Ask a baseball card collector to name some of the greatest sets of all-time and you are likely to hear things like 1909 T206, 1952 Topps, 1989 Upper Deck, and 1993 Finest. What those same collectors probably won't mention is the 1987-1989 Spokane Indians team sets - and for good reason.
The late 1980's and early 1990's were a golden era for baseball in Spokane as the affiliation between the San Diego Padres and Indians proved fruitful for both parties. After narrowly missing out on the title in 1986 the team won four straight from 1987-1990 highlighted by a Mike Humphreys' dramatic steal of home that clinched the title in 1988.
Despite all the success the Indians had on the field those years, the team decided on a novel approach to their baseball card sets. Rather than having the players and coaches pose at Avista Stadium, they took the players to the NorthTown Mall - who sponsored the set - and had them pose at various merchants throughout the mall.
While giving the fans a look at their favorite players off the field - and adding a nice sponsor tie-in to boot- might have seemed like a good idea at the time, it led to some rather head scratching cards that have only gotten more absurd over the past 20 years.
Manager Steve Lubratich, the man responsible for creating a lineup and managing a bullpen, is posed next to a cardboard cutout of Whitney Houston, arm draped over her shoulder - perhaps not the best way to command respect from his players. Bruce Bochy went on to lead the San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles but in 1989 he was just hanging out in a tobacco store with a bunch of pipes behind him.
Pitcher Jay Estrada is casually leaning on a shelf full of women's clothes, outfielder Greg Smith is all smiles next to a display of aquatic shampoo, and future major leaguer Dave Hollins can be found hanging out in the food court next to a tub of popcorn.
Seems like something the players and coaches might have hated doing, right? Well actually no according to former Indians employee Tim Leip, who served as General Manager of the team from 1985 to 1992.
"At the time players were staying at the Gonzaga dorms and didn't really have access to cars, so the chance to get out and explore the mall for the afternoon was well received," said Leip in a recent interview. "All the merchants in the mall treated the players well and for some players it was their first time at a big mall."
Even if they enjoyed it at the time, the players must look back at their cards now and feel at least a tinge of embarrassment, right?
"Fun and embarrassing describes it best for me," said Todd Torchia, outfielder for the 1987 squad, who probably got off easy, posing next to a chair outside of Percy's for his card. "It was a strange way to introduce a team to the city. Most of us were wondering who set this deal up. 25 guys in baseball uniforms walking through a busy mall. In the end, we had fun with it, guys posed with scarfs, women's hats, jewelry, and mannequins when taking their photos."
Other players enjoyed the chance to interact with fans at somewhere other than the stadium.
"It was my first baseball card so I thought maybe that's just how it was," said 1988 outfielder Nikco Riesgo, who posed with a Spokane Indians pennant outside a sports store on his card. "It was a great way to meet the fans. We might have seen the whole city of Spokane that day, and we were treated like the Beatles. It was the perfect place for us to interact with people."
The Indians went back to the traditional player on the field photo for their cards in 1990 and, for better or worse, haven't returned to the mall since. So while the 1987-89 team sets might not be considered all-time greats by collectors, they should certainly be remembered as a memorable - albeit quirky - chapter in Spokane Indians history.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.