BY NOW baseball fans in the Bay Area must be searching for ways
to drag out the Oakland Coliseum renovations just a little
longer. There has to be another wall that needs painting or a
floor that needs washing. Couldn't the workers scrape the bubble
gum from under the seats and put those little blue things in all
the toilets? They could take their time. No rush. As long as the
place is ready when the Oakland A's get some big league
A delay in the completion of a $100 million overhaul of the A's
ballpark forced the team to play its first six home games in Las
Vegas, where a group of ambitious city leaders ponied up
$900,000 to bring regular-season major league baseball to their
town for the first time. After Oakland's 2-4 performance last
week, the experiment must have elicited a twinge of satisfaction
in every A's fan who ever spent a night in Las Vegas. It was
payback time, and the folks in Vegas were victimized by
one-armed bandits. Only these weren't slot machines. They were
The A's were greeted on the field on Opening Day by an Elvis
impersonator, which was most appropriate. Oakland spent much of
the week impersonating a big league ball club, and on one issue
there was little debate: The guy doing Elvis was better. So were
the Toronto Blue Jays, who won the first two games. Even the
lowly Detroit Tigers split a four-game series with Oakland.
In the six games they played in the light desert air, the A's
gave up a total of 43 runs on 64 hits, including 13 homers, and
committed seven errors. Gallagher, who was appearing at the
Sands, didn't make this much of a mess. In a town where
Siegfried & Roy make elephants disappear nightly, the A's pulled
off an amazing trick over the weekend: They made the '96 Tigers
look like pennant contenders. When asked if he was worried about
the distractions that a week in Vegas presented to his young
team, new A's manager Art Howe said, "I'm more worried about my
pitching." And well he should be.
After six games the Oakland staff's ERA read like a special
price for a prime rib dinner: 6.00. Not one starting
pitcher--Carlos Reyes, Ariel Prieto, Todd Van Poppel or Doug
Johns--has won 20 games in his career, let alone in one season,
and Johns was the only one of them to last more than five
innings in Vegas. He worked seven and beat Detroit 13-2 last
Vegas is known as a place that doesn't pester celebrities, and
this was confirmed by the way the locals treated the visiting
big leaguers. But it wasn't a matter of courtesy; the fans just
had no idea who most of the players were.
On April Fools' Day nine Oakland players took part in their
first big league Opening Day--which, in a minor league ballpark
such as Vegas's Cashman Field, was like getting married the
first time at one of the local drive-through chapels. "Hey,
these guys are getting robbed," said A's veteran third baseman
Scott Brosius. "They don't know how nervous they ought to be."
But the veterans weren't faring much better than their anonymous
young teammates. Catcher Terry Steinbach struck out seven times
in his first 14 at bats, shortstop Mike Bordick started the
season 0 for 8, and outfielder-DH Phil Plantier, who was
acquired from Detroit in the middle of spring training,
struggled through a 1-for-14 start. In only a week Oakland
looked capable of playing down to preseason expectations.
None of the teams that played in Vegas harbor championship
delusions, having opted instead for low payrolls. The Tigers
have only three players making more than $670,000, although one
is the highest-paid player in the game, first baseman Cecil
Fielder, who accounts for $9.2 million of Detroit's $21.9
million payroll. The A's have the second-lowest payroll in the
American League, at $19.4 million (the Kansas City Royals are at
the bottom with $18.5 million), of which $7 million goes to
first baseman Mark McGwire--who is sidelined with a foot injury.
Howe's team blended nicely with the minor league decor at the
Cashman bandbox, the 10,000-seat home of the Las Vegas Stars,
the San Diego Padres' Triple A affiliate. The opening game,
against the Blue Jays, looked like a split-squad contest in
Bradenton, Fla., except the on-deck circles in Bradenton aren't
painted with Planet Hollywood logos. Cashman's outfield fence is
covered with billboards, including eight that tout various
casinos (although the term sports book is forbidden). The
clubhouses are about the size of craps tables, and the shower
areas are only slightly larger than airplane bathrooms. After
Detroit played the A's later in the week, the Tigers actually
had to wait in line for showers, wearing their towels like good
little summer campers. They say you see the strangest things in
Vegas. When was the last time you saw a guy who makes $9 million
a year waiting in line for a shower?
When actor Pat Morita sang the anthem before last Saturday's
game, he got one of the loudest ovations of the day. Why not? At
least the fans knew him from The Karate Kid movies and the TV
show Happy Days. "Hey, where's Jose Canseco?" one young fan said
as he watched the A's take batting practice. (His hero hasn't
played for Oakland since 1992.) The most dedicated lobby lizard
had little luck staking out the team hotels for blue-chip
autographs. Even Fielder had no trouble getting lost among the
slot-machine zombies and barely clothed cocktail waitresses.
"This is a fun place," said Fielder. "But you don't want
everyone thinking we're still in spring training. You have to
keep telling everyone, 'Let's go. Let's go. These games count.'"
Fielder knows the town all too well. He went to UNLV for the
fall semester of 1981 and enjoyed it very much, probably too
much. With a sly smile he says he left school to concentrate on
making it quickly to the major leagues, which he accomplished
with the Blue Jays at the age of 21. "There were too many
parties, too much going on," he said of his brief college
career. "I didn't think it was the best environment for me to
get an education. My mother wasn't happy when I left, but she
got over it. At least she doesn't have to send me food money
Las Vegas would like to have a major league team on a permanent
basis, but that will happen right after Marge Schott makes the
cover of Vogue. More realistically, the city leaders hope to
lure teams for spring training. There are various plans to build
a big league park in Vegas, including one for a 70,000-seat
stadium with a retractable roof. In most places that would seem
like a civic project of huge proportions. In Vegas, where
5,000-room pyramid-shaped palaces pop up while you're waiting
for a light to change, such a stadium sounds like a place where
you could park trucks.
"This is the event capital of the world," said Don Logan, the
general manager of the Stars and the man most responsible for
bringing the A's to town. "Here you talk about something, and
the immediate reaction of everyone is, 'O.K., let's get it
done.' That's what happened when Sandy [Alderson, Oakland's
general manager] called. We had only had about three weeks to
get ready, but we decided to give it a shot."
By the time it was clear that the Coliseum wouldn't be ready for
Opening Day, the A's had narrowed their choices of replacement
cities to Las Vegas and New Orleans. Rio de Janeiro must have
been booked. Obviously Alderson wasn't worried about his players
getting their rest. He chose Vegas because a change in time
zones would have wreaked havoc on the A's radio and TV
schedules. Vegas "also guaranteed a payout that minimized our
losses," said Alderson.
Cashman Field had hosted a number of major league exhibition
games, but the A's opener marked the first time in 39 years that
a big league team had played a regular-season game in a minor
league park. As with most games taking place in Nevada, the
sports books posted no lines and took no action, and if this
affected your life, you probably should seek professional help.
"Honestly, it didn't mean anything to us," said Gary Willson,
the assistant manager of the racing and sports book at the Rio
Suites Hotel and Casino, where the A's stayed. "We don't get
much action on baseball at this time of year. And I really don't
think those were very big games."
It wasn't always this easy for baseball to play Vegas. Before
the Stars arrived in town in 1983, commissioner Bowie Kuhn was
convinced that the move would mean a bookie in every dugout and
shots of Lasix for all the players. Kuhn was "completely against
the idea," said Bob Cluck, who was the Padres' director of minor
league development at the time and is now the Oakland pitching
coach. "He thought this place would be awful for the game." What
changed his mind? "I think what clinched the deal was that we
pointed out to him that we already had a [Class A] team in Reno
and we never had a problem," Cluck said.
Cluck, who became the manager of the Stars in '84, said he never
lost a player to the temptations of the city. Most players and
coaches learned their lesson after leaving one day's meal money
on the blackjack table. The only player who lost a substantial
sum, according to Cluck, was catcher Bruce Bochy, who seems to
have recovered nicely and now manages the Padres.
"At the beginning of each season, the players would get a $1,000
bonus to help them find a place to live," Cluck said. "So one
year I tell the guys to be smart, to use the money on an
apartment and not go in the casinos and throw it all away. And I
look at Bruce, who played there the year before, and say, 'You
tell them, Bruce.' He stands up and says, 'That's right. You got
to be careful in this city.'
"Well, it was two o'clock, and we had a five o'clock workout
that day. At four o'clock Bruce comes walking in my office. He
says, 'You got any money I can borrow? I blew my bonus.'"
Cluck said the casinos didn't take bets on the Stars, but that
didn't mean there wasn't money riding on games. "I'd be coaching
third, and it would be a 9-3 game, and I'd hold a runner up,"
said Cluck. "Some guy would scream, 'Hey, you idiot. Don't you
know the over-under is 13?'"
The A's drew 54,986 fans for their six dates at Cashman Field.
As for the million or so citizens of Las Vegas who passed up an
afternoon at the ball yard, it's hard to blame them. There's
just so much else to do in town: go broke, get divorced, count
the pawn shops, sell blood. The Binary Plasma Center is located
a Fielder foul ball away from home plate, and that makes it easy
to drop off a pint on the way to the game. The best part is that
the clinic promises Fast And Friendly Service, which, as a
number of Bay Area scribes noted last week, means Binary has got
it all over those slow and grumpy plasma clinics elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Oakland media suggested that there might be more
to the A's desert sojourn than the face-lift for the Coliseum.
It was rumored that the A's new owners resent the way Oakland
city officials have bowed to Raiders owner Al Davis's every
wish. This flirtation with Vegas supposedly became a way for the
A's to stick it to the city, though, as it turned out, the team
could have punished the people of Oakland more if it had played
these games in front of them. Taking the conspiracy theory a
step further, some A's observers believe this trip was simply
the first step toward severing the team's ties to Oakland in
three years, when the club's Coliseum lease offers an escape
clause. Alderson denies this. "The fact is, this decision was
made strictly on the merits and whether we felt the [Coliseum]
was ready for baseball," the general manager says. "It simply
wasn't ready. It wasn't safe for the fans or the people who work
So the team spent eight days in Vegas, which is about six days
too long. Even the most mature, levelheaded individual leaves
this city with glassy eyes and slot-machine sounds clanging in
his brain. After an eight-game road trip to Milwaukee, Chicago
and Texas, Oakland will have its official home opener on April
19. But it may be too late for many of the young A's who shared
the field with Elvis on their first Opening Day and may have
suffered permanent damage. "After this week," said reliever Jim
Corsi, "Milwaukee is going to seem like heaven."
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN Hit This Sign, Win a Lawsuit The A's probably felt like calling this attorney after they had to open their "home" season in Las Vegas and lost four of six games (page 46). [Oakland Athletics player playing baseball in front of advertisement for law firm on outfield wall--T of C]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN Johns was the only A's starter to shine amid the bright lights, taming the Tigers at Cashman. [Photomontage combining image of Doug Johns pitching and image of marquees along Las Vegas strip]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN Second baseman Brent Gates's bobble on Tiger Alan Trammell's steal typified Oakland's week.
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARIS Oakland's Ernie Young was all shook up by an Opening Day guest.[Ernie Young shaking hands with Elvis impersonator]