Monday, April 2, 2012 | 2:45 a.m.
Kevin Higgins doesn’t immediately come to mind when talking about the legendary ballplayers in the history of Las Vegas minor league baseball.
After all, Hall of Famers such as Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar, and standouts Kevin McReynolds and Sandy Alomar Jr., spent time with Las Vegas’ Triple-A affiliate before shining in the big leagues.
But Higgins certainly qualifies as one of the notable former Las Vegas players, especially when considering his most memorable performance: late in the 1994 season, the versatile Higgins played all nine positions by design in a Las Vegas win.
The Las Vegas 51s open the season Thursday at Cashman Field against the Sacramento RiverCats to begin their 30th season of baseball in Southern Nevada, which gives us a reason to look back at some of the great players to wear a Las Vegas jersey. Yes, it’s already been 30 years since the boys of summer arrived in the form of a Triple-A club with the 1983 Las Vegas Stars (they changed to the Las Vegas 51s in 2001).
The Sun has ranked the top-30 notable players in franchise history, taking into account their contributions to the Las Vegas team, success in the major leagues and impact on the Southern Nevada community.
Putting Higgins, one of the classiest and longest-tenured players in franchise history, on the list was a no-brainer. He holds the record for seasons played in Las Vegas (five), becoming one of the more popular players because of his knowledge of the game and outgoing personality. He remains part of the local baseball community, serving as an assistant coach at UNLV.
“He embodies everything you would want in a person and a player,” said Don Logan, the 51s executive director and former longtime president. “When you are his friend, he’s as good of a friend as you can have. When he’s your coach, he’s as good of a coach as you can have.”
Higgins was an infielder at Arizona State, converted to a catcher by the San Diego Padres organization, and before his career ended after the 1994 season, had been used all over the diamond and outfield in Triple-A at Las Vegas.
So, when Las Vegas was already out of the pennant race in 1994, a reporter from the local newspaper jokingly suggested to manager Russ Nixon he play Higgins and utility player Keith Lockhart at all nine positions during the same game. It took three days for Nixon — with the help of the reporter — to figure out the rotation, but on Aug. 25, 1994, the feat was accomplished against the Tacoma Tigers.
Higgins had one of his best career games that day, registering three hits and five RBIs, and turning a double play with Lockhart to end the game in a Las Vegas victory. He pitched the second inning, surrendering a weak single to Jason Giambi, but striking out the side.
“Little did I know I was going to hang it up a month later. That game was kind of my farewell song,” Higgins said.
Higgins, a 12th round selection in 1989 by the San Diego Padres, made his debut in Triple-A Las Vegas the following year. While playing parts of five seasons and being within one promotion away from the big leagues isn’t anything to brag about, that’s only half of Higgins’ story.
With Roberto Alomar already playing second for San Diego, Higgins arrived for spring training for his second minor league season to find catcher’s equipment in his locker. Being forced to learn the new position helped him become the Padres everyday catcher in 1993, if only for a majority of one season.
“I raised a stink at first when I saw that gear, but it’s the only reason I made the big leagues,” Higgins said.
Higgins was just 23 years old when he was called up to Triple-A, jumping from Single-A to Las Vegas because the catchers ahead of him were involved in a bench-clearing brawl. He was only briefly with the team, but played so well during his two-week stay the Padres found a spot for him in Double-A.
The trials and tribulations of moving up and down an organization’s depth chart while trying to reach the major leagues is just one of the many experiences that makes Higgins a respected coach. And, of course, there is his wealth of knowledge at several positions.
At UNLV, Higgins is in his second-year as the Rebels’ hitting coach, receiving credit for helping UNLV’s top hitters have breakout seasons last spring — Brandon Bayardi clubbed a team-best 10 home runs and Trent Cook had one of the Mountain West Conference’s best batting averages at .368.
“Nobody talked about the way I played, they only wanted to talk about my (baseball) mind,” Higgins said.
Higgins played 71 games with the Padres in 1993, posting 40 hits and 13 RBIs in 181 at-bats before the organization brought in Brad Ausmus to be the everyday catcher. He returned to Las Vegas, where he played 254 combined games in 1992 and 1993, to finish his playing career.
“He got the most out of his talent,” Logan said. “Kevin wasn’t the most talented player, but there hasn’t been anyone who worked as hard and paid as much attention (to detail) as him. That is why he is such a valuable coach at UNLV.”
Higgins, who married his childhood sweetheart, Debbie, during his minor league playing career, didn’t go far in his retirement. The Higginses are raising their family of four children in the Summerlin area, he served for two seasons as the team’s color analyst on its radio broadcasts and he also coached at the College of Southern Nevada.
For Higgins, it was five great years of memories at Cashman Field. For Las Vegans, it’s been 30 years.
“We don’t have a professional team (in Las Vegas) outside the Wranglers (hockey). This is it,” he said. “It has always been the Las Vegas Stars. I still have a hard time calling them the 51s. We are really the only professional team that has lasted in Las Vegas. It’s our big-league team.”