A sea of forest green seats used to blend in seamlessly with Oakland A’s fans of all ages, decked in traditional franchise green and gold colors.
For 15 seasons, the River Cats served as the top-level feeder to the A’s, and rival Triple-A programs across the country were green with envy as the club set a standard of excellence. Sacramento set records for attendance, on-field success, ambiance and general good Raley Field fun, from hot dogs fired into the seats from a cannon, to mascot Dinger dancing on the dugout roof, to firework nights, to beer stations right and left and the periodic bouncing foul balls.
On Thursday, the 16th Opening Night for the River Cats, those green seats had a stark contrast in color change. This is suddenly Giants country – black and orange here, there and everywhere – as Sacramento embark ed on a new era as an affiliate of the World Series champions.
“Doesn’t this look so pretty?” said Mary Wilson, a 64-year old grandmother of six, three of them in tow, pointing to full house around her of an announced 14,014 to soak in the game against the Salt Lake Bees. She and her granddaughters were huddled under a Giants blanket, with Giants sweat tops and River Cats hats. “What a beautiful marriage this will be. So fun.”
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The vibe was palpable at Raley Field, starting with a tailgate scene that started three hours before Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda threw out the ceremonial first pitch to a standing ovation. Dinger was back, too, greeting all comers on a calm, crisp night. Players, striving to reach the big leagues, expressed excitement to get the season started. In the meantime, soaking in the atmosphere that is Raley Field hardly rates as a bad thing.
“I think the affiliation change is great for the city,” said River Cats first baseman John Bowker, from Rio Americano High School. His parents, Chris and Brite, were in attendance, in a bank of seats not far from where they sat years ago when taking young Bowker to River Cats games.
“Sacramento is definitely a Giants town,” Bowker continued. “There was great attendance and excitement, but it may get even more fun now.”
The Giants brand has prompted a spike in merchandise and ticket sales. That the Giants have won three of the past five World Series adds to the buzz of an already popular product, River Cats executives said. Suddenly, it seems everyone wants a piece of the Giants, in any form. The team store at Raley Field was stuffed with shoppers. The concourse lines were long, everyone hungry. When the Giants brought their World Series trophy to Raley Field in January, the lines stretched down the block.
“The reaction from fans since Day One of this affiliation change has been through the roof,” River Cats general manager Chip Maxson said, adding with a laugh, “I get asked to speak at a lot more events now.”
Maxson continued, “We had a 600 percent increase in tickets – season tickets, half-season, mini plans. That’s completely staggering.”
The River Cats added staff to handle the crunch of ticket sales. Raley Field’s 5,000-square-foot Western Health Advantage Legacy Club has been an instant hot draw. Located just above the third-base line, the Legacy Club is all about the experience, Maxson said, with tables, lounge furniture and large-screen TVs to watch several games at once. The Legacy Club is cozy, classy confines with an unofficial warning: Heads up and hold onto your beer, as this is also prime foul-ball territory.
Seating 400, the Legacy Club is sold out for every game. And nearly all of Raley Field’s 36 suites are sold out, proof of a recovering economy as much as Giants fever.
“People are pumped,” River Cats president Jeff Savage said. “We’re seeing the energy everywhere: social media, ticket sales, general excitement when we’re out and about. I go to an event, and that’s what people talk about: River Cats and Giants. When I was addressing the team, I was telling them how lucky we are to be in this region, where the fans are so great. We’ve seen that with the Kings over the years, and we’ve seen it here since Day One. It’s been quite a run.”
Savage is the son of the late Art Savage, who brought the club to baseball-starved Sacramento in 2000. A jersey bearing Art Savage’s name and signature hangs on the outfield fence.
“We’re running around this week, getting things ready for (the opener), and he’s definitely on my mind,” Savage said. “He’d love this.”
River Cats manager Bob Mariano said he felt the fever pitch last season. While managing the Fresno Grizzlies, then the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate, Mariano said he was a magnet to casual fans while sipping morning coffee at an eatery.
“You can see it and feel it – this is Giants country,” Mariano said. “Wear anything with ‘Giants’ on, and people like you.”
Mariano likes his new digs, too. Hearing the rumors of an affiliation switch throughout last season, Mariano started to scope out prospective homes near Raley Field. Sure enough, he found one.
“I can walk to work here, coaching baseball,” Mariano said. “Can’t beat it. What a life.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.