn’t have as many fans.
“Can a particular 21-year-old really handle the pressure of being in a large market? There’s a lot of moving pieces, and it’s not just performance-based on the field.”
The Rangers don’t take lightly the fact that their short-season affiliate is in a market like Spokane.
“It’s a selling point, to be honest with you,” Klein said.
“We’re talking to high schoolers about the benefits of this 12- to 16-month program, and to be able to open up in Spokane and see what it’s like in a major market in a packed house, where whether you’re winning or you’re down 10-1, these fans are gonna back you – but they expect to have good baseball night in and night out, and expect good effort. That’s fun.”
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