River Cats are all the baseball we need
By R.E. Graswich
A burst of optimism shot across the local sports scene this spring when the Oakland Athletics received a hunting license from Major League Baseball. The license means the A’s can “explore other markets,” team president Dave Kaval says.
First priority for Kaval is to build a $1 billion ballpark in Oakland near Jack London Square. Failing that, the A’s might follow their football cousins to Las Vegas. If Nevada taxpayers grow tired of financing temples for billionaire sports cartels, there’s always Portland, Nashville, Charlotte or Vancouver.
There isn’t Sacramento. Local baseball fans have dreamed about stealing the A’s for almost 40 years, since foundations were poured for the abandoned ballpark next to Arco Arena. It’s not going to happen. The A’s have never seriously considered moving to Sacramento. And that’s fine.
The A’s know the political congestion in Sacramento may be slightly less phlegmatic than Oakland, but baseball execs can do math. They understand the challenge of filling a 40,000-seat stadium 81 times a year, combined with soft corporate support in a mid-sized government town.
They know financial success would be tough in Sacramento, even if the ballpark was constructed with public subsidies and supported by a sweetheart development deal. Baseball owners are similar to basketball owners and football owners and soccer owners. They want guarantees, not risks.
Ten years ago, when I worked for Mayor Kevin Johnson, I met a group of consultants from the A’s and Major League Baseball. They wanted to see the Downtown railyards. Johnson told them a big league ballpark would fit beautifully among the old Southern Pacific warehouses and repair shops. The baseball boys wanted to see for themselves.
We brought them into the yards through a muddy entrance on Jibboom Street. They inhaled history and savored opportunity. They felt nothing.
Maybe they lacked imagination. The baseball boys asked no questions about the city’s history. They barely mentioned baseball. Their focus was on parking spaces, corporate suites and sponsorships, market strength and media support.
They wanted to know how much money the city would have leftover for baseball once it helped finance a new arena for the Kings. When they realized the answer was not much, the tour was over. They didn’t even bring up the River Cats, who would disappear if the A’s moved in.
I wanted to talk about the River Cats. They were among the most successful teams in minor league baseball and Oakland’s Triple-A feeder club. With their jewel box ballpark in West Sacramento, clever front office, warm summer nights, cold beer and fresh peanuts, the River Cats created a perfect environment. They primed the city for Major League Baseball. At least that was the mayor’s theory.
Watching a River Cats game on a summer night is a wonderful experience. Ticket prices are reasonable, food is hearty, and crowds are youthful and fun. River Cats games are vastly more enjoyable than seeing the A’s at the Oakland Coliseum—the action is closer, the atmosphere relaxed.
Pro sports teach us to think we should be grateful to pay to watch superstars, but the modern game has been reduced to interchangeable parts. A revolving door of pitchers determine the final score. Rosters are ridiculously fluid, here today, gone tomorrow. Who cares who plays first base?
Which convinced me Sacramento doesn’t need the A’s. The River Cats are the best sports experience in town, better than the Kings.
When the River Cats canceled the 2020 season and padlocked the ballpark for 600 days, the community’s pandemic losses intensified. Summer without the River Cats heightened the COVID depression. The loss of baseball proved how completely the River Cats have woven themselves into the community for 22 years.
I don’t know if the A’s returned to check out Sacramento after that visit 10 years ago. I doubt they came back. There’s nothing for them. Today the River Cats support the Giants under a 10-year agreement, which is fine with everyone. The ballpark is open. Crowds are joyous. Major League Baseball would only get in the way.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.