This is the end of the innocence. Major league sports are coming to Las Vegas. The NHL’s Golden Knights will hit the ice on the Strip at T-Mobile Arena this fall, and the NFL’s Raiders are scheduled to move from the Bay Area to the Mojave Desert in 2020.
But for now, for a few more summer months, Las Vegas remains just a minor league town, as the 51s, formerly the Stars, play their 35th season of Triple-A baseball at Cashman Field, out behind the Natural History Museum.
The El Cortez Hotel and Casino sits a mile south of Cashman, on the edge of the heart of Downtown Las Vegas, and serves as a fitting base of operations for a minor league mission. Its shadowy red casino has an alluring refreshed-basement scent.
“It’s like baby powder,” explained a front desk attendant. “You know what they use at the car wash? It’s the same thing.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” offered an associate behind the counter at the casino’s player’s club rewards center, when asked if the smell had a name. “Money?”
“Old,” a bartender from Miami called it. “Cigarettes, food, all the stuff from over the years. We opened in 1941.”
The sports book, on the other hand, smelled like cracked crab soaked in white vinegar. I stepped outside for some fresh air, but the late June, dead still 113-degree heat offered no such thing.
I found air-conditioned shelter at Evel Pie, an Evel Knievel-themed pizza parlor complete with red, white, and blue pinball machine branded after the daredevil motorcyclist.
MARY POPPINS IS A JUNKIE said a bumper sticker on the wall behind the bar.
WILLIE NELSON FOR PRESIDENT said another.
A frail gentleman with a silk camouflage kerchief tied around his neck, enjoying a slice of pepperoni pizza and a pint of Pabst, showed me his VA identification card.
“I fought in Vietnam from ’68 to ’69,” he said. “I can travel anywhere in the world with this card. I’m going to Hawaii!”
Around 6 p.m. that night in the Cashman Field media room, about an hour before game one of Vegas’ four-game series versus the Salt Lake City Bees, Major League Baseball scouts sat around a table chatting about prospects and eating chili from paper bowls, the 2017 NBA draft beaming from a small television in the corner.
It was still 113 degrees. How? But they played.
The ball snapped off the Bees’ bats like it was packed with gunpowder. It wasn’t the same way for the 51s. They lost 16-2.
Through dry, desert-stung eyes and ears, a few details broke through: the third-base umpire with a black cast on his right arm; the young boys in the stands pummeling an inflatable green alien; the vendor’s regular bark of “beer, water, NUTS.”
And later, the heat-induced hallucination of a gaunt fellow in a light gray suit, on my tail from the drugstore to the El Cortez; he vanished somewhere around a Buffalo Stampede slot machine.
The next morning, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew rotated at 11th Street Records on Fremont Street.
Frank Sinatra boohooed his way through “Mrs. Robinson” on the Cortez PA.
Distant heavy metal chords floated into the hotel’s second-floor barbershop through an open window. While I waited for my turn at the chair, I scanned the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Thousands Splash for Record — Las Vegans Join Quest for World’s Largest Swimming Lesson.”
“I’m not sure how the Knights and the Raiders will do,” the barber said as he pinched away at the sides of my scalp. “People want to spend time in the casinos.”
He barely bothered with the top of my head. Still, I ended up lighter, better equipped to sense the breezes if some ever came.
“Be sure to drink fluids,” he advised me at the cash register. “If we have ten 110 degree days in a row it’ll break a record.”
I took a lap around the Cortez casino to the tune of “Mr. Sandman.” It was 3 p.m. — a Las Vegas bedtime for some, for sure.
Up the street at Ultimate Sports Cards and Memorabilia, I observed a New York Yankees vs. Chicago White Sox ticket dated September 11, 2001.
“Knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door,” wailed a man in a wheelchair at the eastern gateway of the Fremont Street Experience.
By the restrooms at Binion’s I paused at a framed American flag folded into an equilateral triangle of five stars.
“This flag was flown over Afghanistan on 28 August 2013 in honor of Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel,” said the placard.
“Give it to me,” a lady told the roulette wheel.
Back inside the El Cortez during cocktail hour at the lobby bar, a pianist plunked “Summer Samba (So Nice).”
The song continued to ring in my head on the elevator and into the room. I sat on the couch by the window and looked down at the mural of a giant lizard on a garage wall.
And then it was time for another baseball game.
On the elevator down, a man in a “Make America Great Again — Trump 2016” t-shirt gulped a cup of brown beer.
The 51s organization takes the cookies available to staff and media very seriously. A handwritten note on the lid of the platter warned: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, ONE PER PERSON.
It was 111 degrees when the game got underway. There was a warm dog spit mist in the air and the eastern mountains glowered red. Many of the ushers wore wet washcloths around their necks.
In the top of the 1st, the 51s pitcher got whacked in the leg by a hard-hit ground ball and was helped off the field. As his replacement warmed up on the mound, I squinted over at the video board and mistook the team’s abbreviation LV51S for ELVIS. I continued to enjoy this misreading throughout the game, which the 51s lost to the Bees 7-1.
Five flags hang from poles on the face of the El Cortez: American, Mexican, Nevadan, Golden Knights, and Raiders.
There isn’t any 51s flag there, but if you close your eyes and point your face at the mid-afternoon Las Vegas summer sky, the team’s gray alien head logo is liable to flash within.