Mets' Las Vegas affiliation a good draw so far

Las Vegas 51's pitcher Zack Wheeler delivers to

Las Vegas 51's pitcher Zack Wheeler delivers to the plate at Cashman Field. (June 13, 2013) (Credit: AP)

LAS VEGAS - If Ike Davis had been sent to the minor leagues last season by the Mets, he would have gotten off the plane in Buffalo. That's where the team's Triple-A affiliate was in 2012.

Davis, his .161 batting average an eyesore the Mets no longer wanted to view, was sent down to the minors last Sunday. When he got off the plane, he wasn't in Buffalo.

He was in Vegas, baby.

Slot machines in the airport. Wide-open desert. The Strip. Casinos and buffets open all night. And the Mets' Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s.

"Welcome to Las Vegas!" Davis boomed to a group of New York reporters who had been sent to chronicle his exile into . . . what exactly?

Paradise? Or, in baseball terms, the opposite of that?

"I've never really spent any time in Vegas," said Davis, who grew up in the Phoenix area. "Just to come for a weekend in the offseason occasionally, but I've never actually been around this city."

Now he is. Not by choice.

Davis went from the big-league Mets to the Triple-A 51s. He went from The City That Never Sleeps to Sin City. He went from Citi Field to Cashman Field; the latter is a 30-year-old stadium five miles from The Strip that might be the only place in Vegas completely devoid of glitz.

The bright side of playing in Vegas is that it's Vegas. The down side is everything else: the heat (100-plus degrees every day last week, and it's not even July yet); the dry air and rock-hard infield that frustrates pitchers and inflates batting totals; the outdated ballpark that lacks amenities for fans or players.

Also, potentially most dangerous for young men with some money and occasional time on their hands, is that it's Vegas.

As veteran 51s outfielder Jamie Hoffmann put it: "We work here. Everybody else is playing here."

The 51s were born in 1983 as the Stars and renamed in 2001 for Area 51, which is the supposed location in Nevada where UFOs have been hidden by the CIA. The team's logo is a bug-eyed alien.

It is in no way what anyone thinks of first when they think of Las Vegas.

What they first think of is gambling and partying until dawn. Which is why 51s manager Wally Backman had a heart-to-heart with his players before their first home game in April.

"Basically I told them, it's your career," Backman said. "It's really up to you. I'm not going to baby-sit nobody. I'm going to try to oversee some things and make sure the guys stay out of trouble, but you've got to still take care of yourself. If you're going to put your career first, Las Vegas should be just another city."

Except everyone knows it isn't.

"I wouldn't say it's just another city," said Hoffmann, 28, a former Dodgers outfielder who was once a Rule 5 pick of the Yankees. "Because Vegas isn't just another city. There's everything here you'd ever want there to be. But at the same time, you have a job to do and you have to be responsible."

Why are the Mets even in Las Vegas? As with Davis, it's not by choice. The Mets were the losers in baseball's semiannual game of affiliation shuffle. Toronto, which had been in Vegas, took over in Buffalo, which makes much more geographic sense for the Blue Jays.

The Mets, who had been in New Orleans before Buffalo, were left with Las Vegas, which makes no geographical sense for the Mets when they want to quickly call up a player. The player-development contract is for two years.

The forced marriage has been good for the 51s, though. Transplanted New Yorkers have helped attendance surge this season by nearly 1,000 per game to 5,190, according to figures provided by the team. That's ninth in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.

That total includes the 5,218 who came out in 101-degree heat Thursday for top prospect Zack Wheeler's final Triple-A start. (It was also dollar beer night.) The 51s' new ownership group is trying to get a $60-million stadium built in a Las Vegas suburb. It could open in 2015, when the Mets might be affiliated with another Triple-A club in a less exciting town closer to New York.

But not everyone would be thrilled with that. A 51s person told of a roving minor-league coach who passed through Las Vegas and decided to spend a few minutes at a casino when the day's work was done.

The coach put down $15 on a hand of poker and drew a royal flush. The coach won $20,000 in a jackpot. After paying his tax bill, the coach walked away from the table and went back to his room with his riches.

Hey, it's Vegas, baby.

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