Major League Memories of the 51s

A look back at the most significant chapters in the history of our city’s minor league ballclub

Courtesy Las Vegas 51s

Courtesy Las Vegas 51s

Cashman Field has been the site of many memorable moments in its three-plus decades as this city’s home to professional baseball. And with the Las Vegas 51s having just kicked off the 2014 season, we’ve chosen to celebrate 32 consecutive years of Triple-A baseball in Las Vegas by unveiling our seven most noteworthy events in franchise history.

kevin_mcreynolds_courtesy_of_las_vegas_51s_WEB1 Stars Shine Bright: The Las Vegas Stars were born when Larry Koentopp moved his Triple-A franchise here from Spokane, Washington, for the 1983 season. Under manager Harry Dunlop, the Stars—who were the top minor league affiliate of the San Diego Padres—made the playoffs in their debut season after finishing 83-60, which would stand as the team’s best regular-season record until 2002. Outfielder Kevin McReynolds had what remains perhaps the greatest season in franchise history, hitting .377 with 46 doubles, 32 home runs and 116 RBIs in 113 games, and was named the Pacific Coast League’s MVP.

2 We Are the Champions: Led by first-year manager Larry Bowa, the 1986 Stars won their first PCL title, defeating Vancouver 3-2 in the best-of-5 championship series. Known as an intense player during his 16-year big league career, Bowa proved to be just as fiery as a skipper: The 41-year-old was ejected four times in the Stars’ first 44 games, suspended twice by the league president and constantly berated his young players. But he learned to (somewhat) control his temper as the Stars went 44-28 in the second half to reach the playoffs. First baseman Tim Pyznarski won the PCL MVP after hitting .326 with 23 homers, a league-leading 119 RBIs and 25 stolen bases, while catcher Benito Santiago—a future All-Star in San Diego—had 17 homers and 71 RBIs. As for Bowa, he was promoted to be the Padres’ manager after the season.

3 We Are the Champions (Again): After winning the first-half South Division title in 1988 with a 41-29 record, the Stars once again defeated Vancouver for their second PCL championship in three years. Piloted by first-year manager Steve Smith, these Stars favored speed over power, as future big leaguers Joey Cora, Mike Brumley and Bip Roberts combined for 101 of Las Vegas’ 153 stolen bases. But the undisputed star of that team was …

4 MVP, MVP!: Stars catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. won back-to-back PCL MVPs in 1988 and ’89, remaining in Las Vegas for two seasons only because Santiago was already behind the plate in San Diego. Alomar hit .297 with 71 RBIs in the 1988 championship season, then improved to .306 and 101 RBIs in ’89. He finally got the call to the big leagues when he was traded to Cleveland after the 1989 season, and he made an immediate impact with the Indians, winning the 1990 American League Rookie of the Year.

matt_kemp_courtesy_of_las_vegas_51s_WEB5 Dodger Blues: As successful as the Padres’ relationship with Las Vegas was for 18 years, it was thought to be a perfect pairing when the Los Angeles Dodgers decided to make Cashman Field their Triple-A home in 2001. With the affiliation change also came a name change, as the Stars gave way to the 51s. While fans didn’t exactly embrace the Area 51 theme, they certainly were treated to some talented teams, as the Dodgers kept a steady stream of young prospects flowing through Las Vegas. Among the future major league stars to wear a 51s uniform were outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier; first baseman James Loney (who led the PCL with a franchise-best .380 batting average in 2006); catchers Russell Martin and Dioner Navarro; and pitcher Chad Billingsley. The seemingly perfect marriage between the Dodgers and Las Vegas didn’t last, however, as the Dodgers—unhappy with the conditions at aging Cashman Field—bolted for Albuquerque after the 2008 season.

6 No-No’s: Cashman has had a reputation as a pitcher’s nightmare since the day it opened—so much so that some organizations have kept their prized young arms in Double A, rather than risk the chance that their confidence will be crushed in Las Vegas. So it’s worth recognizing the two no-hitters thrown in the hitter-friendly stadium’s first 31 seasons: Stars right-hander Tim Worrell blanked Phoenix 2-0 on Sept. 5, 1992, and 51s left-hander Lindsay Gulin duplicated the feat in a 7-0 victory over Tacoma on June 13, 2003.

7 Triumph Over Tragedy: On May 26, 1996, infielder Mike Sharperson—an All-Star with the Dodgers in 1992—was killed in a one-car crash on Interstate 15 as he was driving home, just moments after learning he was being promoted to the Padres. It was rare for a Triple-A squad, which is usually made up of players concerned only about getting to the major leagues, to truly become a team. But the death of the 34-year-old Sharperson, who was popular in a clubhouse loaded with similar veterans, inspired the Stars, who went 42-30 in the second half to earn a playoff berth, their first since 1992.

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