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Aviators, baseball return to Las Vegas, and so do half the fans

Updated May 6, 2021 - 10:36 pm

At 6:59 on a sultry 88-degree night, Aviators manager Fran Riordan exchanged lineup cards at home plate with Sacramento counterpart Dave Brundage.

At 7:09 p.m., Aviators right-hander James Kaprielian threw a first-pitch fastball to LaMonte Wade that was called a ball by home plate umpire Tom Woodring. There was a murmur in the grandstands marking the occasion.

At long last, baseball was back in Las Vegas.

It had been 606 days between ballgames at Las Vegas Ballpark. Don Logan was more stoked than usual to finally be driving back to the minor league baseball palace in Downtown Summerlin for the Aviators’ long-awaited return Thursday.

That wasn’t the reason the president and face of the franchise spilled coffee all over his opening night necktie and white dress shirt. There was a crack in the lid.

Nine hours before the first pitch, the first error of the 2021 season already had been committed.

The Aviators’ president wasn’t complaining about having to return home for a uniform change. He did it with a spring in his step that was so noticeable his wife, Jen, had remarked about it Wednesday.

Thursday was the 38th opening day or night in Las Vegas’ professional baseball history, making the Aviators — and their previous iterations as Stars and 51s — the longest enduring pro sports franchise in Nevada. Logan has been on hand for each one except the first.

But this one, coming on the heels of a deadly pandemic and a dramatic reorganization of minor league baseball, seemed different.

“There’s a sense of relief,” Logan said after receiving a larger than usual number of text messages wishing him and the Aviators well against the Sacramento River Cats. “But there’s been trepidation, because you just don’t know with the COVID stuff.”

The pandemic limited what would have been a capacity crowd exceeding 10,000 to around half that Thursday, owing to social distancing and other health and safety precautions that remain in place.

But Logan said a ballpark with 50-percent capacity beats a ballpark with zero-percent capacity, and no need for a replay review.

“The business side of this is going to come back eventually,” he said about the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season that precluded the Aviators from building on the momentum of their inaugural season in the new ballpark, when they averaged 9,299 paying customers with 47 sellouts en route to a playoff berth.

“You can’t worry about how much money you’re not going to make because you can’t put (more) people in the seats,” Logan said. “Once you get back to playing, all that other stuff will take care of itself.”

A lot of stuff has happened since the last time a batted ball was hit into the Las Vegas Ballpark swimming pool.

The Pacific Coast League, founded in 1903, unceremoniously was kicked to the curb. Its nucleus of clubs is now known as Triple-A West. A total of 40 minor league franchises have been eliminated, or have become members of independent leagues or summer circuits for college players.

The 2021 season was a month late in starting and returned with six-game series instead of four. (Let the beanballs and hard slides begin.) Minor league salaries are larger, and so are the bases. By adding three inches in circumference to first, second and third, Major League Baseball hopes to reduce collisions and injuries in the minors they now control while increasing stolen bases and bang-bang plays when guys aren’t swinging for the fences and striking out.

Judging from his remarks about finally returning to the field after 606 days away from it, Riordan said you could substitute an over mitt for first base and the players probably wouldn’t notice.

“I think there’s going to be a greater appreciation of the little things in our game and the little things in our players’ day-to-day lives that hopefully makes it a great season for all involved,” said the PCL’s last Manager of the Year.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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