BY CAROLYN LaWELL
LAS VEGAS | The concourses at Cashman Field are packed shoulder to shoulder. The noise is eardrum-achingly loud. Arms and fingers point in all directions. Heads turn. Everybody is about to walk into everybody else.
This is Las Vegas, but these are not tourists.
No, most of the tourists on this Monday morning are somewhere outside the front gates, about five miles down Las Vegas Boulevard. The crowd for this 51s game — first pitch, 10:34 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time — happens to be filled with somewhere around 9,000 fifth-graders who have been unleashed on the ballpark. Education Day.
They spew from the gift shop, stretch the lines for nachos and Ben & Jerry’s on and on and on, and scream in unison for pop flies to second. When they sing the responses to the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme song, only those behind sealed glass windows feel safe. After a morning spent baking in the sun, most of the fans sprinkled throughout the stands who are older than 12 are glad the noises and smells follow the students back to the buses as they leave a few innings early to return to school.
“It's a good city. If you saw the movie The Hangover, all of that can happen here, but all that can happen in a lot of places.” — Las Vegas 51s manager Marty Brown
There is one group, though, that can tolerate this crowd.
They are armed with beer.
A group of eight friends — two teachers and six police officers — started to pregame in the parking lot even before the first buses pulled in. They use personal days every year so they can enjoy the Education Day baseball game together. They like to be outside, watch the 51s, take off a day from the stresses of work, but they pick this day for one reason: No beer lines.
The teachers, who asked to remain anonymous, are sitting along the first base line with their feet stretched on the bleacher seats in front of them, their sleeves rolled up and arms tanning in the sun, beers in their hands. What number is this? They’ve lost count.
Las Vegas is famous for its neon signs, themed architecture, strings of casinos and nights — and days — filled with debauchery. Cashman Field, which is located between downtown and North Las Vegas, has little of that. There are no blackjack tables beyond the outfield, no special sections for high rollers. In Las Vegas, even the airport has ringing slot machines. Because of all that, Cashman is one of the spots tucked off The Strip where the locals go to have fun.
The city is a far cry from other minor league cities like Visalia, California, or Clinton, Iowa. Only 29 cities in the country have a bigger population. Few have better advertising campaigns.
“It's a good town,” 51s manager Marty Brown says. “It's a good city. If you saw the movie The Hangover, all of that can happen here, but all that can happen in a lot of places.”
Brown would know. During his years in the minors, he played in Billings, Montana, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Burlington, Vermont. He played in Nashville, Tennessee, and Rochester, New York, and Colorado Springs, Colorado. He even played three seasons in Hiroshima, Japan. After all that, he enjoys having so many entertainment and cuisine options, even if he rarely has time to enjoy them.
Chris Woodward, a third baseman for the 51s and another veteran who has been around long enough to know better, says the Las Vegas scene might entice him if he was 21 and single. But when he was 21, he played for the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida, a quiet town off the Gulf of Mexico where cars stop for walkers and bicycles. Now 35, he’s married and has three children. During his two seasons in Vegas, he says he has never seen a teammate show up to the ballpark unable to perform after a night taking in the scenes.
As far as visiting players, he can’t say the same thing. You might hear this story about other cities, but because of its reputation, it is so very appropriate for Las Vegas.
"This was a visiting player,” Woodward says, “and his manager told him, 'Hey, you're going to get tomorrow off,’ because he had played like 20 days in a row. He went out, had some beers, had a little bender, showed up the next day and was just a wreck. He knew he wasn't playing, so he could do that.
“Well, he was in the lineup. His manager came up to him and said, 'Well, I thought I'd give you tomorrow off instead.' He was playing first base. By the sixth inning, they had to pretty much cart him off the field and take him to the locker room, he was so dehydrated."
No word on whether that happened on Education Day.
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Time for minor league trivia. In name, the 51s have been around for a little more than a decade, but the organization traces its Pacific Coast League genealogy back nearly a century. In what two other West Coast cities did the team play starting in 1919? (Keep reading for the answer.)
Las Vegas DH David Cooper hit an RBI single in the bottom of the eighth to drive in shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria to spur the 51s to a 7-6 win over the Salt Lake Bees. The 51s trailed through the middle of the sixth, when Hechavarria hit an RBI single of his own to left and centerfielder Anthony Gose followed with a three-run homer. The 51s swept the four-game series.
Las Vegas manager Marty Brown has spent nearly as much of his career overseas as he has in the United States. Brown played the 1991 season with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, then the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, under manager Charlie Manuel. Brown was 28 with three short Major League stints behind him. He knew his odds of another callup were slim so he asked Manuel, who played six seasons in Japan, how to land a contract with a Japanese team. “‘You’ve got to change agents, son. You’ve got to have the right agent,’” Browns says Manuel told him. “I got hooked up with an agent who told me if I hit .300 with 15 home runs, he would get me a job in Japan, no problem. I hit .301 with 15. I had to get a hit my last at-bat, so I bunted for a hit.” Brown played the next three seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, then managed the team for five seasons and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles another season. This is his second year back in the United States.
Of the seven official ground rules at Cashman Field, one discusses the “tarp located down right field line.” The only problem with this rule is that there is no tarp located down the right field line, or anywhere else in the stadium. Cashman Field is one of a handful of professional baseball stadiums without the familiar and ubiquitous infield blanket, in large part because Las Vegas receives an average of 4.49 inches of precipitation every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That number plummets to 1.36 inches over the five months the 51s are on the field — an average of 0.27 inches per month. With numbers like that, why invest in a tarp? According to various front office staffers, the team has had only two rainouts in the last decade.
Want the answer? The franchise known today as the 51s (and formerly as the Stars) moved to Las Vegas after the 1982 season from Spokane, Washington, where they had played 10 seasons as the Indians. They moved to Spokane after the 1972 season from Portland, Oregon, where they had played 54 seasons as the second incarnation of the Beavers.
And in random statistical news, the game started one minute earlier than scheduled, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter struck out swinging and a press box organ pumped out the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1 minute and 19.2 seconds. As far as food, we spent only about 18 hours in Las Vegas and subsisted on nothing more than a couple of In-N-Out Double-Doubles and some Diet Pepsis to keep us awake a little longer.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.