It was quite cool here on Monday morning, Sept. 12, 1982, fitting for the day the city’s Pacific Coast League team gave us the cold shoulder.
The announcement ended Triple-A professional baseball in this region. But that was four decades ago. So get over it. Today, Spokane Indians fans can mourn the short-season A Northwest League, the latest dearly departed after a run of 37 years.
The 24-year-long PCL era and its high-class minor league play produced four Hall of Fame members: manager Tommy Lasorda; manager Duke Snider, who made it as a player; fading knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm and durable Don Sutton. Almost a dozen other players did their best to come close.
But just because some of us are old enough to remember those days, it doesn’t mean the faithful have been cheated. Was there cause to sneer at the lesser league’s shorter seasons? Do fans have something against a 76-game schedule in warm weather? The latest segment of Spokane’s pro ball legacy may have brought less polished play, but crowds still saw a generous helping of emerging talent.
Our NWL years produced a league-record eight championships, 10 batting titles, nine home run leaders, seven most valuable players and seven managers of the year. And a lot of nationally recognized attendance records.
Along the way, we saw a future Hall of Fame manager, two certain playing candidates, a significant number of capable or interesting major leaguers and a flock of prominent coaches and administrators.
And don’t overlook George Brett, the Hall of Fame player, who, with his brothers, is part of the Indians’ ownership.
Furthermore, minor league history should save a place for Tim Hulett, who took over the Texas Rangers affiliate in 2007 and stayed 10 seasons. Admired as an instructor, the former big league infielder set Spokane records by managing 737 games with 371 victories and two manager of the year awards.
By most accounts, Bruce Bochy, who launched his managing career with the 1989 Indians, will become Spokane baseball’s newest Hall of Fame member. Retired from 25 seasons with San Diego and San Francisco, Bochy led the Padres, who had seldom won anything, to the 1998 National League title. Then he directed the Giants to nicely spaced World Series championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
Outfielder Carlos Beltran, two years divorced from a long, diverse playing career, and pitcher Zach Greinke have an excellent chance to join him.
Drafted in the second round by Kansas City, Beltran, at age 19, played center field for Spokane in 1996. Although the Puerto Rico native batted a modest .270, he hit with power, stole bases and displayed an impressive throwing arm. He joined the parent Royals three years later and, after batting .293 and driving in 108 runs, became American League Rookie of the Year.
By the time he retired in 2017 as a member of Houston’s world champions, he had compiled 2,725 hits, 435 home runs, almost 1,600 runs and runs batted in and more than 300 stolen bases. He owns three Gold Gloves, two Silver Slugger awards and recognition as one of the game’s best all-time postseason hitters.
Greinke, taken sixth overall by the Royals in 2002, now pitches for Houston. Craftsmanlike in the fashion of Greg Maddux, Greinke has 210 victories, a Cy Young Award, two earned-run average titles and six Gold Gloves. He can hit, too. Possessed of two Silver Sluggers, he’s also a fine bunter. And, known for his quirky personality, he went viral on April 13 of this year, when he threw a 51 mph blooper to a Detroit batter.
Among Spokane’s eight NWL titles, four were back-to-back-to-back-to-back (1987-90).
In 1987, after a 16-4 start and a 21-4 late-season surge, the Indians finished with a 54-22 record that ranks with the league’s all-time best. The parent Padres provided a good mix of college players and raw rookies that became a well-oiled machine. The Indians took the Eastern Division by 20½ games, defeated Everett in the playoffs and led the league in almost everything.
Steve Hendricks, the MVP, had an 18-game hitting streak and finished with 75 RBIs in 76 games. Manager Rob Picciolo moved on to a long Padres coaching career. Injury-prone third baseman Dave Hollins and 17-year-old shortstop Jose Valentin developed into good, durable major leaguers.
Picciolo’s coach, Steve Lubratich, who had been a fine player on Spokane’s last PCL team, managed the 1988 titlists. After the Indians barely won their division, the championship was decided by the most exciting play in the city’s NWL history. Spokane, at home, trailed in the last of the eighth. After a walk and two singles tied the score, Mike Humpreys, on third base, told Lubratich, who was coaching third, that he could steal home. Then, with rival pitcher Tony Ariola in a full windup, he did, crossing the plate with a head-first slide.
Scott Bigham won the batting title, beating out teammate John Kuehl, whose dad was Oakland’s director of player development. Late-season contributor Nikco Riesgo later made history as a Red Sox surrogate during the 1984 strike. His book about the experience, published in 2010, was “Strike Three!”
In 1989, Bochy transitioned from backup big league catcher to Indians manager with Dave Staton, the league MVP, and wispy Darrel Sherman on his side. Staton became the league’s first Triple Crown winner, hitting .362 to go with 17 home runs and 72 RBIs. Sherman scored a team-record 70 runs and stole – in 70 games – 56 bases. Right-hander Rick Davis (9-2) led the league with a 1.35 ERA.
Outfielder Matt Mieske, a polished college grad on the verge of a good career, gave manager Gene Glynn’s 1990 champs another MVP. Teammate Jay Gainer won the hitting title. Baseball America selected Mieske as its short-season player of the year. Starting pitcher Scott Sanders joined the San Diego rotation three years later. Lance Painter followed him and spent a decade as a lefty reliever.
Picciolo, Bochy and Glynn all were named manager of the year. Glynn, like Picciolo, later spent two decades in the big leagues, mostly as a third-base coach.
Kevin Towers, who had been pitching coach for Bochy and Glynn, became San Diego’s general manager. Towers hired Bud Black, briefly a Spokane PCL pitcher, to succeed Bochy as Padres manager. Black’s in his fifth season managing the Colorado Rockies.
Managing the Indians continued to be a path to The Show. Tye Waller, who handled the 1994 team, had a long career in the Padres’ organization and spent six years as director of player development. Al Pedrique, the 1995 manager, managed the 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks.
In 1997, manager Jeff Garber could have hit the jackpot with a roster that included three first-round draft picks, Juan Lebron, Dermal “Dee” Brown and pitcher Dan Reichert. Former Jamaican cricket player Goef Tomlinson won the batting title, beating out Brown, who hit for average and power to become the MVP. Spokane posted the league’s second-best record but didn’t win the division.
Kevin Long became manager of the year after leading to the Kansas City-backed Indians to the 1999 title. NCAA batting champion Ken Harvey outdistanced the field with a team-record, league-leading .397 average. Infielder Mark Ellis was on the first of a fine major league career, too. Harvey, after a promising start with the Royals, fell victim to leg and foot problems. Long became a top batting coach, first with the Yankees and now with Washington.
Men of distinction: Could there be anything but excitement ahead when Spokane’s first Northwest League season brought lefty Mitch Williams to town? Before long, Williams was a major league closer known as “The Wild Thing,” a nickname that definitely referred to his pitching. With the Indians in 1983, he walked 55 in 92 innings and threw 14 wild pitches. He had six good seasons ahead of him, but history remembers him for the final pitch of his last good year. Toronto’s Joe Carter hit it for a walk-off home run that won the 1993 World Series.
In 1985, when first-round pick Joey Cora played, the Indians had a winning record. When he was hurt, they didn’t. Then, for a decade, the infielder had the same effect for the Padres, the White Sox and the Mariners. Now, he’s a longtime third-base coach, currently with Pittsburgh. His younger brother, Alex, manages the Red Sox.
In 1993, Glenn Dishman was a former college ace lookin’ good in his rookie year. An undrafted free agent with excellent control and a good change-up, he had allowed only one hit in five innings on June 17, when Yakima County Stadium made its debut. Back there, on July 17, he retired the first 26 batters. With 10 strikeouts in the books and a perfect game in his grasp, the left-hander went for the perfect game. The batter bounced a grounder to the second baseman. The throw went to first. And Jason Thompson, the team’s best hitter, muffed the throw. Dishman retired the next man and settled for a no-hitter.
On June 28, 2004, in Everett, Brandon Cashman enjoyed his three hours of fame. The University of Illinois grad belted four consecutive homers and drove in nine runs as the Indians romped to an 11-1 victory, Figuring the outfielder was in the wrong league, the Rangers promoted him to the Midwest League. Two years later, he was out of baseball but on his way to becoming regional sales manager for a Midwest robotics orthopedics firm.