Before being named the minor-league hitting coordinator of the A’s this year, Greg Sparks spent three seasons as the River Cats’ hitting coach. When Raley Field opened in 2000, Sparks was managing the A’s Class-A affiliate in Modesto, and for eight seasons before joining the River Cats’ staff, he was a roving instructor in the A’s system, visiting the Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento often.
“I’ve been coming here since Day One,” Sparks said while sitting in the coaches’ room at Raley Field on Monday morning. But this time, it was the coaches’ room in the visiting clubhouse.
“Yeah,” Sparks said, “a little strange.”
The River Cats’ affiliation switch last offseason to the cross-bay Giants prompted the A’s to move their Triple-A operation to Nashville, Tenn., whose Sounds opened a four-game series at Raley Field with a 5-0 victory on Monday. It marked the first visit by the A’s new affiliate to its former home, and carried with it an odd element of homecoming for some members – and fans – of the visiting team.
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“It’s a lot of ties here, a lot of friends,” Sparks said. “The fan base here is incredible – I’ve been in touch with a few already. I was always treated outstanding by the front office.
“The park is the park, but the friendships we made over the years, I think that’s the part I miss the most, being around the people here over the years. That’s the tough part for me. That’s weird.”
The River Cats were an A’s affiliate for 15 seasons starting with their inception in 2000, and evidence of those ties remained Monday. In the stands near the visiting dugout, a cheer went up when the Sounds’ Alden Carrithers led off the game with a single, and again when Nashville turned double plays to end the fourth and fifth innings. A walk around the concourse before the first pitch turned up more fans clad in Giants gear but also a healthy dose of green and gold.
Loreen Makishima wore a cap displaying both the Giants’ and A’s logos, but the rest of her outfit was A’s-themed. Makishima said she’s an A’s fan who was “disappointed” by the River Cats’ affiliation switch, which she described as “kind of a slap in the face, in the sense of, ‘Why are you changing to the Giants, which is the rivals?’ I think if they’d changed to any other team, it’d be kind of like, who cares?”
Makishima said she drove from Hayward for Monday’s game. “I was interested to see how many A’s fans would be here today,” she said. “It seems like for those who like the stadium and are close by, the ties are still there.”
Mike Barnbaum of North Sacramento announced his leanings with a gold A’s hat, gold jersey and gold pants. He said watching the River Cats and A’s part ways was “very disheartening,” and he elected not to purchase a ticket plan this season.
On the other hand, Ryan Hudson of Vacaville said he prefers the Giants and was “a little more happy” when they became the River Cats’ new parent club. The biggest difference Hudson has noticed at River Cats games this season?
“There’s a lot more people here,” Hudson said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Entering Monday, the River Cats were averaging 9,544 fans per game this season – almost 800 more than the second-highest-drawing Pacific Coast League team, the Round Rock Express (8,765). The last time the River Cats averaged at least that many fans over a season was 2008 (9,725). Monday’s game, a 5-0 Nashville victory, drew an announced crowd of 9,447.
The Sounds, who opened a new stadium in Nashville this spring, have drawn the fourth-highest average in the PCL (7,096). Manager Steve Scarsone raved about the facilities in Nashville and said it feels like “we’re just still the new kids in the new house, trying to learn our way around.”
Scarsone managed the A’s affiliate’s last two seasons in Sacramento, but the Sounds’ roster has little carryover from last year, and few of their players spent any time with the River Cats. The A’s-River Cats partnership was successful on the field, with Sacramento winning 11 division titles in 15 seasons, and Scarsone said the Sounds (17-27) must establish a similar culture of winning in Nashville.
“I think for so many years, players played here as an Oakland A, and played the Oakland A way, and the success that was in Sacramento, I think we had a bit of a swagger,” Scarsone said. “ ‘Here come the A’s from Sacramento,’ one of those things.
“Right now we don’t have a lot of carryover from the Sacramento A’s days, and we’re trying to establish ourselves not only as playing the Oakland A’s way, but to establish Nashville as the new place for that. Hopefully over the next month or so, we can start getting a little swagger out of Nashville, too.”