LAS VEGAS —The history of baseball in Southern Nevada is rich, and runs deep.
Stories galore, even for those who never played past Little League, or high school. So many great memories.
Me, I have none. I didn’t get to play Little League. I had a glove, remember those cheap pleather ones that came in hard-plastic packaging that is impossible to pry open, the same kind batteries come in? So, I never knew about soaking a real glove in leather oil, sticking a ball in it, and wrapping it with rubber bands for the break-in process.
The extent of my baseball memories come from Robert E. Lake Elementary School, where we played on a sandlot with one of those brittle backstops riddled by green-painted wood that was peeling and splintering from being weather-worn. You know the kind, where the chainlink fence was folding at the bottom, just enough where passed balls and wild pitches would scoot through during recess or lunches.
And if I did have one story from back then, at the very least, I can honestly say it involved a fourth-grader who turned out to be one of Southern Nevada’s greatest high school baseball recruits who never made it to the Majors.
I was in fifth grade, and on this day it was those of us from Mr. Eckman’s class against a mix of fourth graders during lunch. I’ll save you the play-by-play details, mainly because I couldn’t tell you a thing about that day in 1978, other than the climax. I do know we were winning, and it came down to the final moment before the bell rang. The argument at home plate was whether or not the baserunner stepped on home plate before he was tagged. Given my instinctive replay mindset – er, I noticed a fresh footprint smack dab in front of home plate – I asked Danny Opperman to show us the bottom of his shoe.
The tread matched, and there was me – the least athletic kid in the entire fifth grade – coming away the hero. For at the very least, a moment.
For Opperman, well known in Paradise Valley Little League, he was already on pace to become one of the greatest pitchers to ever come from Southern Nevada, following in the footsteps of many others who proceeded him.
Unfortunately, a series of elbow injuries brought an end to a once-promising baseball career that seemingly began when he was drafted eighth overall in the 1987 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers; it ended in 1993.
Nevertheless, I’ve always told that story with pride considering how much I remember Opperman being our version of Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez back in the day. I mean, the field at Lake Elementary was every bit of a ‘Sandlot’ as the one Benny called home in one of the most lovable baseball movies.
And as the Oakland Athletics are seemingly set to become Las Vegas’ fourth major professional franchise, I can’t help but point out that Southern Nevada and Major League Baseball are no strangers by any means.
Guys like Mike Morgan, Greg Maddux, and Opperman will always be a part of history in this town, as the evolution of baseball in Southern Nevada began its process long ago.
“I remember wanting to be like Mike Morgan, and then my brother (Mike),” Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux said during a one-on-one telephone interview, as we talked about the growth of the sport he dominated, and in which he became affectionately known as ‘The Professor.’ “You know you (can make it to the Majors). I saw Mike Morgan do it, so that gave me the confidence that ‘hey, maybe I could do it.’ And then I saw what my brother went through.”
Though he is quick to point out he’s not the guy who laid the foundation, Maddux will long be known as the guy who led the charge over the next few decades for prospects who have helped put Southern Nevada on Major League Baseball’s map.
Per Baseball Almanac, there are currently 23 active players who were born in Nevada – 19 of them hailing from either Las Vegas or Henderson.
“It’s always been a baseball-first town,” said Don Logan, president of the Las Vegas Aviators, the Triple-A club for the Athletics. “Just look at the number of good players who have come out of here. The numbers are crazy. It is amazing.”
Logan said weather and facilities have always played a major role in producing top talent from the valley, followed by nationally recognized high school and American Legion teams, or top-tier organizations that are dialed in with major league scouts.
“Baseball is the most competitive sport with the most pro-ready players and college players,” Logan added. “It’s fun to see. The small part we’ve had, and helping promote that and push it, any good player in Southern Nevada in the last 30 years has used a Pacific Coast League baseball because we go through a lot of balls because I give a lot of them away.”
College of Southern Nevada coach Nick Garritano has been on every rung of Southern Nevada’s baseball ladder, from Little League to high school to Legion ball, to college and now coaching one of the nation’s premier JUCO teams.
To wit: Garritano was a water boy for Chaparral High School when his older brother was an athlete there, and before he starred for the Cowboys in both football and baseball.
“To see Chaparral back in those days, they were a power,” said Garritano, who was the placekicker for UNLV’s bowl-winning football team in 1994. “It was something you looked forward to as a kid growing up, was attending your local high school. It was a big deal. You hung around that school every day after school. And when you were in junior high school you couldn’t wait to go to the Friday night football game, you couldn’t wait to go to the basketball game, used to go to the wrestling matches, you used to go to everything and anything that school had – because it was yours.”
Garritano said growing up playing youth sports in Southern Nevada meant you dreamt to play for your local high school – in any and every sport you could play.
“Sad today, in today’s world, I’m not quite sure if that’s the dream anymore,” he added.
That doesn’t mean dreams aren’t coming true, however.
Just ask former Desert Oasis and UNLV star Bryson Stott, who worked himself into the Philadelphia Phillies’ starting lineup last season, played for them in the World Series, and has been one of the team’s most consistent hitters this season.
“Just talking to Greg, he’s always said there are good players at every school, you just got to be able to find them,” said Stott, who heads into the All-Star Break tied for first on the Phillies lineup with his .301 batting average. “We always talked about the biggest thing for baseball is it’s 365 days a year, there’s never bad weather that you can’t go outside. It might be hot, it might be cold, but you could always get on a field and go do what you need to do. Just being able to have that luxury of being able to be outside the whole year and really work on what you need to work on is a big thing.
“Some of these kids now that you see are going to these big schools and getting drafted, it’s a big reason. They’re not stuck inside for the winter, they’re out there doing what they need to do.”
Stott and Phillies slugger Bryce Harper are doing a good job of helping shine Southern Nevada’s spotlight in Major League Baseball.
Stott and Maddux both said they have taken pride in seeing Southern Nevada-bred players, and others from the “Vegas baseball family” as he puts it, whether they played high school here or enrolled at UNLV, and moving on to the bigs.
“For me, it’s kind of cool being able to see Bryson and Joey Gallo play in high school, and then see them having the success now today,” Maddux said. “It’s real easy to have the TV on when those guys are hitting. There are always certain at-bats you don’t want to miss during a game. Anytime one of the Vegas kids comes up, you always kind of pay attention and watch their at-bats.”
Added Stott: “You get a guy like Joey Gallo, who can (put up big numbers) … people look at that and say he came from Vegas let’s go check out his high school, and now those guys are getting looks. Same thing with Kris (Bryant) and Bryce and Tommy Pham. You just see all those guys, you see where they’re from, they know you’re from Vegas and they know there’s gonna be good players following in their footsteps.
“That’s a big thing, is to see these local guys go and have the good years and really cement the Las Vegas baseball family.”