Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: How the River Cats gambled to become the Giants’ Triple-A team

In the end, it worked out exactly as the Savage family wanted: The River Cats, their family business and Sacramento’s Triple-A baseball team, will be affiliated with the San Francisco Giants – ending a 15-year partnership with the Oakland A’s.

But by the time the closely followed switch was announced Thursday morning to the cheers of Giants fans and the scorn of some A’s fans, the Savages had endured a nerve-wracking 48 hours trying to close the deal.

“It’s going to pay off for us, but it was a real risk,” said Jeff Savage, president of a River Cats franchise founded by his late father, Art.

Until Tuesday, baseball rules barred Savage and his mother, Susan, the River Cats’ CEO and majority owner, from telling anyone what they were thinking.

And it was only on Tuesday that the rules allowed the Savages to call the Giants without the fear of being sanctioned for tampering with what had been an exclusive arrangement between San Francisco and Fresno.

When the A’s came calling this spring, the Savages decided to wait. They had been hearing from enough of their patrons already that the Giants’ fan base in Sacramento was much bigger than Oakland’s.

“Our fans were overwhelmingly leaning toward the Giants or they didn’t care which big-league team we were affiliated with,” Jeff Savage said.

Then last spring, The New York Times published an interactive map based on Facebook metrics that showed the Giants to be the overwhelming favorite of baseball fans from Fresno to southern Oregon and to most of Nevada. The Giants’ TV ratings also are far higher than the A’s in Sacramento and beyond.

Jeff Savage said he and his mother felt they owed it to their fans – and to the franchise that Art Savage had built – to explore going with the Giants.

But there were two major obstacles: First, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in late May that the River Cats had rebuffed the A’s request to renew early. Citing anonymous sources, the Chronicle raised the possibility of an affiliate switch to the Giants.

Because major- and minor-league baseball do not want franchises openly coveting one team while still under contract to another – rules enforced with stiff fines – the Savages had to stay quiet when the Chronicle story broke.

They were pilloried by a segment of A’s fans on social media sites. There is bad blood on the part of some A’s fans toward the Giants for many reasons, including: the Giants gleaming stadium compared to the old one the A’s play in; the Giants blocking the A’s path to a more lucrative home in San Jose; the Giants winning two World Series since 2010 and the A’s not having won one since 1989 – when they beat the Giants.

Some A’s fans even see Giants as a kind of evil empire of rich snobs that looks down on blue-collar fans with the A’s.

“I couldn’t talk about it with our season-ticket holders, who I love,” Jeff Savage said of the potential to move to the Giants. As for the catcalls from fans and the persistent media calls that weren’t returned until now, “That was really challenging.”

The Savages called the Giants shortly after midnight Monday. Later Tuesday morning, a Giants contingent led by team CEO Larry Baer paid the Savages a call.

The meetings were intense and lasted most of Tuesday. With the clock ticking and other teams making deals to switch affiliations, the danger for the River Cats was clear: If somehow the Giants decided to stay in their longtime home in Fresno, the River Cats faced the prospect of losing the A’s, missing out on the Giants and being left to make a deal with big-league teams that had no connection to Sacramento fans.

If that had happened, the Savages would have angered their A’s fan base while failing to deliver the Giants to Giants fans who were led to believe by media speculation that the San Francisco club was planting a flag in Sacramento.

The most stressful time came Tuesday night, when no deal with the Giants had been struck. It was clear the Giants were interested, but they were also very sensitive to longtime partners in Fresno.

“Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin went out of her way in the last five years to show Fresno’s commitment to the Giants,” said Bobby Evans, a Giants assistant general manager.

“Her leadership was very persuasive, and it was very difficult for us to leave.”

The Giants and River Cats agreed in principle to a 2-year deal late Wednesday, but the Giants felt strongly about giving Swearengin and the owners of the Fresno Grizzlies a heads-up before the deal went public.

It was signed Thursday morning, and both the Savages and the Giants were happy and relieved to get it done. The A’s moved their Triple-A operations to Nashville, Tenn.

“What we want to do is to take every element we use to market the Giants and make it part of our presence in Sacramento,” Baer said Thursday. The Giants are known as a marketing powerhouse, and Baer said the team might open stores that sell Giants merchandise in Sacramento.

“Sacramento has always been a hotbed for the Giants,” Baer said.

He added that Sacramento would begin to see current and former Giants players making regular appearances in the capital region. The Giants have a hugely successful program that provides uniforms, equipment and playing fields to at-risk kids called The Junior Giants. Two of the bigger Junior Giants chapters are in Sacramento and West Sacramento, and Giants officials say they have more than 20,000 kids playing under the Junior Giants banner in Northern and Central California.

Both Baer and Jeff Savage expressed a hope that the Giants would be able to play occasional exhibitions at Raley Field. Though the River Cats benefited from successful teams stocked with A’s prospects, the Giants minor-league outfit has sent many heralded players to the big leagues as well.

Currently, there are 15 former Giants prospects on the big-league roster, including stars such as Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Sergio Romo.

One of the most recent and successful graduates of the Giants system is catcher Andrew Susac, a Roseville resident and Jesuit High School graduate.

“When (Posey) was in Fresno, he lit us up,” Savage said. “All the homegrown talent that has gone through the Giants system is pretty impressive.”

The River Cats name will not change, and Giants officials will be introduced to the Sacramento media at a 10 a.m. news conference Friday at Raley Field.

Savage spent part of Thursday reminding fans that the organization they’ve known since 2000 will remain the same, except that different players will be on the field.

“We’re still going to be about providing affordable, family-friendly entertainment,” Savage said.

“We had a lot of pent-up nervousness for a long time. It was very stressful, but we are very excited I think the Giants can help us and we can help the Giants expand their footprint in Sacramento.”

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