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March 15, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Northwest League

Texas sends its college-aged draftees and highest caliber high-schoolers to the Spokane Indians of the Northwest League of Professional Baseball (NWL). The NWL is classified as “short season� A ball; eight teams play a 76-game schedule beginning in mid-June after the draft. The league has two divisions, and the winners of each play a best-of-five series for the championship. Currently, the Athletics, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Giants, Mariners, Padres, Rangers, and Rockies affiliate with the league. The NWL began in 1937 as the Class B Western International League (WIL). The league adopted its current moniker in 1952 and except during 1956 has operated in Class A ever since.

Spokane’s association with pro baseball dates back to1890, only six months after Washington became a state. The Spokane Bunchgrassers (no, really) founded the Pacific Northwest League with Tacoma, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, and won its inaugural championship. The league folded during its third year in the midst of an economic depression. Spokane joined a new league in 1901 and operated during the next two years as the Blue Stockings and the Smoke Eaters (no, really). Then the team adopted the name “Indians,� which, per Baseball-Reference.com, was a corruption of “Inlanders.� Regardless of league or affiliation, Spokane has called its team the Indians for all but three of the last 70 years.

After another baseball-free stretch, in 1937 Spokane joined the WIL and remained for its upgrade to the Class A NWL. Except during World War II, Spokane has hosted professional baseball continuously since 1937. In fact, Spokane leapfrogged to AAA when it joined the Pacific Coast League in 1958. The city returned to the NWL after 1982.

I hope the Rangers take pride in having Spokane as an affiliate, because its citizens love their baseball. The Indians have led the NWL in attendance every year since 2000, and its 2006 per-game average of 4,800 fans exceeded seven AAA teams and nineteen AA teams. Daily attendance compares favorably to the AAA Las Vegas 51s, Charlotte Knights, Richmond Braves and Omaha Royals. Spokane is a gigantic step up from the largely fan-free Arizona League.

Texas’s relationship with Spokane actually dates back to 1973, when the Indians were the Ranger AAA affiliate. Spokane won the PCL championship that season with a roster that included Lenny Randle, Bill Madlock, John Wockenfuss, Rick Waits and Don Stanhouse. Spokane won again in 1974 with several of the same players plus Roy Howell and Larry Gura. After another season Texas switched to Sacramento.

The Rangers reacquainted themselves with Spokane in 2003 when they moved all of their low-level minor-league affiliations out of the southeast US. The relationship paid immediate dividends as the ’03 squad went 50-26 and won the Northwest League title. The champs included rookies Ian Kinsler, Wes Littleton, John Danks and Matt Farnum. Spokane won the title again in 2005 despite a 37-39 record. Notables from that team were John Mayberry, Steven Murphy, Freddy Thon, Doug Mathis and Broc Coffman.

Spokane harbors a slightly more mature collection of players than rookie-league Arizona. Most college and junior-college players begin their careers there. Among the 30 players spending the most time in Spokane (fifteen hitters and pitchers) in 2006, their origins were as follows:

15 – 2006 draftees
5 – 2005 draftees
4 – 2004 draftees
1 – 2003 draftees
3 – undrafted free agents
1 – undrafted free agent signed from another team
1 – acquired in trade

The average Spokane hitter was 21.5 years of age, the average pitcher, 21.4. Among the top thirty players, only one was a teenager, fresh-out-of-high-school first rounder Kasey Kiker (more on him in a week or so).

George Brett owns the Indians along with brothers Bobby and J.B. Former MLB pitcher Ken Brett, who died in 2003, was also an owner. Nine-year MLB veteran Andy Fox, who drew a walk for the Rangers in his final plate appearance, will manage the Indians. Hector Ortiz, who also played briefly for Texas, will serve as hitting coach.

If you’re familiar with Google Earth and would like to see each NWL team’s facilities, visit http://rangers.scottlucas.com/newberg/NWL.kmz, download the file, and open it within Google Earth.

Posted by Lucas at March 15, 2007 07:12 PM