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April 18, 2014

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UPON FURTHER REVIEW:

Heating up the diamond

Ron Kantowski braves the desert temps to find out what fans, coaches and players think of day games at Cashman Field

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Sam Morris

Most fans opt to sit in the shade as they watch the Las Vegas 51’s take on the Tucson Sidewinders during a rare day game at Cashman Field.

High heat

Beads of water from an overhead mister form on Las Vegas 51's pitcher Ramon Troncoso's hair and forehead as he sits in the dugout during a rare day game at Cashman Field. Launch slideshow »

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  • Lorenzo Bundy, Las Vegas 51s Manager, on why he doesn't mind afternoon games.
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  • Bundy discusses the accommodations he does and doesn't make for his players based on the type of city Las Vegas is.
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  • Bundy talks about his minimal sleep schedule during the season.
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  • Las Vegas 51s center fielder, Xavier Paul's take on playing day games at Cashman Field.
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  • Paul on how baseball season isn't the only thing that interferes with his sleep.
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It was a few minutes past noon on a Sunday afternoon brighter than the T-shirts of the Cashman Field parking lot attendants when the No. 3 hitter from Tucson took a mighty swing and lifted a pop fly straight up the chute.

This was no ordinary pop fly. This was a major league pop fly in a Triple-A ballyard. This was a Dave Kingman-with-the-bases-loaded pop fly. They could have put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onboardand saved a ton on rocket fuel.

Dwayne Pollok, the 51s pitcher, stood there like Jackson Pollock. He’s a pitcher and pitchers don’t catch pop flies. Thank God, he must have been thinking.

A.J. Ellis, the Las Vegas catcher, didn’t want anything to do with it, either. That left Angel Chavez, the third baseman. It was probably his ball, anyway. One thing about pop flies, even major league ones, is that at some point, they lose altitude and become cans o’ corn, and Chavez had this one totally measured.

Or so it seemed.

At the last second, Chavez’s glove, which he had been holding high over his head, flopped into an underhanded position. He made an emergency basket catch, turning what should have been a routine play into an adventure. I couldn’t tell if he lost the ball in the sun, the cloudless sky, or was just paying homage to Willie Mays.

Anyway, had it been a night game, I’m sure Chavez could have caught this ball in his back pocket.

• • •

The 51s are playing 14 day games this year, which seems like a lot, especially in a city in which day games used to occur with the frequency of a Coast League pitchers duel. In reality, this is pretty much the same number of day games they played last year and the year before that when it was determined that Sunday-night games didn’t draw very well, either.

Lorenzo Bundy, the likable 51s manager, said he left the ballpark after midnight Saturday. He was back by 8:30 Sunday morning.

Yet, “I like ’em,” he says of day games.

“Very rarely do we get a chance to have a real life. So when the game is over and we have a chance to go out and see a movie, go out and have dinner, it breaks the monotony.”

Bundy said he does make adjustments when the schedule maker throws the 51s a curve ball. For instance, batting practice was lighter on Friday, and the 51s never even got around to putting on their batting practice jerseys Sunday morning.

“These guys pretty much know what they have to do to get ready,” Bundy said. “It’s an older club. If it was a younger club, maybe you’re a little more hands-on with designated times in the cages and stuff like that.”

As for breaking the monotony, the 51s skipper said he was leaning toward a movie so he could get double points on his Regal Cinemas card. But he said he never heard of that week’s movie so he was leaning toward dinner — at some place where they were showing the Sunday night game between the Cubs and the parent Dodgers on a plasma screen.

I think that “real life” Bundy referred to actually was Tommy Lasorda’s.

• • •

I stepped into the “interview” room in the 51s clubhouse to have a quiet word with Xavier Paul, the 51s center fielder, about the challenges of day baseball. It wasn’t exactly quiet in there, as the 51s’ alternate jerseys were on the spin cycle. But we managed.

“I think it’s more mental than anything else,” Paul said. “We play so much and the travel schedule is so rough that physically, you’re not going to feel great every day.”

Paul said he usually plays at about 90 percent, 95 percent on a good day, and I immediately thought of Arliss, the TV sports agent who when he died wanted “Here lies Arliss Michaels, who always gave 95 percent” engraved on his tombstone.

I’m sure if Arliss had represented Triple-A players, it would have been more like 85 percent, because Paul looked in pretty good shape to me.

“If you can stay strong mentally, that’s when you’re able to compete every day,” said Paul, who an hour later would just miss an inside-the-park home run when he stopped at third base after Tim Raines Jr., the Tucson center fielder, either lost his long drive in the sun or dropped it when he ran into the wall.

Paul said the only downside to day baseball is waking up, something he usually doesn’t get around to doing until 1 p.m.

“The upside is you’ve got the rest of the day to enjoy your family or go sightseeing or whatever.”

So how would Paul spend a rare night off in one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations?

“I’m probably gonna head to the bowling alley with my daughter and my girlfriend,” he said.

• • •

About a half-hour before Angel Chavez nearly lost a retina catching a pop fly in the first inning, 51s President Don Logan was telling a reporter and the team’s publicity guy how much he loved day baseball. It had nothing to do with bowling, he said.

“The season is so long and it gives the team a night off and it gives the staff and people like Jimmy, who bust their (backsides), a night off,” said Logan, nodding to Jim Gemma, the 51s’ longtime public relations chief, as we stood on the ramp to the press box and watched the crowd file in at a leisurely pace.

How leisurely? Well, to put it in baseball terms, you wouldn’t have needed a radar gun.

Logan said the crowd wouldn’t have been that much better if the 51s had played on Sunday night and that he’s got figures on his desk to prove it.

“In Vegas, Sunday really is a day of rest,” he said. “I think we probably do just as well, maybe a little better, than we would a Sunday-night game.

“The thing is — and Jimmy has kept track of it, I think I have it on my desk — that the apex of the heat is like from 4 to 7 (p.m.), and that’s when we’re on the field taking B.P. for a night game. Today, we’ll be out of here before that.”

Plus, Logan said, day baseball appeals to a different fan base, such as older fans or those with children. Or those who teach them. A Tuesday-morning game in which school kids were allowed to attend drew a crowd of 7,570, one of the 51s’ biggest of the year.

“Some people don’t want to bring their kids out at night because they’ve got school or have to go to bed,” he said. “It’s a different deal.”

Then there’s the romance of day baseball, which is when guys like him and me and anybody who grew up around Wrigley Field in Chicago think it should be played.

“It’s a time where you can sit in the sun and take your shirt off and have a couple of beers and watch games at a more leisurely pace,” he said.

I told him with the exception of the taking off the shirt part — I didn’t think that would be fair to the Tucson players — that’s exactly what I planned to do.

• • •

When the game started it was like a bullfight. There were seats on the shady side and seats on the sunny side. Most in the announced crowd of 3,312 were seated in the shade under the press box overhang where the misters were working like Trevor Hoffman’s splitter. Steve Blanks and I and a couple of other dummies were baking in the sun on an 88-degree day.

Blanks, who grew up a Phillies fan in New Jersey, said when he was a kid, day games were common at old Connie Mack Stadium.

“I like it up until about mid-June or July,” he said of day baseball in the desert. “Then I like the evening games.”

I asked if sitting way down the left-field line, soaking up the rays on a sultry Sunday afternoon, reminded him of a day gone by. A day when guys like Richie Ashburn and Richie Allen were shagging fly balls and being misunderstood by the press, a day when the pace of life wasn’t quite so frantic, a day when, like the song says, somebody took you out to the ballgame, it really didn’t matter if you ever got back.

Nah, Blanks said, gesturing to his son, who was impatiently pounding his fist in his glove a dozen rows below. It just seemed like the best place to snag a foul ball.

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