It's been a magical season of milestones for both the Aviators and Las Vegas Ballpark in 2019. And while first pitch for the 2020 season is still more than seven months away, the first milestone for the second season has already been achieved: The Aviators will serve as host for next year's Triple-A National Championship Game, which will be played at Las Vegas Ballpark on September 22, 2020.
The event will mark the 15th anniversary of the one-game playoff in which the champions of the Pacific Coast League and International League square off against one another for Triple-A bragging rights.
"Going back to the planning stages of Las Vegas Ballpark, we talked about being a baseball facility not just for Pacific Coast League games but for anything we can get involved in," Aviators president and COO Don Logan said at a news conference Monday morning on the stadium's suite level. "And I think we really delivered on that this year, hosting the high school and American Legion state championships, and we even [christened] the building with a couple of high school JV games. So this wasn't a tough one to get involved with. When Triple-A baseball said, 'If you're interested in throwing your hat in the ring, we'd love to put the game there,' it was a no-brainer."
As with the 2019 Triple-A National Championship Game, which is scheduled for September 17 at AutoZone Park in Memphis, the 2020 contest will be televised live on Fox Sports 1, with Ephesus Sports Lighting serving as the game's new title sponsor.
"This is one of our jewel events in all of Minor League Baseball," said Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner, who attended Monday's news conference along with PCL president Branch Rickey and IL president Randy Mobley. "As any good minor-league guy does, I steal ideas and coattail whenever I can, so we have adopted this [one-game playoff format] all across Minor League Baseball as a staple. It's our last game every year, a [perfect] way to finish, and we're very excited to bring it to Las Vegas Ballpark next season."
O'Conner, Rickey and Mobley all took turns heaping praise on the Aviators and Las Vegas Ballpark, both of which are owned by The Howard Hughes Corporation. In its inaugural season, the ballpark has drawn nearly 600,000 fans through the Aviators' first 63 home games, 42 of which have been sellouts.
"You can't help but come to Las Vegas and be reminded of the slogan, 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.' But I can tell you what's happened with this ballpark isn't staying in Las Vegas," Rickey said. "This is resonating everywhere I go throughout the Pacific Coast League. I've talked to the managers, coaches, players and fans who have come here, and this place is resonating [everywhere]. Everyone is talking about Las Vegas Ballpark and what has happened to baseball in Southern Nevada."
Added Mobley: "I had an opportunity when we were in Las Vegas in December for [Major League Baseball's] winter meetings to come out here and enjoy a hard-hat tour. Wow, what a difference a few months makes. You could envision at that point that Las Vegas Ballpark was going to be something special, but just in the few minutes I've been here already, I had no idea it was going to be this special."
This actually isn't the first time Triple-A baseball has brought its marquee event to Las Vegas. From 1998-2000, the PCL and IL faced off in the best-of-5 Triple-A World Series at Cashman Field, which was the home of Las Vegas' Triple-A franchise for 36 years prior to this season. The format was changed to a winner-take-all, one-game playoff in 2006.
Since the format change, the PCL holds an 8-5 edge over the IL, having won five of the last seven battles.
"Initially there was some skepticism about if this really was the right way to finish our season," Rickey said. "But what has become evident to me as someone who keenly watches the managers, coaches and players is that after you get past September 1 … some of the players are worn down after a long season. But when you get to this one-game playoff, all of a sudden there is a reenergizing that occurs - everyone who is involved in this one-game shootout gets perked up. It really has become the Super Bowl of Triple-A baseball."
And it's possible that Las Vegas Ballpark could host this particular Super Bowl beyond 2020, as Logan acknowledged there are discussions between all entities (including Ephesus Sports Lighting) to regularly stage the Triple-A National Championship Game in Las Vegas. It's yet another indication of how quickly the new venue, which has already won multiple national awards, has gotten the attention of the baseball community.
"Branch said how Las Vegas Ballpark was the talk of the Pacific Coast League," Mobley said. "Well, I can tell, it's not only the talk of the Pacific Coast League, it's also the talk of the International League, and Pat would probably agree, it's the talk of all of Minor League Baseball. So [the stadium's popularity] goes well beyond the local community and well beyond the [PCL]."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.