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  • José Luis Villegas /

    Courtney Diedrick's 19th birthday coincided with Opening Day for the River Cats. Sacramento second baseman Grant Green didn't pass up the photo opportunity.

  • Joe Davidson

River Cats begin season in trademark fan-friendly fashion

Published: Friday, Apr. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 6, 2013 - 8:46 am

The infield was raked by groundskeepers determined to make Raley Field as pristine as its reputation.

Fans filed into what has become a beacon of civic pride, decked in team garb, armed with eats and drink.

Johnny Doskow, the longtime radio voice of the River Cats, soaked it in, grinning like a kid.

He was so giddy that the River Cats were starting their 14th Triple-A season in West Sacramento on Thursday night against the Las Vegas 51s that he even dressed for the occasion. Doskow was in a suit, his tie featuring images of baseballs and gloves – this from a guy who said he slips into church in a River Cats polo and shorts.

"Oh man, Opening Day – it's the best time of year," said Doskow, in his 13th season with Sacramento. "It never gets old. It seems to get more and more special. Look at that field. It's immaculate. Look at those fans. You can feel the good vibe."

River Cats staffers disdain inclement weather, and the word "rainout" is not to be uttered. Raley Field was covered with a tarp most of Thursday during pounding rain, and threatening clouds late in the afternoon that were seemingly everywhere except over Raley Field surely played a role in a smaller-than-expected crowd announced at 7,180.

Those who came out did so for the experience, to get a peek at five A's first-round draft picks and to soak up a legacy of success that includes 11 division championships, four Pacific Coast League titles and two Triple-A banners, all encased in a park as good as it gets in the minors.

The concession lines were clogged and the team store was full of shoppers. Inside the On Deck Shop, there was something for fans of all ages, shapes and sizes: hats, bats, chairs, sweat tops, uniforms, pennants, books, even River Cats lip balm.

The ushers and those manning the concession stands greeted customers warmly, per the norm over the years for the River Cats under the ownership of the Savage family.

"That's why we keep coming back, for the full experience," said Jim Dickinson, 63, a state employee. "The ushers know you by name. Some hug you. And it's great baseball. Can't beat it."

Under his arm, Dickinson held his beloved glove, weathered and true. He had already caught two foul pops from batting practice in his seats just beyond the batter's circle.

Next to him sat another season-ticket holder and friend in Debralee Hamilton.

"Jim will dive over small children and women for a ball," said Hamilton, 58, a retired state employee. "I duck and move. I've learned.

"I just love it here. There's such a hometown feel."

River Cats community relations director Tony Asaro preaches the good word of the franchise every chance he gets. To young students who come to games, to high school players, to older fans. It's River Cats past and present.

"Raley here is a special place," Asaro said. "It feels like a step above Triple-A. It's not the major leagues, but it's close. I just know people love it."

River Cats general manager Jeff Savage, son of late club owner Art Savage, said Opening Day always includes "a nervous energy."

"The grounds crew, the stadium operations crew and others, there's so much going on before the game," Savage said. "You want it to be just right for the fans. You want them to have that 'wow' experience."

To that end, the River Cats will offer a number of promotions this season to heighten the experience. Ticket prices have been lowered, with 74 percent of available seats priced at $22 or less, with discounts for advanced purchase.

Raley Field will feature 22 fireworks shows this season, including after every Friday and Saturday game. Mondays will be Sacramento Solons throwback day with players wearing old-look uniforms and fans able to purchase 50-cent popcorn and peanuts.

Even Raley Field itself has a new look with a complete sod replacement and refinished bullpens.

Said Dickinson, the fan with the old glove, "It's never looked better."

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