Thanks to Backman, winning culture taking hold

It’s a culture thing. There is a method to winning. An act to it.

Playoff baseball is not to be taken for granted at any level, its importance felt on the field and at the box office and everywhere in between.

The 51s have made it a reality for consecutive seasons.

It matters.

Las Vegas opened its Pacific Coast League Conference Championship series against Reno at Cashman Field on Wednesday night, and while there wasn’t a cannon in sight waiting to be painted, there still exists some level of bragging rights between in-state teams.

“No question, playing for any kind of championship is important for players,” 51s manager Wally Backman said. “It’s important for us to be prepared and be the best we can be. It’s huge.”

So is winning the first game of any series, which the 51s did by a 5-4 final in a game they trailed 3-0.

You might have thought at first the baseball Gods weren’t big fans of the 51s, who seemed to have the Southern Division title wrapped up back in April.

Their reward for such a hot start and memorable season: opening the playoffs by having to face Clayton Richard, a two-time 14-game winner in the Major Leagues.

But he was gone with one out in the fifth and leading 3-1.

It was 3-3 after six, when what had been a fast game to that point slowed to a crawl.

The evening began with 14 ceremonial first pitches from Mountain Ridge Little League players, who now own selfies with seemingly everyone in Las Vegas this side of students from the Culinary Academy.

But just as the kids from Mountain Ridge showed over 11 days in Williamsport, Pa., successful teams can unite a community.

It won’t be to the level for the 51s as it was for the Little Leaguers — I haven’t heard of any plans for a parade from downtown to home plate at Cashman no matter what results these Triple-A playoffs produce — but it trumps the alternative every time.

The winner of this best-of-five series advances to meet the winner of Memphis against Omaha for the Pacific Coast League title, which would mean two more home games for the 51s, which would be another monetary boost, which should never be undervalued.

You sell the product different ways — season tickets, group sales and walk-ups. The latter is what a playoff series brings.

“To get an extra couple dates a season always helps,” 51s president Don Logan said. “You don’t have a lot of time to sell them and a Wednesday night game isn’t the same as a weekend might be, but it still means a lot. From a marketing standpoint, for that core group of 800 or so fans who live and die with us each season and spend their money up front on season tickets, for our staff, the community, it just makes things a lot easier.

“People stay longer when you’re winning games. They don’t leave after the fifth inning. The media pays a little closer attention. To quantify how much (making the playoffs) means in dollars is tough. We’ll make some money on this, but we also have expenses. But there is just a better vibe to everything when you win, and that includes going out and trying to sell thousands of dollars in tickets and sponsorships for next year.”

They will make more money off Game 2 tonight than with Wednesday’s gathering of 4,083, given there might not be a better marketing combination in baseball history than having UNLV students back in session and the 51s playing on dollar beer night.

The NFL season kicks off tonight when Green Bay visits Seattle.

I’m guessing there will still be long lines for beer at Cashman.

I’m also guessing, or hoping, this is the final month we see Backman in Las Vegas.

He deserves a shot at managing a Major League club, be it with the Mets or elsewhere, having over two seasons here proven that old-school ways can still succeed with the young, brash egos of this era.

Guys play hard for Backman. He’s straight with them. He will do things like call struggling infielder Allan Dykstra into his office before the playoffs and offer a blunt assessment while other managers might not say anything and let the air remain heavy between manager and player.

“He certainly deserves that (Major League) chance,” Logan said. “Selfishly, I’d love to have Wally back. He has brought a level of professionalism here that we haven’t had in a long time. He is all business. A great guy.”

Backman wins, and that matters.

For building a culture, awakening a community’s pride, improving the bottom line.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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