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 ballplayers.
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 Oakland pitchers.
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 tiding 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 Friday.
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 wailing in line for a shower?