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A brief history of the Spokane Indians

The Mariners won just 184 of 427 games in Spokane, but hey, at least one of them had a really killer suntan.

The Mariners had only spent a year in San Jose when general manager Joe Gagliardi sent them packing. By September of 1978, the M's had signed a two-year player development contract with the Spokane Indians, who were in the process of dropping a two-year affiliation with the Milwaukee Brewers. No team had stuck with the Indians for more than three seasons since the Los Angeles Dodgers showed up in Washington for a 15-year stay, and the Mariners wouldn't be the next club to break that trend.

Prior to the Mariners' arrival, Indians' GM Larry Koentopp and Director of Stadium Operations Bill "Poppa D" Diedrick were pulling out all the stops. They spent almost $300,000 to refurbish a tired-looking Fairgrounds Park, adding a new scoreboard, lighting, paneling, dressing rooms, office décor, paneling, paint, and an infield replete with 75 tons of crushed red brick. It was an extravagant gesture considering that the team saw fewer than 100,000 fans through the turnstiles in 1978, but Spokane's management remained optimistic.

While Koentopp dreamed of selling out the Fairgrounds, the Mariners were coming off of a 104-loss season in Seattle. They had enough trouble filling the Kingdome without worrying about attendance figures in northern Washington -- and it showed. Shoddy defense, station-to-station baserunning, and a lack of power plagued the M's debut season in Spokane. Two of their fastest players, outfielders Rod Craig and Charley Beamon, were plucked by the big league club halfway through the season, depleting the roster of some of its best baserunners and sending the Indians to the bottom of the North division.

Despite their mediocre year, first baseman Danny Walton led the league with 39 doubles and lefty reliever Mike Davey topped the charts with 66 appearances. Whether it was the promise of new stars or new seats, 217,300 fans showed up throughout the Indians' season, the most fans Spokane had seen in nearly 20 years. Koentopp sensed another opportunity to increase the Indians' viewership, and installed aluminum bleachers and additional concessions stands in anticipation of the 1980 season. With his sights firmly set on reaching 300,000 fans and first place in the league, Koentopp moved the start times forward by 15 minutes in an attempt to appeal to more families and get fans home by 10 p.m. every night.

The ballpark wasn't the only part of the club to undergo modifications, however. Before the Indians kicked off their second season under the Mariners' watch, Seattle's Assistant Director of Player Development, Steve Shryver, promised to pad the Triple-A roster with new talent. First on his list was center fielder Dave Henderson, the M's first pick of the 1977 amateur draft. Shryver also promised the "best of the cuts" when the Mariners thinned out their stock of pitchers, although any new talent would be relatively young. He made good on his promises -- over half of the roster had played Single-A ball in 1979.

Although hopes were high and seats were packed for the Indians' second season, the team was forced to postpone 15 of their first 24 home games in 1980. Some days, the rain softened the field too much. Other days, volcanic ash from a recently-erupted Mount St. Helens choked the air. When the Indians finally recovered, the season was nearly half over, and the Mariners siphoned what little potential remained by the end of the year. To add insult to injury, the club was forced to take out a loan after losing an estimated $150,000 due to the Indians' rain-and-ash-shortened season. And things were about to get much worse.

Barely a month into the 1981 season, Spokane skipper Rene Lachemann received his big league call-up when the M's fired manager Maury Wills. While Lachemann guided Seattle to a .437 winning percentage, the Indians placed their fate in the hands of rookie manager Ken Pape. Tasked with an inexperienced and inconsistent roster, Pape led the team 45-75 through the rest of the year.

"I feel I did an adequate job," Pape told the Spokane Daily Chronicle. "I could have done more from a strategy standpoint, I suppose, as far as trying to make things happen, but when you're always playing catch-up [...] there's not much you can do. But I learned."

Others were far more dissatisfied. The club had dropped 23 games by one run and 15 by two runs, often blowing big leads late in the game with lackluster pitching and defense. Eight Indians were recalled to the majors, gutting the team of the little talent they had accumulated. Pape viewed this as proof of an effective player development model, but the papers disagreed. They were peeved that the Mariners had taken the best Indians to Seattle and cited these moves as disastrous ones for the farm team's chances of advancing to the Pacific Coast League playoffs.

"With any luck, the Indians will go north from Edmonton once the season ends Sunday night--and just keep going," Chronicle columnist Charlie Van Sickel spewed. The Indians were more than happy to oblige. By 1982, they had ditched their damp ballpark and abysmal three-year losing streak for their new station in Salt Lake City.

Spokane Trivia

  • Notable Indians: Jim Beattie, Joey Cora, Dave Henderson, and Ed Vande Berg.
  • Before settling on their current title in 1903, the Indians were known as the Spokane Bunchgrassers (1890), the Spokane Blue Stockings (1901), and the Spokane Smoke Eaters (1902).
  • On July 8, 1963, 24-year-old right-hander Bob Radovich pitched a no-hitter against the Hawaii Islanders, marking the Indians' first no-no in Fairgrounds Park. Spokane set an all-time best scoring record with 18 runs, a surprising feat for the second half of a doubleheader. In the final inning, Radovich walked a batter, then induced a slow groundout to first base. Hawaii pinch-runner Stan Palys began shifting his feet between first and second, making no attempt to head toward either base. After the ball bounced off of Palys' leg, league president Dewey Soriano docked the Islander for unsportsmanlike conduct and obstructing the fielder.
  • In 1982, the California Angels usurped the Mariners as Spokane's Triple-A representative. Following a 78-65 record and playoff bust, Triple-A baseball moved to Las Vegas and has yet to return.
  • Ten years after Lachemann was released from the Mariners' staff, he became the first skipper for the brand-new Florida Marlins.
  • According to Spokesman-Review staff writer John Blanchette, 1979 shortstop Ed Crosby had the best suntan in Indians' history. "Crosby [...] spent virtually all of his non-baseball time soaking up rays in search of the perfect tan," Blanchette wrote. "Some folks thought he played shortstop as if he'd been in the sun too long."