Earlier on Monday, Oakland A's radio voice Ken Korach contacted Athletics Nation to share an old memory. He wrote about the team's Opening Day in 1996, when they played in Las Vegas due to the Raiders' ongoing construction project, and he wondered if we'd like to pass the story on to all of you. Enjoy!
By Ken Korach
The idea seems preposterous even now on the 20th anniversary and so it's still hard to believe that the Oakland A's and Toronto Blue Jays actually opened the 1996 regular season at Cashman Field in Las Vegas.
The whole experience was surreal for me. For years, while attending A's games while living in the Bay Area, I used to glance at the radio booth in Oakland, where the legendary duo of Bill King and Lon Simmons were weaving their magic, and imagine that someday I might have a chance to work there. The dream of a full-time job in the Majors came true in the winter of 1995, and as the Cactus League games began the next spring in Phoenix I couldn't help but look ahead to what it might feel like to sit next to Bill and broadcast the opener at the Coliseum.
I broadcast the opener on April 1, but I was sitting, literally, in the same seat where I had worked the previous seven seasons at Cashman.
Regular season games being played in a minor park was not without precedent, but it had been almost 40 years since the Dodgers played the Phillies on Sept. 3, 1957. The Dodgers, in their last two years in Brooklyn, played a total of 23 games at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. The circumstances were far different. Back then, in a futile attempt to keep the team from moving west, New Jersey became a political football in a way, as Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley was trying to convince local politicians of the need for an alternative to Ebbets Field. That alternative came in '58 when the Dodgers moved west to L.A.
In the case of the A's as Opening Day 1996 approached, there was growing concern over whether the Coliseum would be in baseball shape as the stadium was being "renovated" to accommodate the Raiders' return to the Bay Area. The Raiders played the 1995 season at the Coliseum in the old football configuration, but one of the conditions of their move back called for the construction of the massive concrete edifice known dis-affectionately as Mt. Davis. Everybody knew that Mt. Davis wouldn't be finished in time for the '96 baseball regular season, but since the work was taking place beyond a newly configured outfield fence, the A's and Coliseum officials believed that the regular season would start on-time and that the construction would be nothing more than a nuisance.
(The A's, as the integrity of their stadium as a baseball park was being compromised for the return of football, tried to create a little buzz for the new asymmetrical dimensions by calling the outfield fence "The Jagged Edge.")
As delays mounted, those more cosmetic concerns gave way to real issues regarding whether games should be played in a giant construction zone. By the middle of March the A's were facing the looming possibility of not just the opener, but an entire homestand (which would also feature the Detroit Tigers) being played elsewhere.
Here's where Cashman came in. The park, which opened in 1983 and has a seating capacity of 9,400, had long been a popular spring destination for teams training in Arizona; the concept of Big League Weekend exhibition games the brainchild of Las Vegas Stars' general manager Don Logan.
The teams that played at Cashman enjoyed a respite from the monotony of spring training, and besides the advantages to the local economy of good crowds for the games, exposure and PR came via the radio and television broadcasts that were beamed back to the local markets.
I was in the radio booth at Cashman, as part of my job working weekends for the White Sox, when the Sox and Cubs were featured on a wild day in March of 1993 when a record 13,000 fans were shoehorned into the ballpark. Fans spilled onto the grassy berms down the lines and the outfield warning tracks, where ropes were used to separate the patrons from the outfielders. One of my fondest memories of that day is displayed in my den: a photo of Harry Caray, smiling broadly beneath his signature oversized glasses, standing with his arm around my wife, Denise, and our one year-old daughter, Emilee.
Logan is as respected a person as I've met in the game. Under his leadership, the Stars (now known as the 51s) have always been known as one of the class organizations in the minors. And, because of his contacts in MLB and his thoroughly professional staff, there was the feeling in the A's camp that if there was a team in the minors who could pull something off as seemingly incongruous as an Opening Day in a tiny minor league park -- the Stars, partnering with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, were the ones to do it on short notice.
The Pacific Coast League cooperated by giving Logan permission to move the Stars' opening series against Vancouver up to Canada. The players on both teams, of course, had to sign off on the plan. At one point it looked like New Orleans was entering the picture as an alternative site, but that idea gained little traction, especially because of logistics. The A's, of course, as a West Coast team, had no interest in traveling 2,000 miles east. That was also the case for the Blue Jays, because although they trained in Florida, Logan had serendipitously tapped the Jays for a weekend of games against the Mariners and Padres that preceded their scheduled opener up in Oakland. The A's had also experienced Cashman earlier in the month when they played two games against the Angels, and the financial guarantee the A's received from the LVCVA for the opening week didn't hurt either.
Three officials from the American League came out to tour the facility on the Thursday before Opening Day, and after a careful examination of the playing conditions gave a thumbs up to the plan. There were adjustments for the players for sure and not just because of the limited capacity of Cashman. There were no indoor batting cages or workout rooms and the clubhouses were small even by PCL standards. The lighting wasn't bad but not what you'd expect at a newer, larger facility. It was a week in which everyone was going to have to bend a little -- even upstairs in the press box, where some of the broadcast teams would be forced to work in makeshift booths in the glass-enclosed restaurant next door.
And so the A's and Jays took the field on April 1 and local history was made. The first pitch was thrown at 8:17 p.m., after a typically lavish Las Vegas pre-game ceremony, that featured, predictably, an Elvis impersonator.
There was a sense of relief for me when I threw it to Bill for the call of the first inning. I wasn't fully comfortable with the media attention I was receiving as the former Stars' announcer making his A's debut in the radio booth that night. I would have much preferred blending into the background as I sought to focus on the task of replacing the iconic and beloved Simmons.
There was great speculation as to how Cashman would play and whether the games would validate its reputation as a hitters' haven. Cashman has always had short porches in left and right and a cavernous expanse in center, not unlike the configuration of Tiger Stadium, and I was hoping for a calm week to at least offset some of the effects of the dimensions and light desert air. The odds against that were long, as anyone who has spent any amount of time in Vegas in the springtime knows.
Sure enough the wind was howling on Opening Night, as Steve Kettmann noted in his game story in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"The wind was gusting ferociously by the end of the game and even earlier, at a less insane velocity, it had its say over the course of the game."
The Jays won the game 9-6. The teams combined for five homers, three of which were given up by A's starter Carlos Reyes. "I don't know if there was a legitimate home run hit all night," A's manager Art Howe lamented.
That A's team was one in transition. New ownership had taken over that year, and, on the field, there were only a couple of holdovers from the Bash Brothers era -- names like Terry Steinbach (who homered in the opener) and Mike Bordick, but Mark McGwire missed the week at Cashman because of a foot injury suffered three weeks earlier running the bases. Tony LaRussa had left the A's after the '95 season to pilot the Cardinals. Howe took over and would eventually lead the A's to three straight postseason appearances beginning in 2000.
The Blue Jays' lineup featured an array of stars like Joe Carter, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green and John Olerud. The home plate umpire was Richie Garcia, who would find himself in a firestorm of criticism six months later for ruling that Derek Jeter's drive to right field against the Orioles in the ALCS was a home run in the infamous "Jeffrey Maier Game."
The lack of a big crowd drew much attention and criticism in the Opening Night post-mortems. Even back then there had been significant discussion in baseball circles as to Las Vegas' viability as a burgeoning big league market. There was even talk about the feasibility of luring a team or two over from the Cactus League as full-time spring training residents -- talk that has been muted over the last decade or so. A red flag shot up as only 7,300 fans showed up for the opener.
I guess I was pollyannish, but I didn't read too much into the attendance figure, and even with 20 years of hindsight I'm not sure why the crowd was so small -- ironically, the Opening Night crowd was the smallest of the six games. The A's lost both games against the Jays and also lost their first game against the Tigers, a 15-inning affair that lasted 4:47 on Thursday afternoon.
(The long game caused some consternation for me in the booth and for Denise, who was working in the Cashman ticket office that day. Emilee was spending the day at daycare and they had a hard and fast rule about picking up kids by 5 p.m. Luckily, the woman who was supervising Emilee had a history in the game; her husband had pitched professionally for several years and she knew the drill and the nebulous timetables of baseball. She took Emilee home with her and so Denise and I could relax knowing our daughter was safe and we could pick her up later.)
Over 11,000 were on hand when the A's finally entered the win column on Friday night by shellacking the Tigers 13-2. The A's finished the week with a walk-off on Sunday, when Geronimo Berroa hit an 0-2 pitch off Tigers reliever Brian Williams for a 7-6 win.
A whirlwind and dizzying week would come down to a do-or-die moment for me on the broadcast as I tried to make sense of a sprawling effort by Ernie Young on the warning track in right-center in the 3rd inning on a ball that was hit by the Tigers' Bobby Higginson. Young was about 420 feet from home plate and the Tigers' runners, Alan Trammell and Chad Curtis, were convinced the ball was in play. After what seemed like an interminable time on the ground with the ball hidden, Young rose to his feet looking like he had actually caught it! He fired in to cutoff man Brent Gates, and when Gates flipped the ball to first baseman Jason Giambi covering second and then Jason fired over to first to the catcher Steinbach covering over there, the A's had completed the first triple play of the season and of my A's career. I'm still relieved I didn't mess that one up, because I certainly could have!
In the final analysis and with 20 years of reflection, it's clear that Cashman Field came through for the A's, Jays and Tigers. It sufficed even if it wasn't a big league setting -- although, sadly, it was like a leap year for A's fans in the Bay Area in that, in a baseball sense, April 1, 1996 never really happened.
And for me, thankfully, the next season, when the A's opened at home against the Indians, I finally got the chance to look around the Coliseum and realize that my dream of working an Opening Night there had finally come to fruition.