Anyone who has seen the classic film Bull Durham understands the chaotic instability that’s inherent in a Triple-A baseball team. You’ve got a roster filled with prospects trying to climb that final rung of the ladder, grizzled veterans looking for one more shot at the big leagues and minor league lifers hoping to finally get that elusive call. All the while, the major league organization has its own agenda—and rarely (if ever) is the win/loss record of the Triple-A affiliate part of that agenda.
Which makes the success of the Las Vegas 51s all the more impressive. In the season’s first three months, the team had no fewer than 14 players—including heralded pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz—promoted to the parent New York Mets. In all, the Mets’ current active 25-man roster features 15 players who have recently passed through Las Vegas, including right-handed pitcher Jacob deGrom, last year’s National League Rookie of the Year.
Despite all the turnover, the 51s have continued to play winning baseball. Through July 6, Las Vegas sported a 47-37 record (28-13 at Cashman Field) and sat atop the Pacific Coast League’s Southern Division (four games ahead of second-place El Paso). The highlight of the season so far was a franchise-record 14-game winning streak from April 23-May 7, during which Las Vegas outscored its opponents 94-34. That historic run came before the Mets pilfered Syndergaard, Matz and several others.
Russ Langer, the 51s’ radio voice for the past 15 years, credits a trio of factors to this year’s success: the Mets’ strong recent drafts, its player development and the work of Las Vegas manager Wally Backman, now in his third season leading the club.
“[Backman] is someone who’s a players’ manager,” Langer says. “He has a virtually unmatched desire to win; he knows how to win. If you’re in the other dugout, there are a lot of people you’d rather manage against than Wally Backman, because he has a keen eye for talent, he knows what his players are capable of, and he puts the players in a position to excel and to produce winning results.”
Speaking of winning results, many of the erstwhile 51s have played a prominent role in helping the Mets to a surprisingly strong start to their season. New York approached the All-Star break at 43-41, good enough for second place in the National League East.
Meanwhile, the 51s don’t have to look very hard for motivation as they try to survive yet another long hot summer: They’re in position for their third consecutive PCL playoff appearance—a feat the franchise has accomplished only once before: 1986-88, when the team was known as the Las Vegas Stars and affiliated with the San Diego Padres.
It’s impossible to know which of the players on the current roster will be part of the playoff push—perhaps the Mets come fishing for more talent, perhaps they send a few guys back to Vegas—but this much we do know: In its 33 years at Cashman Field, our Triple-A club hasn’t always produced a reliable supply of wins or major leaguers. This summer they are doing both in dazzling fashion, enticing larger crowds and greater buzz—even on nights when beers cost more than $1.