Monday 19 February 2018

Welcome relief from broiling frenzy of light and heat

'This is an evening of relaxed leisure for fans, not a tribal sporting event with all the usual partisan agonies and furies'
'This is an evening of relaxed leisure for fans, not a tribal sporting event with all the usual partisan agonies and furies'

Tommy Conlon

On the northern edge of Las Vegas sits a ball park so homely and wholesome that it feels almost like a sanctuary, a haven offering blessed respite from this city's savage commercial hunger.

It is called Cashman Field, it can hold about 11,000 people and it is home to the Las Vegas 51s, a minor league baseball team.

The 51s play in the Triple-A league, which is just one tier below the big circus that is Major League Baseball. There are 30 Triple-A teams and most are affiliated to a major league team. The 51s are tied to the New York Mets, whose stadium is in the NY borough of Queens. Minor league teams are a mixture of hot young prospects, journeymen who never made it to the top, and veterans who've spent some time there.

Last Thursday the 51s hosted their fellow Nevada state franchise, the Reno Aces. This is game 21 for Vegas in what will be a 144-game season. It's an evening game, scheduled to start at 7.0pm, and mercifully the heat is starting to wane on a day when temperatures exceeded 35 degrees. It is still beautifully balmy as dusk descends and the floodlights take over from daylight.

Cashman Field is submerged in a bowl below surrounding hills and freeways, and ringed by a range of mountains in the near distance. In scale and design it is compact, intimate and reassuring. My seat is eight rows back from the field and close enough to home base to hear the smack of ball on leather as it whacks into the catcher's mitt. Parents and children are plentiful tonight; the number of women is also striking; it is by no means a male-dominated environment.

The average attendance last season was 4,640. The crowd is bigger tonight because this is "dollar beer Thursday", explains Chris, a 28-year-old store manager who becomes my teacher at what is my first live game of baseball.

This is an evening of relaxed leisure for fans, not a tribal sporting event with all the usual partisan agonies and furies. The people simultaneously eat, drink and converse while keeping one eye on the play. And because there are long interludes where only the pitcher and batter seem to be doing anything, the crowd is happy to continue eating, drinking and talking among themselves.

When a flurry of action erupts, they are suddenly switched on and tuned in. When it ends, often as quickly as it starts, they order another beer and another portion of nachos.

There's a frenzy of excitement whenever a ball flies off the bat and begins its descent into the crowd. This happens with surprising frequency. The pitchers are throwing fastballs at over 90mph, so when they skew off the bat they drop with speed. Early in this game, one ball falls out of the night sky and onto the head of a young woman five rows back. "Anyone know a Jewish attorney?" wisecracks a man nearby as she rubs her head in some discomfort.

These sportsmen are very talented at what they do. The speed and accuracy with which they throw the ball is a sight to behold. Runners scrambling to get home to base are beaten with nonchalant efficiency by the throw: the infielder gathers, sees the runner and bullets the ball to another infielder standing on base. If the ball arrives first, the runner is out.

Vegas are struggling early doors. After five innings they still have to get a run on the board. "Could we score one?" hollers a fan, more in sarcasm than anger. "Is that possible - even one?" Travis Taijeron swings at a fastball and fresh-airs it. "You're not going to make it to Queens (playing) like that, Travis," shouts another.

In the sixth innings they finally come alive. And in the seventh they hit the only home run of the night. The ball disappears over the wall to a cacophony of cheers as veteran Johnny Monell rounds the bases on his lap of honour. This happens just after play had stopped and everyone stood up for a rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. This old Tin Pan Alley standard is always sung in the middle of the seventh innings, as per the sacred tradition. For the visiting stranger it is a delightfully eccentric moment.

Meanwhile a young fella walks by carrying two full glasses of beer and wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend: Legalise Drugs and Murder. The thought occurs that he might be plea-bargaining for various heroes in the NFL.

Late in the eighth, Reno's Matt Reynolds hits one that drops some 20 feet away from where we're sitting. It ricochets off the concrete steps and aluminium seats before rolling gently to a stop beside Bianca, the girl behind me. She gives it to a cute little lad who scurries back with it to his mother.

Vegas win comfortably in the end, after over three hours of action and non-action. The players walk off without much fuss at all. They will know nothing but road in the months ahead as they face, among others, the might of the Albuquerque Isotopes, the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Durham Bulls, the Pawtucket Red Sox and the El Paso Chihuahuas.

The rest of us take our leave of this tranquil field and return to the broiling energy of this city with its frenzy of light and heat.

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