For a lot of people, minor league baseball conjures images of long bus trips from one dusty town to the next, of grizzled veterans separating less worldly middle infielders from the Dominican Republic of their per diem money in a poker game before they get to Amarillo. Somebody would be playing a harmonica in the back of the bus. Probably a utility infielder.
This scenario more or less explains why the 51s will be saying hello to a couple of new division rivals in 2014 and bidding farewell to a couple of old ones.
The 51s are in first place in the Pacific Coast League’s Pacific Southern Division ahead of Sacramento, Tucson and Fresno.
Next season, Tucson is moving to the west Texas town of El Paso. Nighttime might find the San Diego Padres’ farm hands in Rosa’s cantina — as per the Marty Robbins’ ballad “El Paso” — where music would play and Feleena would whirl.
So next season, a lot of PCL teams will be whirling with new division dance partners.
With Tucson making a run for the border, the PCL governors voted to remake the divisions. The 51s will be grouped in the Pacific Southern with Albuquerque, El Paso and Salt Lake City.
Albuquerque is relocating from the American Southern, Salt Lake from the Pacific Northern. Sacramento and Fresno will move from the Pacific Southern to the Pacific Northern. (If they ever combine both Pacific divisions into one, maybe they’ll call it the Union Pacific.)
It’s only 269 miles from Albuquerque to El Paso, so you can ride the bus there, and vice versa.
Riding the bus saves the PCL money. Saving money is a big deal in the minor leagues, almost as big as bobblehead promotions and those bits in which a kid races a furry mascot around the bases between innings.
“I don’t know if it will create more bus trips,” 51s president Don Logan said, “but it will create more bus trip opportunities.”
It’s 720 miles from Las Vegas to El Paso, so the 51s won’t be riding the bus there. But it’s only 424 miles from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City.
Should the 51s hang on and meet the Salt Lake Bees in the playoffs, Logan says they’ll ride the bus, because it’s almost quicker than flying up there during the post 9/11 era.
Plus it’s a lot less hassle.
Logan said you should see the look of terror on the faces of the McCarran skycaps when the 51s’ equipment guys unload 25 giant satchels containing bats, gloves, shin guards, chest protectors, batting helmets, alternate jerseys, extra batting gloves, weighted doughnuts for the on-deck circle, pine-tar rags, slippery elm, emery boards, sunflower seeds in king-sized sacks and fat pouches of Red Man chewing tobacco onto the curb. Plus manager Wally Backman’s stuff.
“It is what it is,” Logan said of the realignment.
He said it only once, which means he’s more or less OK with it. Had Logan said it two or three times, like when the Dodgers switched their Triple-A affiliation to Albuquerque, leaving Las Vegas holding a bag with future Toronto Blue Jays inside, it would mean he wasn’t that OK with it.
So for those scoring at home with 51s play-by-play man Russ Langer, or something like that, here’s what the PCL divisions will look like in April when snow still is being carried out of Security Service Field, home of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox:
Pacific Northern: Fresno, Reno, Sacramento, Tacoma.
Pacific Southern: Albuquerque, El Paso, Las Vegas, Salt Lake.
American Northern: Colorado Springs, Iowa, Oklahoma City, Omaha.
American Southern: Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Round Rock.
Logan says the only change in the schedule is that the 51s will play Colorado Springs four times instead of 16, and vice versa with Albuquerque.
This means no more April trips to Pikes Peak. No more bees in bat handles. No more bonfires in bullpens.
When the 51s last played in Colorado Springs, it was 53 degrees on April 20 and 58 degrees on April 21. It was too cold to play baseball on April 23. So a doubleheader was scheduled for April 24. It was too cold to play then, too.
So that’s the plus side. On the minus side, if next year’s division lineups were in effect now, the 51s would be in second place instead of first, trailing Salt Lake.
But as Logan said (once), “It is what it is,” and I don’t think too many 51s fans, or even the team’s grizzled veterans and middle infielders from the Dominican Republic, are going to lose much sleep over this realignment.
Last Thursday, I joined a couple of friends for the next-to-last $1 beer night of the season at Cashman Field. The 51s were playing a team with black or navy blue jerseys, and because none of us had brought our glasses, the scoreboard was more or less a blur.
So it took us like an inning and a half to deduce the team in the black or navy blue jerseys was the New Orleans Zephrys. Nobody in our group seemed to care in what division they played.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.