Baseball

River Cats find Giant benefits in first year of affiliation

Over the past two seasons, River Cats radio broadcaster Johnny Doskow and former manager Steve Scarsone regularly took mid-morning walks before night games on the road. The River Cats’ affiliation switch last fall from the A’s to the Giants came with a new manager, Bob Mariano, who often rises early enough that recently he has needed long sleeves for his morning walk or jog along the Sacramento River.

Earlier this season, the always upbeat Doskow posted a series of fun videos to his Twitter page documenting a several-hour excursion around Tacoma – still walking but, it appeared, exploring on is own.

For many in the River Cats organization, this has been a season of adjustments – new routines, new faces and, some say, renewed interest in the team. When the River Cats announced last September they were breaking with the A’s after 15 seasons to become the Triple-A affiliate of the Giants, they cited the Giants’ popularity among area baseball fans as a key factor, hoping it would help spark interest and ticket sales.

The move appeared all the more timely when the Giants won their third World Series in five seasons last October. And as their first season since the affiliation switch concludes this holiday weekend, River Cats executives said, the effect has been decidedly positive.

“It completely met, if not exceeded, our expectations,” said team president Jeff Savage.

Sacramento’s run with the A’s included 11 division titles, four Pacific Coast League championships and attendance that regularly led the Pacific Coast League. Going into 2015, the team had recorded 12 consecutive winning seasons, tying the PCL record. That streak, however, appears in serious jeopardy. Entering Thursday, the River Cats – already assured of missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season – needed to win their remaining five gamesto finish above .500.

9,102 River Cats’ average attendance this season

Yet the on-field struggles haven’t stopped fans from coming to Raley Field. Instead, as of Thursday, the River Cats led the PCL with an average attendance of 9,102. That would be the team’s highest over a full season since 2010 and a 6 percent increase over last season’s average of 8,561.

Savage said the River Cats do not release financial specifics. But from a business standpoint, he said, “Everything is up.”

“Merchandise sales are up a decent amount, ticket sales are up a nice amount, everything across the board,” Savage said. “We’ve really tapped into an expanded fan base.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Rose Holland, the River Cats’ merchandise manager, as she surveyed activity in the team store at Raley Field before Wednesday night’s game. Asked how merchandise sales this season have compared to years past, Holland answered:

“There is no comparison.”

A perfect storm

For Holland, the best illustration was the hat – a flat-billed, black baseball cap featuring both the Giants’ and River Cats’ logos on the front. Earlier this season, Holland said, she ordered 144 of the hats to sell at the Raley Field team store. In past years, that would’ve kept the store stocked for a full season. These sold out in three weeks.

“I’ve never sold a hat as fast as that one,” Holland said.

Holland said she stocks the team store with merchandise that’s about 75 percent River Cats, 25 percent Giants – it is, after all, the River Cats’ home – but that anything with the Giants’ logo this season has seemed to sail out the door.

“It’s just a different crowd,” Holland said. “They’re very supportive, and they want to wear the merchandise. So for us, it’s been great.”

Tiffany McFadden, a West Sacramento resident who wore a Giants jersey Wednesday while shopping in the team store, said the difference at games this season has extended beyond the number of fans in the stands.

The atmosphere is so different now. Last year when you were here, you’d see a bunch of people, but not necessarily A’s fans. The difference in how much actual Giants fan support there is versus A’s fan support is amazing.

River Cats fan Tiffany McFadden of West Sacramento

“The atmosphere is so different now,” said McFadden, 35. “Last year when you were here, you’d see a bunch of people, but not necessarily A’s fans. The difference in how much actual Giants fan support there is versus A’s fan support is amazing.”

Jerry Ignasiak of Sacramento said he isn’t a particular fan of either Bay Area team – just the River Cats – but he too has noticed a change at Raley Field.

“Even when we were the A’s affiliate, whenever we played the Fresno Grizzlies (the Giants’ previous Triple-A affiliate), you always saw more orange and black than green out here,” said Ignasiak, 64. “Crowds are very enthusiastic, which has been great.”

Is all this a result simply of a region experiencing Giants fever? River Cats general manager Chip Maxson said the attendance boost stems from a “perfect storm” of factors: sales staff getting involved in the community, opening the new “Legacy Club” area down the left-field line “and maybe most importantly, the Giants.”

In addition to players such as Kelby Tomlinson, Andrew Susac and Michael Broadway, who played part of this season in Sacramento before being called up by the Giants, fans at Raley Field have had the chance to watch well-known Giants like Hunter Pence, Matt Cain and – this week – Joe Panik join the River Cats for brief injury rehab assignments.

Savage cited Pence’s rehab appearance in May as a game that had a different “vibe.”

“I don’t know if that guy just oozes this energy that’s contagious,” Savage said, “but it felt like the whole stadium was just humming along.”

New, respectful relationship

To describe working with a new parent club, Savage used a relationship analogy: “You’ve been dating someone for a long time,” he said, “and now you’re dating someone else, and they like things a little different.”

Those things could be specific, almost minute. Last offseason, the River Cats were about to install new carpet in their clubhouse and asked the Giants’ input. They learned, Savage said, that the Giants like to have the same kind of carpet at all their facilities, from spring training to the clubhouse at AT&T Park.

“They want this experience to be as close to the big-league experience as possible for the players,” Savage said.

Mariano, who previously managed in Fresno for three years, agreed the new field staff was at times “pretty demanding” with the River Cats’ front office as the season began. Requests included replacing a worn-down throwing platform and protective screens used in batting practice, and cleaning years’ worth of gravel from under the floor mats in the dugout. As Opening Day neared, work was still being done on the facility’s renovated batting cage.

“We wanted it done the right way, because we want to be here for a long time,” Mariano said. “It’s going to be a win-win situation for everybody. We’re so close to San Francisco and it’s just a short hop down the road when we have to move players.”

187 River Cats transactions this season

For the Giants, proximity to their Triple-A team was a major selling point in affiliating with Sacramento, and they have helped keep the River Cats’ travel coordinators on their toes. The River Cats have already made more transactions this season (187) than in any of the past four, including a number of players going between Triple A and the majors.

Giants general manager Bobby Evans said having the organization’s top affiliate within a 90-minute drive of San Francisco has “been a help for us, for sure, just in terms of rehabs, recalls.” When the Giants have needed to call up a player while on the road, Evans said, “I think the number of flights in and out of Sacramento just gives us more options.”

Evans said that in the first year of the partnership, the River Cats “have been extremely professional and very responsive to our needs, and we’ve tried to do the same.” Recently, the teams announced plans to play an exhibition game next spring at Raley Field, which Evans said reflects the strength of the relationship after one year.

“That’s something that affiliates continually ask for, but it’s not something we’re able to commit to very easily because it’s a lot of logistics,” Evans said. “But I think the fact that things were going so well, we felt that we could make that commitment.”

A return to roots

For Doskow, the longtime radio announcer, the affiliation switch meant learning names and tendencies of a new roster and adjusting to calling games with National League rules, meaning no designated hitter and more in-game strategy. In some ways, it was a return to roots for Doskow, the original voice of the Giants-affiliated Fresno team in 1998.

“Obviously, I formed a lot of great relationships in 14 years with the A’s organization – great respect there and relationships I’ll have for life,” Doskow said. “And now it’s new people, and that’s great, too.”

Among the fans filing into Raley Field for Wednesday evening’s game against the Reno Aces were Citrus Heights residents Ron and Debra Corbin, who said this is their fourth year as season-ticket holders. Having spent the past three years watching players come through the A’s minor-league system, the Corbins on Wednesday wore Giants colors. Yet in some respects, they said, little has changed.

“It wouldn’t matter really who the affiliation is,” Debra Corbin said. “We love being here at the ballpark, outside. We’ve got lots of friends we’ve made here over the years.

“It’s just a great fan experience, and they do a great job with the facility,” she said. “It’s all good.”

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