Vegas, baby!

March 29, 2008
Every year, around the end of March, my wife, Peggy, and daughter, Kaia, head out to spring training for a week’s respite from the bitter cold and weather that plagues our Midwestern region. As a grammar school speech teacher, Peggy’s spring break coincides with the last week of spring training.
The last three years, we’ve split that week up in Arizona and Las Vegas, where the Cubs have played their final spring contests as exhibition games at Cashman Field, home of the Area 51s, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Billed by Las Vegas as “Big-League Weekend” there was a buzz about the stadium unlike what one would find in a typical minor-league stadium. A man behind me was talking to a friend on his cell phone saying “Yeah! It’s really Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Alfonso Soriano! Right there, dude!”
I guess sometimes working at Wrigley Field and seeing the players so often we tend to forget what a treat it is for the average fan to watch these players–especially to baseball-starved fans in a city without a professional baseball team.
But it’s Vegas, baby! And what’s a Vegas event without a little bombast and fanfare?
So, as he stood atop of the mound readying for his ceremonial first pitch, Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman welcomed two showgirls, complete with buffont feather headpieces and glitter bodysuits. Like Tom Jones at the MGM, the move was pure Vegas–all glamour and schmaltz. Goodman is the self-proclaimed “Happiest Mayor in America.” With two beautiful showgirls on both arms helping him throw the first pitch, it was easy to see why.
In all seriousness, Goodman is the type of civic leader the city needs to attract Major League Baseball to bestow a franchise upon Las Vegas. By population standards, Las Vegas is larger than many of the cities that currently host teams like Kansas City, Oakland, Pittsburgh. For the last decade, Las Vegas and Phoenix have played ping-pong with the title as the fastest-growing city in the nation.
However, the gambling presence remains large. It’s no surprise to any sports fan as to why major professional sports leagues like the NFL and MLB have shied away from franchising in Las Vegas.
On the field, it’s the Cubs and the Mariners. In the first inning, Cubs starter Ted Lilly found himself down 3-0 quickly.  I get a quick lesson as to why new Mariners right-hander Carlos Silva is beloved and reviled by managers across the league. He pounds the strike zone like it’s a sack of flour and annually is one of the league leaders in fewest  walks issued. So he throws strikes. But he also gives up hits like crazy, too. He pitches to contact, which was good because of the Twins’–his former team–stellar defense. But that contact is often a weak ground ball, and that is the beauty of Silva. And in the first inning, the Cubs go down 1-2-3, all ground-ball outs to short or third.
One of my best friends from high school back in New Jersey is a Las Vegas resident. He’s been coming to Cashman Field ever since he was a food-and-beverage/hospitality major at UNLV. In that time, he’s made many contacts through business and the Easter Seals, of which he is the Vice President of Fundraising. So when he tells me to come down to the special party patio section–a fenced off area right behind the Mariners’ bullpen–Peggy, Kaia and I head down immediately! The invite is courtesy of none other than Mayor Goodman. I didn’t know Scott had such juice…

Geovany Soto has some fans in Las Vegas–I see a Puerto Rican flag draped over the railing and they cheer even when Soto grounds out.
The patio is cool–I wish Wrigley Field could do something like this. But we’ve maximized all of the foul territory for seating. Lots of minor-league teams have party areas like that–allowing patrons be “right on the field.” Wrigley used to have something like that when we built in 1998 the “VIP” area. Originally designed to host celebrities during the 1998 playoffs, the VIP section eventually became the seats in which most of the front office found themselves for several years before the area was made into the special “bullpen box seats.”
Meanwhile, the Mariners are killing the ball. Cashman has had the reputation of kind of a launching pad anyway, but Raul Ibanez has hit two homers, as has Adrian Beltre, and Brad Wilkerson just added a moonshot to right that even the little green alien mascot of the 51s couldn’t miss.
From the patio I watch Mariners closer JJ Putz warm up. He’s a big burly blond guy who throws in the mid-90s. Reminds me a lot of a young Troy Percival. Big stocky lower body and throws a real “heavy” ball. As a starter in the minors, he was largely unsuccessful. But since he went to the bullpen, the former Michigan Wolverine has blossomed. Sounds like a couple guys in the Cubs bullpen.
And it might come down to a numbers game, but Micah Hoffpauir probably has only an outside chance of making the club despite the torrid spring he’s had. Against Putz, Hoffpauir laces a double to right center. He has filled out his lanky 6-3 body. I had one reader e-mail me saying he said Hoffpauir reminded him of Mark Grace. But this kid hits for better power than Grace ever had, and is just as adept a fielder as Grace. I have become a fan of Hoffpauir–a guy who grinded it up the ladder and now finds himself on the cusp of the major leagues. Aptly, his story parallels this impending end of Spring Training 2008–as the big leagues are right around the corner.
–Michael Huang

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