Joe Davidson

Never mind the 316 transactions, Sacramento River Cats push for a PCL championship

See the Sacramento River Cats win series opener in Pacific Coast championship series

The Sacramento River Cats took on Round Rock on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in the PCL championship series opener. The River Cats triumphed 8-7 as Abital Avelino drove in Ronnie Freeman in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off hit.
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The Sacramento River Cats took on Round Rock on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in the PCL championship series opener. The River Cats triumphed 8-7 as Abital Avelino drove in Ronnie Freeman in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off hit.

The most amazing thing of this River Cats season may not even be that the club powered its way to the season’s final, frantic days.

Check out the transaction list.

It reads like two full pages of numbing fine print from the white pages — remember those, before cellphones?

Sacramento had 316 transactions — 316! — since April 3. In a sport big on numbers, this is a staggering amount by any measure.

Players came and went in a dizzying rate, making this week’s season-ending Pacific Coast League Championship series against the Round Rock Express, a Houston Astros affiliate, all the more remarkable. Players and coaches spent a lot of time getting to know each other, then saying goodbye, and, sometimes, hello again.

Games 1 and 2 of the five-game series are at Raley Field before the series switches to Texas.

Sacramento won the opener 8-7 when Abital Avelino drove in Ronnie Freeman in the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk-off hit. Francisco Pena had four hits, including a two-run homer in the eighth for a 7-6 lead. Each of those players were on the transaction list, including Pena getting acquired by the Giants in May from St. Louis for the can’t-fail price of ... cash.

Teams with this much turnover in a minor league system designed for player development don’t often make it this far. But here are the River Cats, sending prospects to the Giants one day and calling up a Double-A guy the next, with a singular focus of impressing the right people and competing to win.

By contrast, Round Rock had 214 transactions. Sacramento had 192 transactions in 2015 and 185 in 2016.

“Three sixteen — that’s insane!” said Johnny Doskow, Sacramento’s longtime radio voice whose job it is to remember all these names while calling the action. “Guys came up, went back, back and forth, and then it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re in the playoffs. Why not win it?’”

Why not, indeed?

In beating Las Vegas on Sunday to clinch the PCL semifinals in Nevada, Sacramento won its first playoff series since 2011. Those were the days when the River Cats won plenty, including 11 PCL South Division championships and Triple-A trophies in 2008 and 2009.

The River Cats were affiliated with the A’s then, for 15 seasons total since local businessman Art Savage purchased and relocated the franchise from Vancouver to West Sacramento before the 2000 season.

The first game at Raley Field was a wet and wild one, the packed-in crowd not minding a bit that sideways rain was steady. Triple-A baseball was back for the first time since the Sacramento Solons played at a football stadium at Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College in 1976.

Tuesday’s attendance was light, 3,299 loyalists scattered about, including standing ovations for the River Cats home runs and for the walk-off heroics. And then you wonder how this could be for a franchise that has led all of Minor League Baseball in attendance for most all of its 20-year run here?

Forbes in 2016 rated the River Cats as the most valuable franchise in Minor League Baseball, with a value of $49 million, and the River Cats have long been lauded for affordable seats, good eats and a great venue in which to peek at players on the move. Fans soak in River Cats games mostly for the setting and atmosphere than sweating out wins or losses.

River Cats general manager Chip Maxson and Doskow said it is a monstrous challenge to get the word out in a matter of hours that the season is still alive. And it’s a school night. If this were a weekend series, attendance would likely have been much greater.

“Fans are still interested, and we saw the web traffic — checking on scores, the social media interest in the champagne celebration after beating Las Vegas,” Maxson said. “We had to get the word out in a day or so. The crowds were still great this year. It’s a great product.”

Fans can still catch a glimpse of the future in current time on Wednesday, a future Giant, perhaps, and see minor league guys making big league plays. The River Cats on Wednesday will start Chase Johnson on the mound. He was drafted by the Giants in the third round in 2013 out of Cal Poly. He made the River Cats’ opening-day roster before getting transferred to Double-A Richmond, then coming back.

You’re not a player here unless you’ve been on the transaction list.

Maxson knew right away the affiliation switch to the Giants would be a rousing success. He was stunned at what he saw in January, 2015, at Raley Field, when the three World Series trophies the Giants won in 2010, 2012 and 2014 were put on display for the public to admire and salivate over.

Lines stretched down the block and into the parking lot, by the thousands, like the opening of Star Wars in 1977.

“Blew my mind,” Maxson said, his eyebrows rising. “People got there six hours early. It’s a Giants town.”

The Giants will again play at Raley Field in an exhibition in March in a game that will sell out.

For now, the end of the tunnel is near, a season in which the River Cats opened with a 5-4 win in 11 innings against Tacoma in front of 8,820 fans. That was April 4.

Sacramento moved above .500 for good on June 21 and is 73-67 after winning 55 games in 2018.

Any more transactions, folks?

“I think we’re done,” River Cats media man Daniel Emmons said with a laugh.

Said Maxson a moment later, “It’s been a whirlwind season. It’s flown by — ups, downs, and all those transactions.”