Ben's Biz: An afternoon with the Triple-A Giants

May 31st, 2024

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE.

The following ballpark road trip recap is presented by Wyndham, proud sponsor of Minor League Ballpark Guides. Plan your road trip today, and check out the Sacramento River Cats Ballpark Guide HERE.

The Pacific Coast League was founded prior to the 1903 season, with six charter members: Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle. Only one of those cities is still represented in today’s PCL: Sacramento, home of the River Cats (Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants).

The River Cats were established in 2000 following a relocation from Vancouver. Baseball’s return to California’s capital city was precipitated by the construction of Raley Field, now known as Sutter Health Park. The team was a sensation from the jump, with 901,214 fans passing through the turnstiles in 2001. This, I believe, was Minor League Baseball’s largest single-season attendance figure of the 21st century.

Not to be pedantic, but: Sutter Health Park is actually located in West Sacramento, a separate city in Yolo County that was incorporated in 1987 after combining what had been three separate towns. The Tower Bridge, linking West Sacramento and Sacramento via the Sacramento River, peeks out from beyond right field. That body of water is what puts the “River” in “River Cats.”

The River Cats were an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics from their inception through 2014 and will soon share Sutter Health Park with their former parent club. The plan is for the A’s to play in Sacramento from 2025-27 while a new ballpark is built in Las Vegas, a unique and likely unprecedented situation. While taking in a River Cats game this season, it’s only natural to look around and imagine Sutter Health Park as a Major League ballpark. Its current capacity is a shade over 14,000.

Speaking of shade, there’s plenty of it throughout the ballpark via a spacious covered concourse and, in the outfield, natural vegetation.

Indeed -- it was and would be a beautiful day for a ballgame. The above, and below, pictures were taken in the late morning as preparations were underway for a 1:05 p.m. contest against the Tacoma Rainiers.

Upon arriving, one of the first people I sought out was River Cats utility infielder Donovan Walton. He was the first Sacramento “pitcher” to earn two wins this season, via a pair of two-inning extra-inning appearances against the Reno Aces over a three-day span. I wrote about that bizarre and impressive feat in my monthly “Crooked Numbers” column, and wanted to learn more.

I’ll include highlights from my conversation with Walton in next month’s Crooked Numbers column. In the time since we spoke he has pitched twice more, and still has a 0.00 ERA. Impressive stuff from a guy who doesn’t have the most impressive stuff.

As gametime approached I was reminded that this was not just any Sunday afternoon in May -- it was Cinco de Mayo. To commemorate this celebration of a Mexican military victory, the River Cats played as their wrestling-themed Copa de la Diversión identity. Hola, Dorados de Sacramento.

Fans entering the ballpark were greeted by live music and a piñata hanging from the concourse ceiling. A pregame brunch special offered Mexican cuisine, and several between-inning contests referenced specific aspects of Mexican history and pop culture.

Ashley Magdaleno, River Cats marketing and community engagement coordinator, plays a large role in planning the team’s Dorados games. She’s a native of Sinaloa, Mexico, and her firsthand knowledge of the country as well as Sacramento’s Latin American community result in a vibrant ballpark experience. The team will play as the Dorados on two more occasions this season, Aug. 29 and Sept. 17.

As fans poured into the ballpark, I was on the lookout for my Designated Eater.

Soon I found him, and he was bearing a gift!

That’s LeRoid David -- Bay Area native, Sacramento resident, huge sports fan, husband, father of four, public sector employee and artist. He’s been a supporter of my work for many years and always a positive presence on social media, and it was great to finally meet him in person.

LeRoid gave me a drawing he had made, extrapolating upon the graphic I used to promote my California ballpark road trip. This version of me has a fuller beard and less gray hair. In other words, it captures my true essence.

LeRoid and I did a lap of the concourse, starting at the left-field beer garden where he ordered an Urban Roots American IPA. A stop at the Cadillac Diner yielded a foot-long Chili Cheese Dinger Dog, and this was followed by the quick procurement of Gold Rush Fries (topped with barbecue pork, cheese and scallions).

LeRoid was a total Designated Eating professional, equal parts methodical, articulate and enthusiastic. He didn’t let the moment overwhelm him and wasn’t afraid to get messy. He used his hands whenever necessary, saying that he’s Filipino and eating with their hands is what Filipinos do.

He and I got to work.

“Dinger Dog has a really good snap to it, the nice thick bun helps hold up the chili,” he said. “If you want you can add additional condiments to it, like jalapeños. I probably would, just to give it that extra kick.”

Oh, and by the way, this is Dinger.

LeRoid then moved on to the Gold Rush Fries, which he ate with gusto. His lone complaint?

“I’m really surprised the River Cats did not put this in a helmet. This deserves to be in a helmet.”

We ended our culinary sojourn at the Sactown Smokehouse stand, located along the right-field line. Chicken wings, brisket, mac and cheese, coleslaw and cornbread. Why not? It was that kind of day.

“We’ve got to go big,” said LeRoid, who praised the “super creamy sharp white cheddar” mac and cheese, “crunchy, super-fresh” coleslaw, “nice and juicy” chicken and “tender, smoky, flavorful” brisket.

Bidding adieu to LeRoid and his family, I proceeded to the press box for an elevated view. This is the vantage point from which River Cats broadcaster Zack Bayrouty calls the action.

I spent a couple of innings on the air with Zack, talking, per usual, about the joys, frustrations and ambiguities of exploring America through Minor League Baseball.

The last time I saw Zack was in 2016, when he was calling games for the Stockton Ports in a white T-shirt (because the broadcast booth was so hot), talking into a mic stacked up on miscellaneous media guides.

Time flies and, in this pitch clock era, so do baseball games. The River Cats scored four times over the final two innings, but it wasn’t quite enough. The Rainiers, gameday party poopers from the dour Northwest, won by a score of 5-4.

Exiting the ballpark, I once again walked underneath the Cinco de Mayo piñata created in Dinger’s likeness.

The piñata was on the concourse but, given that it was filled with candy, maybe it should have been on the sweet level?

And, of course, thank you for reading. Get in touch anytime. My upcoming road trip itineraries can be found HERE.

Designated Eaters still wanted. Get in touch about that, or anything at all, at any time.