May 4—After missing last season due to the pandemic, the Spokane Indians are ready to open the gates to Avista Stadium on Tuesday for the start of the 2021 season.
There are many changes this season, not only due to repercussions from the pandemic, but also from a seismic shift in the management and organization of the minor leagues implemented by Major League Baseball.
Team Senior Vice President Otto Klein was featured last week in an installment of The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages. Here is a condensed summary of that question and answer session to provide some context for all of the changes and what Spokane Indians fans can expect at the park this season.
The Spokesman-Review: How excited is everyone to be back at the ballpark?
Otto Klein: Well, no one's more excited than us, right? This has been a year like no other, of course, and so yeah we're excited to be at the ballpark. We're excited to be here. Our staff is here. All preparations are all systems go. So, yes, we're very, very blessed and feel lucky to be able to put on a season for the community.
We want to welcome everybody back. We feel like we're opening summer for the community, quite honestly. This will be the first live sporting event where fans can attend. So we want to encourage people to migrate back to the ballpark. We're going to do it in a safe way. We're going to open up summer, and we're going to bring some normalcy back to this region and we're blessed to be able to do that.
SR: How did the organization weather the storm of missing last season?
OK: You know, so much of minor league sports is dependent on ticket revenue and sponsorship revenue and concessions and all those things and when they're taken away, that's tough. We were able to think of our business differently and, you know, that is what happened, but now we get to do something fun.
SR: Can you run us through some of the changes MLB instituted to minor league baseball?
OK: MLB contracted the minor league system from 160 teams to 120. And so we were part of that 120, which is, we're lucky to be so. Along with that process, we also gained a new affiliate. So for the past 18-20 years we've been with the Texas Rangers, and now we're welcoming the Colorado Rockies to the Inland Northwest and to be a part of what we do here. So it's a 10-year partnership with the Colorado Rockies. We're not going anywhere, they're not going anywhere.
With this historic shift we were elevated, or promoted if you want to say. We went from short-season single A to High-A. And so what that means in the baseball world is basically we are promoted two levels up. As a result we're gonna have older, bigger, better, faster, stronger players here.
And it's also going to mean a longer season. So for the past 40 years we have had short-season baseball here from June to September. Now we are going to go from, this year it's May to September, but next year it'll likely be we'll start in April. So we're going to go from 38 home games to 60 this year. We have more baseball, we get a higher caliber of baseball. We are ready for it, and it's just going to be a difference that I think will be welcomed in the end.
SR: What's going to look different at Avista this season due to the safety precautions?
OK: The protection of the players and the safety of the players is going to be most important obviously to the Rockies, to us, and to MLB. With Major League Baseball, there's going to be a buffer between the players and the fans as we start the season here. And so, we made some adjustments.
There won't be any on-field promotions that we've known, or the first pitch and some of those things. So now, this year a lot of the promotions are going to be in the stands. On the first base side we have a promotions platform that we're going to do and we have the same one on the third base side. We'll be doing a lot of our fun promotions that we do and games and trivia and getting the crowd interaction all (that) stuff — we'll just do it from a different platform.
But it still has the magic of what we always do out here. So yes it'll be different in that regard, player safety is going to be really important. For onfield activities, we're just going to pause for this year, and then I think next year we're going to be back in business like normal.
SR: This is all part of MLB's COVID-19 protocol?
OK: Yeah. I think Major League Baseball is smart, that we're doing it the right way. They know how important it is for us to have games, so they want to make sure that the players are available and that's throughout the system. Major League Baseball is running this from the top-down in the safety protocols. But then also we have our own, of course, at the state level and here in Spokane County. So we're going to be adhering to all of those things as well, but when it comes to the players a lot of that is dictated by Major League Baseball.
SR: What are the limitations by state and local authorities?
OK: We're going to start at 25% (capacity). We're going to be in pod seating this year, so you're going to be in a group of four, or two, or six or whatever it might be, and they'll be spaced out. What's that do? Well, that limits the number of tickets that we can have, but we're going to open up about 1,750 for a total attendance to start.
We want to have as much touchless and digital things that we've done. So you'll be ordering your tickets all online with your cell phone and get them that way. You'll get scanned when you come on your cell phone for your tickets. There's hand sanitizer throughout the ballpark. You know the socially distance with the seating pods.
We're going to do mobile ordering (for concessions) this year for the first time, and that's going to be really nice to be able to implement. You'll be able to order food from your phone, and then we'll be able to deliver it to you in certain sections of the ballpark. But then, you know, our main concession lines and everything's going to be open. We'll still have some of the vendors that we've had out here for years that people love.
The other big one — masks will be worn at all times when you come to an Indians game. That's an adjustment that we need to make, but that's the way it's going to be this year. So there's going to be some adjustments for all of us and fans included.
SR: What about the theme nights and the promotional calendar?
OK: Well, everyone is familiar with all the great nights that we do with fireworks and dollar hot dog nights and all the traditions that we've been able to do through the years — a lot of those things are going to continue, but they're going to be in the latter half of the year. We will have fireworks on opening night.
SR: The organization is passionate about your community campaigns, whether it's with the Spokane Tribe and its initiative to restore its native language, or the redband trout project or the Zero Waste project at Avista Stadium. What's on the horizon?
OK: We're the community's baseball team. We like diving in with certain issues and obviously, serving the community in the best way we can. In late May we're going to announce a new partnership with Fairchild Air Force Base. I think that anything we can do to celebrate our airmen and all the great things they do at the base, but then also our veterans.
So we have a lot of things that we're excited for. We're gonna get baseball off the ground first. We're going to get this team rolling and then, end of May we're going to announce a new one that I think the community will respond to and we're excited to debut.