The only masks that were required Tuesday at Las Vegas Ballpark were the ones worn by the catchers.
That was all it took for the Aviators’ opening night to be declared a rousing success even before they defeated rival Reno 3-2 on Nate Mondou’s eighth-inning RBI single.
For one night, and hopefully many more, a sense of normalcy could be felt as the 40th calendar season of Triple-A baseball began in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, during the COVID era, that adjective in referring to the number of seasons professional baseball has existed in Las Vegas has become as much a part of the lexicon as “slugfest” and “pitch count.”
This was the first opening night played as scheduled at Las Vegas Ballpark since the inaugural one in 2019. If you were there on that blustery night and wearing a cap, it most likely blew into the swimming pool beyond the fence in right-center field.
Opening night — and the entire 2020 minor league season — was canceled by COVID.
Last year’s was delayed until May 6.
It had been 606 days between games at Las Vegas Ballpark — not exactly the best way to build on the momentum generated by the christening of a new ballyard with bountiful bells and whistles that saw the Aviators set their all-time attendance record in 2019 with 27 home games left.
“We WILL have a normal season this year,” said Aviators president Don Logan, who has been with the club for all of those 40 calendar seasons, except the first. “We’re gonna be positive.”
It was Monday when Logan said that, about 30 hours before Aviators left-hander and recent acquisition Zach Logue delivered the first official pitch (a checked swing foul strike to Reno’s Alek Thomas) of the 2022 Pacific Coast League season, which was called Triple-A West in 2021.
(Apparently, attorneys representing MLB, which has wrangled control of the minors, were no more equipped to deal with trademark and copyright infringement than the Baltimore Orioles’ bullpen was to protect a lead.)
“One hundred percent capacity, people are more comfortable being around one another eating and drinking, taking advantage of the best (concessions) in all of baseball, probably,” Logan said when asked about what a season without COVID would mean to the Aviators’ bottom line. “The quality of play is going to be really good because the (parent) A’s are in a rebuilding mode, so we’ve got a lot of good players here.
“It has taken two years, but everybody understands COVID. It’s not going away. But we can be smart and coexist with it and get back to living life, because that’s what we need to do.”
Adjusting on the fly
Coexisting with COVID from a baseball standpoint was like trying to overtake two or three teams during a pennant race, Logan said. You were seldom in control of your destiny.
“Something would happen on the East Coast in the International League, or Iowa or Louisville, and it would affect what you do that day here,” Logan said. “That’s hard, but you had to be mindful of it.”
The only issue about Iowa with which Fran Riordan has had to deal was texts and phone calls from his buddies employed there. The I-Cubs are opening the season in Buffalo, the hometown of the Aviators’ manager, and everybody wanted to know where to go for chicken wings and roast beef served on a Kimmelweck roll.
“We haven’t had a normal start to a season since 2019, and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Riordan, who is starting his third season — fourth on the calendar — in Las Vegas. “Not to have to follow the (health) protocols we have the last two years is refreshing. The guys are looking forward to it.”
Fastballs were touching 95 mph on a radar gun Tuesday night, and the temperature 85 degrees on a thermometer. There was a wind-aided homer in the top of the first inning, Finn the Bat Dog received one of the biggest ovations, boatloads of nachos were served in plastic batting helmets and everybody in the announced sellout crowd of 8,475 received a complimentary Aviators schedule refrigerator magnet.
In other words, it felt like a normal baseball season again.