Happy Birthday, River Cats!

“It was 20 years ago today.” The River Cats officially turn 20 as their first game was played April 6, 2000 which started a month-long road trip of 37 games in 40 days as Raley Field had not been completed due to bad weather.

The Cats were scheduled to open their season this Thursday in Reno against the Aces; unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic has put baseball on hold. While we await to hear “let’s play ball” for the first time at Sutter Health Park, here is a look back at opening night 2019.

The River Cats started their 20th season under an overcast sky. The crowd of only 8,820 was cold, and the energy was low and gray like the clouds above them. Prior to the game there were rumblings from the fans about the extended netting to protect people from foul balls, and how it took away from the atmosphere that made Raley Field great. It’s Opening Night. Yet it felt like no one wanted to be in Triple-A.

Andrew Suarez was given the ball and would be making his second opening day start for the River Cats. Tacoma’s Eric Swanson, one of Seattle’s top prospects, would keep the Cats quiet with a strong start as the Rainiers took an early 2-0 lead. The crowd finally came alive when Carmichael native Zach Green hit a stand up triple in the bottom of the sixth, and then knocked in by Henry Ramos to finally put the Cats on the board. The Rainiers would add a run in the eighth, and the score was 3-1 Tacoma, going into the bottom of the ninth.

The Cats were down to their last three outs and the fans started to file out of the ballpark anticipating a loss, and in hopes of making a quick exit from the parking lot. Mike Yastrzemski had other plans. The Cats had two runners on when Yaz came up clutch with a double scoring Henry Ramos and Breyvic Valera; game tied. This would be the first time in River Cats history that Opening Night would go into extra innings.

This would also allow everyone to see the newly implemented “inherited runner”, better known in softball tournament play as the international tiebreaker rule. The object was to speed up extra inning games in Minor League Baseball by having a runner at second base at the start of each half inning. Having raised two daughters who spent over 20 combined years on softball fields, I was familiar with this rule. I found it to be exciting, and it proved to be just that on Opening Night.

The Rainiers would pull ahead to make it 4-3 in the top of the 11th and it felt like a punch to the gut; but the few remaining fans who stayed saw some exciting baseball in the bottom half of the inning. Henry Ramos would start the inning on second base, and Aramis Garcia knocked him in with a double to tie the game and bringing up Breyvic Valera. All eyes were on Valera, and the anticipation was high, but Valera stayed focused at the plate and hit a ball hard to the outfield.

Garcia, with the speed of a catcher, raced home and as the ball came in from the outfield, Garcia dove headlong into home scoring the winning run! The team rushed the field in celebration on what became an electrifying Opening Night! Little did we know that it would be the first sign of things to come.

I miss baseball and the 2019 River Cats season was a dream come true. Opening Day has come and gone without a single pitch in 2020. I miss the game, the players, the fans, and the friendships that develop over the course of a full season. Most of all I miss the stories that the game creates. We may be without baseball this year but it’s not gone forever. The memories remain, and the hope for the “next year” will always be alive. World Wars, strikes, and now the coronavirus have stopped baseball, yet the game endures.

Stay safe out there, and I hope to see you all at the ballpark this summer.

It’s the Most Exciting Time Of Year.

If your mind went anywhere other than pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training then there is still hope if your next thought was realizing it’s baseball season again!

Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks because spring games have begun in Arizona and Florida. Prospects are getting their first taste of big league camp, vets holding on for one more year, and everyone else who isn’t named Mike Trout or Garrit Cole trying to remain relevant enough to stay employed somehow, somewhere. Young stars like Washington’s Juan Soto even recognize that this is a new season and world series, heroics aside, he was signed to
be replaced.

Playing professional baseball is hard. The few who have the luxury to do so and succeed are athletically gifted, extremely driven, and focused. Having just the opportunity to play this game for a living is a dream of many, including myself, but it’s far from just fun and games.

I have been fortunate enough to cover the Sacramento River Cats day in and day out the past two seasons, and have gotten to know a handful of players along the way. One of the things I took away from these encounters was how normal many of these players’ lives are during the season. The money at the Triple-A level isn’t horrible, but most of these guys aren’t making the millions or even hundreds of thousands of dollars many assume that they do. Yes there are some “Bonus Babies” out there that allow some to indulge from time to time, but the reality is that most are just young men doing their jobs, enjoying themselves when they can, and then going “home” at the end of the long day like the rest of the world.

Players are pulled in so many directions simply for being a professional athlete, that it’s difficult to open up easily to others and it’s mentally and physically draining just to be in the public eye. How difficult it must be to try and figure out someones intentions and if they just want to use you. I even recognize as a writer and photographer that in some way, I’m using them too. Over time though we each get to see the person behind the mask or the lens, and that’s how the magic happens and the story develops.

The original concept of my book was to write a retrospective of the Sacramento River Cats as their 20th season approached. I had an outline of what I wanted the book to look like. I reached out to past players, including Sacramento’s first superstar Barry Zito, and asked them to share their memories about their time in Sacramento. I knew exactly what my plan was, but even the best laid plans of mice and men…

The 2019 season unfolded exactly like I dreamed but never how I expected. Part way through the season I slammed the brakes to the story I was writing, for the story taking place right before my eyes. 2019 was a magical year so I don’t know how much I planned in 2017/2018 will end up in the final book as real life is filled with uncertainty.

The plan was to release my book in the spring of 2020 to coincide with the new season, but life happens, and I’ve been forced to lay this book down for a few months. What is a personal nightmare may have just become a blessing in disguise for my story. I had been so caught up in editing that I lost track of what I wanted to do, and that was to write a piece that captures the excitement that River Cats baseball has provided for 20 years.

I hope you enjoy this blog as I handle life’s hiccups and finalize “Let’s Get It All.”