Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Giants are biggest winners in River Cats’ affiliation switch

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

They were innovative, entertaining pioneers of the local minor-league sports scene. When the Sacramento City Council showed zero interest in housing a ballpark, the late Art Savage crossed the river, promised to bring home a Triple-A franchise and formed a wildly successful partnership with West Sacramento business leaders, citizens and politicians.

And with the A’s.

And with Billy Beane.

Savage & Co. built Raley Field faster than clerks stocked the shelves at the nearest supermarket. In their 15 seasons, the River Cats have won 11 division titles, four Pacific Coast League crowns and two Triple-A Championships, and hosted more visitors than any other minor-league organization since 2000.

Images of Tony DeFrancesco, Bobby Crosby, Mark Ellis, Carlos Gonzalez, Sonny Gray, Barry Zito, Eric Byrnes, Brett Anderson, Kurt Suzuki, Huston Street, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Vogt, among others, will continue to decorate the walls inside the ballpark in a nice tribute to the fellas who spent time here and, mostly, took their talents to the next level.

But the Giants are the biggest winners in this latest version of minor-league musical chairs. With the A’s signing a four-year player development deal in Nashville, their top prospects and executives have to shuttle between Tennessee and Oakland. With the Giants signing a two-year deal with the River Cats, their youngsters and officials can make the 90-mile drive in less than two hours, assuming they have FasTrak and pay attention to the traffic reports. And even with the occasionally unpredictable grind of Interstate 80 gridlock, the commute still beats Fresno.

“Ultimately for us, the distance between San Francisco and Sacramento is half,” said Bobby Evans, the Giants’ assistant general manager. “That gave us an advantage when you think of major-league call-ups, player transactions, as well as our staff getting to see players. This is a better location.”

Gold is the new green remember, too. We get that here. The tight-fisted A’s might be suffering a momentary lapse of California environmental etiquette (Nashville?), but this was a parting that was meant to be.

As long as the A’s ran the show, the Cats were doomed to remain the underdogs. They were affiliated with the major-league Bay Area club that played in a lousy stadium in Oakland, whose owners constantly cried poverty and threatened relocation to Fremont, San Jose or somewhere else – a chronic irritant coinciding with similar whining from former Kings owners Jim Thomas and the Maloof family – and who never seriously considered Sacramento as a possible destination city.

A’s owner Lew Wolff would periodically flirt with Sacramento city officials and send out the occasional feeler, of course, though mainly to tweak the feuding parties back in Oakland and further irritate his increasingly restless colleagues throughout Major League Baseball. But he regarded the capital as an appropriate region for indoor sports (NBA, NHL, WNBA), or outdoor events that could be scheduled after 7:30 p.m., say, such as a Triple-A team, but no place for his A’s.

For one thing, he hated the heat that would have meant scrapping weekend and midweek day games, and when asked about beating the climate with an indoor ballpark, he shook his head. Not a chance. Wolff also has long maintained that this area’s small corporate base lends itself to leagues with fewer games such as the NBA, WNBA and Triple A, and who knows what he thinks about the possibility of a Northern California Major League Soccer rival for his Earthquakes, another league with a limited number (17) of home games?

Some of what Wolff maintains makes sense. Peering into the future, it also seems obvious that (a) MLB shares his reservations about the Sacramento market; (b) the A’s ongoing ballpark issues figure to extend beyond the Bud Selig era, perhaps even prompt another protracted study by some financial committee or other; and (c) with the Sacramento sports landscape evolving (prudently, one hopes) and becoming increasingly competitive with new Kings ownership and a downtown arena, MLS officials sniffing around for an expansion or relocation possibilities and the Ranadive/Kings ownership publicly committed to pursuing a WNBA franchise when the sports complex is completed in 2016, the Cats had to step up their game. The underdog feels someone – possibly more than one someone – on his heels.

The fluctuation in Raley Field attendance was another factor. Though still among the league leaders, the River Cats averaged 8,435 this past season, seeming to hit a plateau and down from the 12,517 fans attracted in the peak year 2001. Stat geeks aren’t the only ones wondering whether the Giants’ success, coupled with the A’s instability, might account for some of the malaise.

In explaining his reason for approaching the Giants, River Cats president Jeff Savage repeatedly cited the results of a recent Bee poll of 8,227 respondents, with 59 percent of voters endorsing a River Cats-Giants pairing and 28 percent preferring an affiliation with the A’s. Additionally, and because he has an extensive business background, Savage referenced interactive metrics showing that the Giants held an enormous advantage in popularity throughout the northern Central Valley, Southern Oregon and Northern Nevada, and most notably, right here in Sacramento.

“I go back to the times when I was a kid,” recalled former Giants manager Dusty Baker, a Del Campo High School graduate and Granite Bay resident. “When the Giants came through on barnstorming tours, playing at Land Park, it meant a lot. I sort of felt … the kids bring the parents to the ballpark. The parents drive. I told (former Giants owner) Bob Lurie, ‘You got to stop these kids from (switching allegiance) to the A’s,’ and I’m a former A’s (player) myself.”

The River Cats’ hope is that the cachet of partnering with the Giants (and might Dusty be involved?) will translate into increased attendance and an infusion of cash, though the standardized contracts with the parent club limit Triple-A revenue to ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorships, licensing agreements and concessions within their own facilities. The major-league clubs pay player and coaching salaries and control all personnel.

Before returning to his office, Savage pointed out the ongoing construction of a nearby housing development, noted plans for two new bridges and a streetcar line, and offered a final thought about the changing face of the area.

“Everything is fitting together,” he said. “It’s a 10-minute walk from here to the (proposed) arena. Especially if that streetcar project goes through, this would be a good spot for Kings fans to park. Sacramento just has a lot of options all of a sudden.”