Sports

River Cats launch 20th season in West Sacramento with a familiar new (and old) face

Stephen Vogt warms up with the River Cats on Monday at Raley Field. Vogt, 34, is beginning his third stint with the River Cats, but his goal is to be called up by the parent-club San Francisco Giants. Sacramento opens its 20th Triple-A season Thursday night, April 4, against Tacoma at Raley Field.
Stephen Vogt warms up with the River Cats on Monday at Raley Field. Vogt, 34, is beginning his third stint with the River Cats, but his goal is to be called up by the parent-club San Francisco Giants. Sacramento opens its 20th Triple-A season Thursday night, April 4, against Tacoma at Raley Field. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Stephen Vogt takes none of this for granted. Not the uniform, the gear, the innings. Not his teammates, experiences or opportunities.

He’s a 34-year-old with a surgically reconstructed right shoulder, playing the rough-and-tumble position of catcher, and rounding back into form with the Sacramento River Cats.

Vogt has been a fan favorite — the everyman — at every stop of his 12-year playing career, including an Oakland A’s tenure that included two All-Star appearances.

Vogt is the very definition of grit and resolve in a battered body with a refreshing view of the benefits of baseball. He’s an older guy in a young man’s game, but Vogt bounds across the diamond and throughout the clubhouse with the enthusiasm of a kid parading his new glove in front of his friends on Christmas.

Vogt is already the pulse and soul of the River Cats, a clubhouse clown when the time is right, an emphatic leader with an attention to detail and professionalism otherwise.

Sacramento is in good leadership hands with Vogt as it prepares for its 20th season of Triple-A fun in West Sacramento with Thursday night’s opener at Raley Field. He’s easy to like, easy to root for, as the oldest fellow on any roster generally is.

River Cats media relations staffers marveled at how Vogt in a matter of minutes upon arriving at Raley Field on Monday emerged as a focal point, a sage sort who has experienced peaks and valleys in a game known to offer a lot of both. If minor-league ball is about development, the River Cats have a player and character development guru in Vogt.

“I’ve been impressed with Vogt since Day One,” River Cats manager Dave Brundage said. “I’m impressed with his makeup. I’m impressed with his work ethic. I’m impressed with his leadership. I’m impressed with him as a human being. He’s a very genuine guy.

“He’s going to do wonders in this clubhouse and lead by example, which he’s done his entire career.”

Vogt is revered by his peers, admired for where he has been and where he’s headed. He would win most debates on whom bears the most bruises, scars and surgeries.

“I sure plan to talk to him a lot,” said River Cats infielder Zach Green, a product of Jesuit High School. “We can learn a lot from Vogt.”

Vogt plans to talk, to share, to listen. This is what leaders do. He’s a manager in the making if there has ever been one, a student of the game, a worker, and one who can relate to long shots and hot shots. He might even be a long shot now, given the shoulder surgery he had last May, ruining his 2018 season with the Milwaukee Brewers and nearly his career.

But Vogt feeds off odds. He’s beaten most. And he’ll preach that theme as long as he’s in this game, which figures to be a long time, be it in gear or uniform as a coach/manager.

“He’d absolutely make a good manager, and catchers make good managers,” Brundage said. “They see both sides of the ball. People know how good of a human Stephen is, and he doesn’t pretend to know it all. He’s still learning every day.”

Vogt aspires to be a boss, but he’s in no hurry. He has a lot left to play for. He aspires to get back to the bigs, this time with his childhood favorite team — the Giants, who signed him in February.

To Vogt, it’s not a matter of if he gets pulled up by the Giants. It’s a matter of when. Vogt being Vogt, he’ll handle this tour with class. There are certainly worse ways to make a living.

Eager for MLB return

This is Vogt’s third tour with the River Cats, following stints in 2013 and 2014. He appreciates the River Cats, the venue and the fans, and he’ll compete as though the next inning would be his last inning.

“No one wants to be in Triple A because we all want to be in the major leagues,” Vogt said. “But it’s a great place to play here. You’re showcasing your talents for the parent club and for all 30 major-league teams.

“Every day you get a chance to take the field, it’s a blessing. I learned that the hard way, the good way, the fun way. Every day you put on a uniform, you have to be thankful. Every day here, you have a chance to impact lives, whether it’s a kid in the stands, someone watching or a teammate. You impact lives in this game.”

Vogt continued, “Missing last year hurt. This is a big test to see how I respond and what happens from here. I’m working every day on it. I’m doing a good job of focusing on today. It’s easy to look ahead, but that’s when you set yourself up for disappointment. What we can control is today, and I have that mindset.”

See, he even talks like a manager. What a gift to any clubhouse. Vogt grew up in the Central Valley, in Visalia, a small-school product who played big at small-college Azusa Pacific. And he grew up in a baseball family. His father, Randy, coached Vogt and brother Danny. The old man taught the sons how to play, how to do it the right way, how to respect teammates and the game.

Vogt and family attended Giants games at Candlestick Park and the newer venue in the city. Vogt’s favorite players then were Will Clark and Barry Bonds.

Randy, the father, was a regular at A’s games when Vogt was a regular in Oakland. Fans often chanted or sang, “I believe in Stephen Vogt!”

Vogt is a career .251 hitter in the bigs. He has 57 MLB home runs and 218 RBIs. He has logged 73 games at first base and 21 in the outfield but has otherwise been a rock behind the plate.

One highlight was in the 2013 American League Division Series. Vogt won it for the A’s 1-0 over Detroit with a walk-off hit in the ninth inning.

Family, including Vogt’s father, will attend the River Cats opener.

Fatherly lessons

“Dad was everything to me, my baseball guy, my mentor, my coach,” Vogt said. “I tried to be that example, to exemplify that example of how to approach the game, how to play it, appreciating teammates. Put teammates ahead of yourself. That’s when you can become a good player, when you get out of your own way and root for teammates.”

Vogt was drafted in the 12th round by Tampa Bay in 2007 and grinded his way to the top. He fielded his share of demotions to the minors, only to fight his way back up in a sport in which injuries and opportunities are not always kind.

As a manager, Vogt will be able to relate to any story, any injury, any form of player heartache.

“I’d love to manage when I’m done as a player, hopefully in the big leagues,” Vogt said. “I like to say I’ve done it really well in my career as a player or I screwed it up (laughs). I’d love to give back to the game.”

Vogt’s 2018 shoulder surgery also cut into his spirit. He wondered if he could play again, if he’d be a shell of his former self.

“My body feels incredible, the shoulder is coming, and I’m excited,” Vogt said. “I’m 10 months out of surgery, and I’m very surprised at how far I’ve come. Initially, doctors said it’d take maybe 12, 14 or 15 months to get back. The Giants’ medical staff has done a great job.

“When I got hurt, I was in Biloxi, Mississippi, for Double A, and it was cloudy, my future, and I thought it could be over. I’m just so grateful.”

Family matters

Vogt’s real passion in life is family. When we profiled Vogt in 2013 in The Bee, a photo of Vogt running the bases at Raley Field, in uniform after a game, with baby daughter Payton spoke volumes.

Payton is 7 now. She has kid brothers to boss around in Clark, 4, and Bennett, 2.

Their mother, Alyssa, is the primary boss. She and Vogt were college sweethearts. He calls her the family star. They continue to make the vagabond baseball life work.

“How do we make it work? Alyssa is how we make it work,” Vogt said with an admiring laugh. “She’s amazing. You have to find a mate or a spouse in life that’s strong and independent and understands that this is an occupation. She was an athlete, so she understands that, too.

“We’ve always done this together. We made staying together throughout the seasons a priority. We’ve been very blessed in that regard.”

Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.

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