In the 100-Degree Heat of Triple-A Las Vegas : STARS : They Still Play Good Old Country Hardball

Times Staff Writer

The metallic rattle of quarters in a slot machine is the first sound that reaches the ears of deplaning passengers. Moments later comes the taped voice of Jose Feliciano, cautioning the slow of foot to step to the right on the moving walkway “and enjoy your stay in Las Vegas, awwwwright!”

Luggage procured, transportation arranged, the visitor confronts a visual blitz. Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Linda Carter, the Smothers Brothers. Dunes, Sands, Maxim, Caesars Palace. World’s largest gift shop. Hottest slots in Vegas.

The retina threatens to detach.

Venture further down Las Vegas Boulevard and enter a low-profile commercial district. Every town has one, even Las Vegas.


And in this district is a baseball park. Almost every town has one, even Las Vegas.

Unadorned by the colorful neon that beckons dreamers to the ubiquitous palaces of chance, Cashman Field seems out of synch with its surroundings. It sits quietly in the midst of a broad expanse of asphalt shimmering in the 120-degree desert heat.

This 3-year-old jewel of a ballpark is only a mile or so removed from the thriving downtown casinos and the nearby attractions of the Strip.

The national pastime seemingly has two strikes against it because there are no slot machines and no air conditioning at Cashman Field.

But the enormous parking lot, which provides a visual buffer, also serves as a fitting symbol for minor league baseball in Las Vegas. The sport occupies its own little segregated corner of the entertainment market.

Somehow, minor league baseball, aimed squarely at the resident middle class, is more than holding its own in Vegas, where the weight of the gaming industry--to use the benevolent euphemism favored by locals--is as inescapable as the heat.

There’s an appetite here for hot dogs, apple pie and good old country hardball, as demonstrated by attendance at Cashman, where the Las Vegas Stars of the Pacific Coast League averaged 345,000 fans in each of their first two seasons, 1983 and 1984. Vegas ranked fifth in overall minor league attendance last year.


“There’s a fast lane here, but it’s not the only lane,” said Larry Brown, a former player who has parlayed his Harvard degree into a job as a development analyst in local government. He also serves as the Stars’ director of community relations.

Baseball offers a path to legitimacy, and a sporting identity to supplement the University of Nevada Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels of Jerry Tarkanian.

“Outsiders see us as a city of wheeler-dealers ready to cheat anybody at the drop of a hat,” said Larry Koentopp, the club’s president and general manager. “People who live here want it known we’re not all corrupt.

“We have our gambling and nightly shows, but there’s not a lot for the local person, and that’s a void we try to fill with baseball. We’re geared to attract the locals, not the tourists.”

In a town glutted with entertainment, the Stars spend heavily, about $225,000 annually, on promotions and advertising. Koentopp said no other minor league team spends as much to call attention to its presence.

This used to be a Dodger town, befitting the heavy influx of Angelenos to the gaming tables, but that’s changed since the Padres established their Triple-A base here in 1983. The Padres signed a five-year working agreement with the Stars, and both parties seem pleased.


“We like the ballpark and the fan support here,” Stars Manager Bob Cluck said. “We moved here because we didn’t like the distance and expense involved with having our Triple-A team in Hawaii.

“Sure, there are distractions here. You have to decide whether to dissipate yourself. But I see Vegas as good preparation for the majors. You have less chance to be dazzled by the bright lights.”

Many of the Stars did prior time at Reno, another Padre farm club. So they have learned, as Cluck said, that you can’t win at gambling in the long run. The novelty wears off and the paychecks run out. Quickly.

“We’ve all heard the warnings,” reliever Walt Vanderbush said. “Mostly, we joke about all the gambling. Like, Caesars had us off the board to win the second half last year.”

He was joking for a couple of reasons. Nevada casinos can’t establish a line or take bets on Nevada teams, and betting action probably wouldn’t be heavy on minor league baseball, anyway.

Vanderbush, who earns $1,600 a month, said he can’t afford more than a $20 night of blackjack once a home stand.


“You’re probably better off playing blackjack at 2 in the morning than you’d be out chasing women,” Vanderbush said.

“A few years ago, I played in the Florida State League, and a lot more stuff went on there, like fooling around a swimming pool at midnight with half the coeds in Fort Lauderdale. Of course, you can’t get a 99-cent steak in Miami at that time of day, either.”

Several teammates seemed to take a less humorous view of gambling.

“Don’t make enough to play the slots,” outfielder Rusty Tillman said. “I might have lost $25 in the slots since I’ve been here.

“Being in Las Vegas doesn’t make much difference to me. I’ll be ready to leave when the season is over.”

George Hinshaw, another outfielder, said he was “less than overjoyed” by the place.

“Vegas wasn’t built on winners, y’ know,” Hinshaw said. “I learned my lessons on gambling when I played at Reno. Made $280 every two weeks. It would be foolish to risk losing that.”

The Stars have no curfew, but several visiting teams do. Keith Leippman, manager of the Tacoma Tigers, said he has experimented with curfews, with mixed results.


“Vegas can distract you and drain you,” he said, “but I really don’t try to change anyone’s life style. It’s obvious when someone hasn’t had his rest. The majority are pretty good, but a few are always sneaking around on you.”

Leippman, who formerly managed at Modesto in the Class-A California League, instituted a curfew when his team visited Reno. It didn’t work.

“I conducted a bed check, and at least 15 of the 25 players were out gambling,” Leippman said. “I fined ‘em all $50, and we had a helluva party after the season. I guess those guys figured the potential rewards outweighed the risk of a fine.”

While conceding that people of all ages have “a tremendous drive to see what’s going on in Vegas and Hawaii,” Leippman doesn’t fear a visit to either spot. In fact, his Tacoma club hits a lot better in the warmer weather than it does in the cold, damp Pacific Northwest.

Las Vegas catcher Mark Parent said he never visits the Strip except when friends or family drop in.

“There’s no need for a curfew on this club,” Parent said. “We’re all grown men. You start staying out late, you won’t be around long enough for it to kill you.”


Outfielder John Kruk sampled life in the fast lane last year, his first with the Stars.

“I’m just a boy from West Virginia, and I found out this place can be too fast for me,” he said. “The bright lights sort of got to me, and I didn’t take good care of myself.

“I got lectured on being old enough to know what I really want out of life, and I guess that’s sunk in this year. I just got sick of gambling.”

Brown, the Harvard-educated ballplayer who was released last fall after five years in the minors, provided a similar perspective.

“When you first get to Vegas, the lure of the Strip is tremendous,” he said, “but reality sets in very quickly. A ballplayer is not like some tourist who has an allotted $500 to lose while he’s on vacation.

“When you’ve got bills to pay, you can’t risk a paycheck every two weeks. You might go to a movie after a game and stop by a casino and bet $10, but that’s about the extent of it.”

If the players have a lukewarm attitude toward Las Vegas, the homeowners and solidly middle-class citizens who buy 95% of the tickets have fewer reservations about the ballclub.


“I hesitate to use the word ‘bet,’ but I would bet heavily on baseball having a big future here,” Brown said. “People are hungry for athletics, and they seem to like the entertainment value of baseball.

“Vegas has lived off Jerry Tarkanian for so long. He’s an institution, and I’m glad we’re not in direct competition. I just think we fill a void that existed in the summertime.”

Cashman Field was built so that it could easily be expanded or even have a dome added, according to Brown. With the population expected to double to 1 million by the turn of the century, there’s some hope of one day luring a major league franchise.

Cashman has undergone some minor alterations in the last year. There was a controversy last summer when baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn urged team officials to remove outfield billboards advertising the gambling business. A compromise was reached, in which ads for sports books were taken down, but casino ads were allowed to remain.

Attendance this year is down slightly, to slightly below an average of 5,000 per game, but Koentopp, the general manager, is unworried.

A hands-on executive in the mold of Bill Veeck, Koentopp said his club makes a profit on gross revenues of about $1.5 million. Only two or three other teams in the PCL made a profit last year, Koentopp said.


“We’re still new in town and we benefit somewhat from the novelty, but I’m not afraid,” Koentopp said. “We have a good following and the population is growing, so there’s no reason to think we won’t grow right along with it.”

Koentopp’s promotions include giveaway nights featuring sun visors, seat cushions, tote bags, beach towels and barbecue aprons. He’s also seeking to enlarge the audience at both ends of the age spectrum. One way he appeals to teens, for example, is to supplement traditional ballpark organ music with some rock between innings.

“When we first got here in 1983, I had some apprehension because the oldtimers were telling me baseball wouldn’t work in Vegas,” Koentopp said. “There was a lot of negativism, but we couldn’t quit because some people said it wouldn’t go.

“And I like to think we’ve paved the way for other teams to follow. Take the Utah Jazz, who played some games here. With a little more promotion, they could have been successful.”

Success is somewhat more problematical for the ballplayers than for the franchise.

A Triple-A player, by definition, is only one step removed from the big leagues, but that step is an impossibly big one for the majority. Only about seven of every 100 players who sign minor league contracts ever make it up for even the proverbial cup of coffee.

The uncertainty is one of several unpleasant aspects of life in the minors. The pay is comparatively poor and the hours exceedingly long, under conditions that often are downright hostile.


The schedule this year calls for the Stars to play 116 straight games without a day off. Imagine going to the office 116 days in a row, with some body-wrecking travel thrown in to boot.

The Stars typically play until about 11 p.m., which means the players get home by 12:30 or 1. On a travel day, they may have to be at the airport by 5 a.m. for a flight to, say, Edmonton. On a recent trip, they didn’t get to Edmonton until 4 p.m., which meant going straight to the ballpark, with no chance to grab a quick nap at the hotel.

Even so, the travel is gentler than at the Single-A or Double-A levels, several of the Stars said. Parent, a 6-foot 5-inch catcher, recalled some agonizing, 15-hour bus rides from Beaumont to other spots in the Texas League.

There was no such thing as sleeping comfortably on the bus, Parent said. Some players tried resting in the overhead luggage racks, but he was too large to squeeze his frame into the rack.

And then there’s the heat of the desert Southwest. The Stars play two-thirds of their games in temperatures that range upward from 100 degrees. At game time one evening this week, it was 110 degrees.

Breaking with baseball tradition, the Stars take batting practice in groups of two and three, attired in T-shirts and shorts. And Manager Cluck somehow finds the daily endurance to pitch an hour of batting practice.


Pitching coach Sonny Siebert views the heat as a bigger foe than the lure of the casinos.

“That heat will just punch you out if you expose yourself for too long,” Siebert said. “Many times a pitcher just physically can’t go nine innings. The body just gives out.”

Cluck said he rotates his lineup every 10 days or so.

“These guys are learning that if you’re not at the Astrodome, everywhere else is hot in the summertime,” he said.

The players tend to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of the clubhouse until close to game time. Even so, the heat can create unusual problems. Tillman, who has played uneventfully in the heat and humidity of the East, was bothered by nosebleeds until a doctor recommended he use a little Vaseline in his nostrils.

As brutal as the heat can be, the stress of not knowing what the future holds can sap a player even more.

“In an organization like the Padres have now, the players do get stacked up,” Cluck said. “And it’s natural for some of them to get impatient. We don’t try to kid anyone that guys like Tony Gwynn and Carmelo Martinez and Kevin McReynolds aren’t young and going to be around.

“But I try to stress that the scouts are always watching, and if you impress someone, you’ll get your chance. The Chicago White Sox discovered our shortstop last year, Ozzie Guillen, and he was a key in the LaMarr Hoyt trade over the winter.”


Kruk, who once shared an apartment with Gwynn and McReynolds in the lower minors, is happy about their success with the Padres, but wonders about his own future.

“There’s no way I want something bad to happen to either of those guys, like an injury,” Kruk said. “I’d rather not play in the big leagues if someone has to get hurt or do bad for me to get a chance. I want to make it because I was good enough, not for any other reason.”

Aside from the lack of an opening in the San Diego outfield, Kruk is being held back by excess poundage. The Padres want him to shed 20 pounds, to 180. He wonders if that wouldn’t lessen his home run potential.

“I dream a lot,” Kruk said as he sat alone in the stillness of the dugout, an hour before game time. “One day a few years ago, I woke up one morning in Walla Walla and asked myself if I was cut out for this life. I think I am, but it sure takes a lot of patience.

“I saw Tony (Gwynn) at spring training this year and asked him a simple question, ‘Is it fun in the big leagues?’ I liked his answer, which was, ‘It’s the best thing in the world.’ ”

The heat, the low pay, the travel, the lure of the casinos, all of them are less important than the dream of making it, according to Vanderbush.


“I’m not here in Las Vegas because I like the bright lights and the big-name entertainment,” he said. “Really, being in Las Vegas is almost incidental.

“I want to find out if I’m good enough to pitch to guys like Tony Gwynn and Pedro Guerrero. I’d quit right here, this moment, if you could tell me with assurance I’d never get there. But, hey, man, batters are always saying to me, ‘You got a great arm. What’s going on? Why are you still here?’

“What I’m hoping for is that game when I go three innings without going to a three-ball count on a single batter, and somebody will take note of it. That’s what I want, a chance to find out how I’d do against hitters like Gwynn and Guerrero.”