Gambling on baseball in Sin Cityby Frank Jackson
June 25, 2013
I’m sure I’m not the only seamhead who has pondered the name Brian Cashman and found it highly appropriate for the GM of the team with the highest payroll in MLB.
Well, a few time zones west of Yankee Stadium, there is another baseball connection with that name that seems just as appropriate, at least at first blush. I speak of Cashman Field, home of the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s. Surely, you couldn’t come up with a better moniker for a ballpark in a town where so much money changes hands 24-7, 365 days a year.
Cashman Field, however, is at odds with the image of the city in which it was built. To be sure, the ballpark is within walking distance of downtown Las Vegas, where the Fremont Street Experience and the casinos underneath its canopy provide arguably the gaudiest light show on the planet. In spirit, Cashman Field is light years away from that.
South Las Vegas Boulevard is the Las Vegas Strip, home to most of the ultra-modern mega-hotels and casinos. North Las Vegas Boulevard, where Cashman Field is located, appears to be devoted to the past. Surrounding the ballpark are the Las Vegas Museum of Natural History, the Old (1855) Mormon Fort, and the Neon Boneyard, the final resting place for iconic neon signs that have gone dark but are not forgotten.
Relative to its neighbors, Cashman Field is the new kid on the block. As of 2013, Cashman Field is a 30-year old Triple-A ballpark. It looks older than that, but it’s not a good kind of old. I’m sure the locals were more than satisfied with the place when it opened, but just a few years later, its inadequacies were all too obvious.
In 1988, the Buffalo Bisons opened Pilot Field, a retro structure designed by HOK Architects, which actually influenced the design of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. With much less fanfare, the Bisons’ park forever changed Triple-A ballpark design just as surely as Camden Yards changed MLB parks. As a result, when Cashman Field was five years old, it appeared to have aged rapidly.
In a town where 30-year-old casinos are routinely remodeled or imploded, Cashman Field almost qualifies for some sort of historic designation. But the adjectives (e.g., quaint, charming, quirky) often applied to old ballparks don’t apply here. For better or worse, Cashman Field is just a place to watch a ball game.
And that’s not all bad. I appreciate the fact that they don’t overdo the sound effects and commercials (“That foul ball was brought to you by...”). Also, the live organ music is a plus...what little there is of it. The cantilevered light towers are distinctive, and the parking lot on the hill behind home plate affords a panoramic view of the mountain ranges to the north. All of that hardly qualifies as a ringing endorsement.
The ballpark, which abuts an exhibition hall, is the centerpiece of the Cashman Center complex operated by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The ballpark is actually the second incarnation of Cashman Field. They were playing minor league ball at this locale long before the Cashman Center was erected in 1983.
Big Jim Cashman made a name for himself in a number of ways: by supplying Caterpillar tractors for the building of nearby Hoover (née Boulder) Dam in the 1930s, opening the town’s first Cadillac dealership, and spearheading Helldorado Days, the city’s annual Wild West festival, which continues to the present day. He was a big fish in a small pond, but now that the pond is a lot bigger, the name Cashman is still prominent in Las Vegas.
The original Cashman Field initially was used for football and rodeos, but it also became the home of the Las Vegas Wranglers of the Class C Sunset League. The first professional sports team in Las Vegas, they debuted in 1947 (but did not move into Cashman Field until 1948) and won the league championship two years later. Obviously, that was the first professional championship in Las Vegas sports history. Six decades ago, Cashman Field gave the town its first taste of major league ball when it hosted an Indians-Giants exhibition game.
If you think Las Vegas is a johnny-come-lately of a sports town, you’re right, but it had a good excuse: the city wasn’t founded till 1905. In 1947, the population was no more than 20,000, so when the Wranglers opened for business, the town was a long way from the Triple-A status it would enjoy 36 years later. But 1947 was a watershed year that hinted of things to come, for that was the year Bugsy Siegel officially opened the fabulous Flamingo resort hotel and raised the bar on local lodging and luxury. From that point on, the local population and tourism grew apace.
The Wranglers soldiered on in the low minors (the Arizona-Mexico League and the California League) through the 1958 season. By then, televised big-league ball was commonplace. And if you wanted to see it in person, you had the option of heading to Los Angeles for the weekend.
For the next 25 years, there was no professional baseball in Las Vegas despite the city’s growth rate. Ordinarily, that would not bode well for the establishment of a Triple-A franchise, yet the Spokane Indians of the Pacific Coast League were purchased, moved to Las Vegas, and renamed the Stars.
The current Cashman Field opened on April 1, 1983, when an exhibition game between the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners attracted 13,878 fans. In 1993, an exhibition game between the White Sox and the Cubs attracted 15,025, still a record for the stadium.
In the 21st century, Cactus League teams regularly play exhibition games there in March. This year, for example, the Rangers and the Cubs squared off for two games during St. Patrick’s Day weekend. In fact, Cashman Field actually hosted regular-season major league ball when the Athletics opened their 1996 season there (two games against Toronto, four games against Detroit) while the Oakland Coliseum was being remodeled to add more seats for football.
The main purpose of Cashman Field was to serve as the home of the Pacific Coast League Las Vegas Stars, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. The first game, on April 10, 1983, produced an 11-8 victory over Salt Lake City. In fact, the inaugural team was so good (.290 batting average with 172 home runs) that the players were voted en masse into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. Of course, given the elevation (about 2000 feet), dry air, and the modest power alleys (364 feet) a hearty offense was assured.
The 1983 roster included a number of players who would make names for themselves in the ensuing decades. Not counting Tony Gwynn, who appeared for a lengthy rehab assignment, the best player to emerge from the pack was Kevin McReynolds, who hit .377 with 328 total bases, still a team record.
Notably, a number of the players on that squad progressed to the baseball brain trust fraternity. Catcher Bruce Bochy, who hit the first home run in franchise history, went on to manage the Padres and now sits atop the baseball world as manager of the two-time World Series champion Giants. Larry Rothschild, the first manager in the history of the Tampa Bay franchise and currently a coach with the Cubs, was also on the roster, as was Mick Kelleher, currently serving as a coach with the Yankees, Andy Hawkins (who started the first game at Cashman Field), bullpen coach for the Rangers, and Bo McLaughlin, the Rockies’ assistant pitching coach.
The affiliation with the Padres was long and productive, lasting until the end of the 20th century. The Dodgers took over in 2001, which made sense, given the hordes of Angelenos—a large percentage of whom presumably are Dodger fans—who visit Las Vegas regularly.
But while other Triple-A cities built new stadiums or at least upgraded their old ones, Las Vegas did neither. The Dodgers grew weary of their aging facility and moved back to Albuquerque, where they had been ensconced from 1963-2000. The Blue Jays moved in for the 2009 season but left after four years. The Mets, having abandoned Buffalo after 2012, had nowhere else to go, so they are now the big league connection.
Attendance-wise, the franchise has had its ups and downs. Early this season, the franchise celebrated its ten millionth fan. The best year, attendance-wise, was 1992 with 387,815. The highest average gate was 5,441 in 1993.
The current scuttlebutt in Las Vegas has the team moving to a northwest suburb (described as a “planned community”) named Summerlin. Attempts to build a new Triple-A ballpark as part of a sports complex off the South Las Vegas Strip apparently have come to naught.
If that Summerlin proposal falls through, then you can probably kiss PCL ball good-bye in Las Vegas. The Mets’ agreement with Las Vegas is for two years. Absent a new ballpark, or at least the promise of one, it would be surprising if a PCL team is still there in 2015.
The Tucson Padres are supposedly moving to El Paso next year, and the Astros are making noises about vacating Oklahoma City and building a Triple-A park in the Houston suburbs. The ballparks in both Tucson and Oklahoma City are far superior to Cashman Field and provide better options for franchise transfers. When the Mets’ Las Vegas sojourn is over, Cashman Field likely will be relegated to the low minors or the independent minor leagues.
That’s too bad, because Las Vegas should be a top-notch Triple-A franchise. After all, if you were a player, would you rather make a road trip to Fresno or Las Vegas? If you are a fan making a PCL road trip, ask yourself the same question.
Also, consider the geography. Four MLB franchises (Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Diamondbacks) are within weekend driving distance. Fans of the above teams planning a weekend in Vegas might be expected to plan their trips around a series involving their hometown team’s affiliate. The Giants and A’s aren’t that far away, either, and judging by fan attire at the games, they have some local support.
Cashman Field is centrally located in the Las Vegas Valley. It’s easy to find and has plenty of parking. I’m guessing, however, that very few tourists visit Cashman Field. I’m not sure the locals care that much, either. Indeed, if you check the sports pages of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it seems UNLV gets most of the ink. A snazzy new ballpark in Summerlin might change that.
Cashman Field isn’t falling apart, and it is neat and clean, but it does nothing to enhance the appeal of attending a minor league ball game. When all-chairback seats are the norm for modern minor league parks, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for the aluminum benches that constitute the lion’s share of the permanent seating capacity (9,334) of Cashman Field. After the desert sun beats down on that aluminum all day, you’d better have a seat cushion handy.
The park’s shortcomings might be forgivable if Cashman had some compensating features. For one thing, after 30 years of Triple-A ball, hundreds of players have stopped in Las Vegas before advancing to the major leagues (top Mets prospect, catcher Travis d’Arnaud, is there now). Surely, an honor roll of such players or some plaques or banners honoring the best of the bunch wouldn’t be out of order.
Yet another mystery is why the team is loath to capitalize on its very name. In 2001, the team rebranded itself, abandoning the nickname Stars in favor of the 51s. The latter refers to Area 51, the mysterious desert facility supposedly devoted to the study of extraterrestrials and their spacecraft.
I don’t know how much cogitation went into selecting that name, but in truth Las Vegas does present a thorny problem if you want to select a locally-oriented nickname. The most appropriate names—the gamblers, the boozers, the hookers, the grifters, the mobsters—are not exactly national pastime-y. (Come to think of it, one of those collective noun nicknames, say, the Las Vegas Glitz, might be preferable.)
The team’s current logo is a pedomorphic, sloe-eyed space alien, and the mascot is a suitably otherworldly blob called Cosmo. The bio on the back of Cosmo’s baseball card notes that he was a ballplayer on his home planet of Koufaxia and was delighted to find that baseball was so popular on earth after he crash-landed here.
All well and good. That’s more than enough fodder for some minor league hijinks. The mind reels just thinking of the promotions possible. How about all-expenses-paid bus trips to Area 51 (about 80 miles north of Las Vegas), Roswell, New Mexico, or Devil’s Tower, Wyoming (scene of the Close Encounters climax)?
Or how about theremin music between innings ... or an invasion of “flying saucers” as ushers sail Frisbees into the crowd ... sleep-overs with cheesy 1950's SF movies on the video board (whoops, another drawback—no videoboard at Cashman) ... with a little help from some food coloring, green cheese night ... free Mars bars ... or how about signing "Spaceman" Bill Lee to a contract and letting him pitch an inning or two and sign some autographs?
Instead, the team’s schedule includes the standard assortment of giveaways and promotions—not that I have a problem with $1.00 beer night. But there’s nothing innovative or unique in the mix. It’s just the same old, same old. The only sci-fi vibe emanating from Cashman Field is The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Also, given the franchise’s current affiliation with the Mets, one would think some sort of promotion involving the New York, New York casino would be a natural. You know, New York and Las Vegas, the cities that never sleep, the Great White Way and the Las Vegas Strip! But nothing doing on that front. Maybe later in the season.
While management appears to be asleep at the switch promotion-wise, they are overly zealous when it enforcement of policy. If you don’t have a ticket for a box seat and go down to the front row to get an autograph, you will be chased away in a matter of seconds. If you figure you can take your kid down close to the field in the ninth inning to enhance his chances of snagging a foul ball, you will be shooed away immediately, even if no one has been sitting in that entire section all night.
One usher on the third base side was quite apologetic about it all, but he pointed out that the folks in the corporate office behind home plate were constantly watching. So there we have it, just like the casinos, nothing escapes the eye in the sky. So if you want to keep your job, keep your nose clean and, above all, keep the riffraff out of the box seats at all times.
I can’t really say that such mean-spirited management is bush league because that wouldn’t be correct. In the bush leagues, they probably wouldn’t care if you moved down to a seat no one else was occupying. Even some big league ushers look the other way, assuming the seat-jumpers aren’t dispossessing someone else.
So for a variety of reasons, Triple-A ball in Las Vegas leaves a lot to be desired and appears to be on borrowed time. But what about big league ball? We’ve heard Las Vegas bandied about as a possible destination for a franchise shift. Anything to that?
Well, the next time you’re in Las Vegas, take the elevator to the top of the Stratosphere Tower at the north end of the Strip some evening. Almost 1,200 feet tall, this is the tallest structure west of the Mississippi, so it’s the best overview you’ll get unless you take a helicopter tour of the Strip.
You will see a carpet of lights spreading out in all directions, covering the entire Las Vegas Valley and extending into the foothills of the surrounding mountains. The critical mass of population would seem to be close to major league status. In fact, there are more than 2,000,000 people living in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County. But Las Vegas is totally unlike any other metropolitan area.
If the movers and shakers in Las Vegas really wanted major league sports, they would already have a franchise or two. In fact, you can find NFL and NBA franchises in metro areas smaller than Las Vegas.
In 2007, the NBA had its All-Star Game in Las Vegas. This was the only time this showcase event has taken place in a non-league city. Obviously, the town could host regular-season basketball if they really wanted to. So why don’t the local nabobs want major league sports?
Well, betting on big league sports is one thing (and no visit to Las Vegas is complete without peeking into one of those sports book palaces), but you don’t need a hometown team to do that. The local bigshots might tolerate minor league ball, since the relatively low attendance is no threat to casino profits. On the other hand, they probably wouldn’t care if it went away.
There are any number of ways to separate people from their money, but casinos probably are the most efficient means ever devised for doing so. The three hours or so that sports fans spend at a stadium or arena is time they are not spending in a casino. Now if you could put video screens on every chair back so sports fans had video gaming right in front of them, that would be another story. But Bud Selig would never sign off on that. Can’t say I blame him.
Getting people into the casinos is what the town’s all about. In that regard, not much has changed since Bugsy Siegel got blown away. That’s the motive behind all those shows and exhibits (not to mention the cheap booze and buffets) at the big casinos. You must follow a labyrinth of hiking trails through the casinos to get to the theaters, restaurants, exhibit halls, and other non-gambling venues.
Even if you have no intention of gambling when you walk in the door, as you amble past all the blackjack tables, roulette wheels, and various video gambling devices, the immortal words of Dirty Harry pop into one’s head: “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?” Las Vegas, of course, has more than its share of “lucky” people.
So the next time a major league franchise is up for grabs, I don’t think Las Vegas will be a player. I’m sure they’re capable of funding and building a ballpark with all the bells, whistles, and ribbon boards. And if you could build a modern ballpark totally surrounded by a mega-casino (what architecture firm wouldn’t want a commission like that?), the local money power might start to get interested. But MLB would hardly think kindly of one of its teams being the hole in the doughnut.
So the odds of MLB ever coming to Las Vegas are slim at best. In fact, I think the city will beat the odds if they simply can hang on to their Triple-A franchise.
In fact, at this very moment there’s probably somebody at a Vegas casino sports book salon who could quote you odds on both of the above.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.
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