Friday, April 15, 2011

Las Vegas 51s split a pair in Sacramento - April 13/14, 2011

After watching the Giants game on Tuesday night, I woke early on Wednesday and drove 95 miles to the state's capital city to watch the AAA Sacramento River Cats take on the Las Vegas 51s, affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. There were intermittent showers along I-80, but when I pulled into my hotel, it was sunny and time for baseball.

Sacramento River Cats

Full disclosure: I had a thing against this team. They used to be based in Vancouver and I spent 6 seasons watching them at beautiful Nat Bailey Stadium. But the franchise was sold to Art Savage who moved it to Sacramento in 2000. Since then they have been the most successful team in U.S. professional sports, winning nine divisions, four league titles, and two AAA championships (trophies from 2007 below). This is a testament to the minor league system of parent club Oakland, who have been unable to replicate this success at the major league level.

During this time, the River Cats have led all of minor league baseball in attendance, with over 8.3 million fans passing through the turnstiles over those 11 years. Given the success of the NBA's Kings, this is not surprising. Sacramento fans are passionate and it shows.

Raley Field

The River Cats play at Raley Field, just west of the Sacramento River. Right now the area around the ballpark is under renovation as they are building a new entertainment district with the field as the centerpiece. I'm not exactly sure what parking options are available, but I chose to avoid the construction and walk the mile and a half from my hotel, passing over the iconic Tower Bridge (below).

Tickets here are surprisingly expensive. I guess with such a strong following that you can afford to charge those prices, but I can't afford to pay $42 for a AAA game. To be fair, there are more affordable options. I saw two games here, one on Wednesday afternoon and the other on Thursday evening. For the first game, I opted for the $7 Centex Value Corner, two small sections located down the left field line and barely visible in the picture below. However, with this being early in the season, the park was pretty empty. Once inside, you could sit where you wanted; a big shout-out to the ushers, who are not checking tickets but just making sure everyone has a good time.

For the second game, I met a friendly group who had an extra and were kind enough to offer it to me for $7. This turned out to be a great deal for me as I got to sit with them and be entertained by their antics all night long. More on that later.

One interesting seating option is the Home Run Terrace beyond the left field fence. It is only open for Thursday night games, which are also $2 beer nights, so you can really relax here!

The stadium is fairly typical for AAA, a concourse above a single seating level with the suites upstairs. There is lawn seating beyond the right field fence and a Blue Moon Party Deck in the right field corner.

I liked the line-ups that were displayed on a realistic umpire-catcher combination (above), and the poles around the ballpark contain mosaics that appear to have been created by local youth (below), but otherwise there wasn't much of note.

Hot dogs here were very good. I bought one on Wednesday and then used a coupon from a T-shirt I snagged to get another one on Thursday. Some other intriguing menu items include a chicken fajita rice bowl and chicken pesto sandwich but I didn't try them. Prices are major league, but in this case, it might be worth it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this ballpark. A short walk from downtown, Raley Field is a great place to relax and watch a game, which is how it should be. Just lower those prices a bit please.

Game 1 - Las Vegas 51s 6 at Sacramento River Cats 5

The first game was a Wednesday afternoon affair with a noon-time start. Man, I love nooners. But that's beside the point. I also enjoy baseball in the afternoon and when the Jays AAA team is involved, it is even more exciting.

Josh Outman (warming up, above) started for Sacramento. He was a prospect who was injured in 2009 and missed all of 2010 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. This was only his second start and it wasn't a good one. After Darin Mastroianni singled to lead off the game, Mike McCoy (sent down a few days before and still without his name on his jersey) sacrificed him to second (below).

After Brett Lawrie, a Canadian and the Jays 3rd baseman of the future, struck out, Eric Thames singled to score Mastroianni. Ryan Shealy walked to bring David Cooper to the plate. Cooper was the Jays first pick in 2008 and I've already seen him play in Auburn and New Hampshire. He's now in Vegas and his early season hitting streak continued as he crushed the second pitch from Outman for a 3-run homer. The picture below is the swing, you can see the ball just next to the right edge of the picture.

I was about the only person cheering as Cooper rounded the bases but that would be all I would enjoy for a long time. Sacramento notched a run in the bottom half when Jemile Weeks (Rickie's younger brother and Oakland's 1st rounder in 2008, pictured below getting hit by a pitch later in the game) doubled off 51s' starter Randy Boone. Eric Sogard singled Weeks to third and he scored when Chris Carter grounded into a double play.

Sacramento added more in the second when Lawrie misplayed an easy grounder with the bases loaded. Two unearned runs scored to make it 4-3 Las Vegas.

Outman was replaced in the third by Vinnie Chulk, who had spent a couple of months in Japan last season. I saw him in Hiroshima during that time, and now he's plying his trade in Sacramento. I love it when these players randomly appear on my trips. Not sure the players share the feeling though. Anyway, Chulk pitched well, going 2.2 scoreless before being removed for Willie Eyre, who retired all 10 batters he faced.

Meanwhile, the River Cats plated a pair in the sixth off reliever Mike Hinckley. Back-to-back doubles from Adrian Cardenas and Jai Miller were followed by an RBI single from Adam Heether and it was 5-4 for the home team.

In the 9th, Fernando Cabrera replaced Eyre and walked Ryan Budde to lead off the inning. After Mastroianni popped up, McCoy grounded to third in what looked to become a game-ending double play. But Cardenas booted it and Lawrie (above) followed with a shot down the right field line that Matt Carson couldn't quite get to. The ball fell in for a double, Budde scored easily while McCoy raced around third, just beating the throw home to score the go-ahead run. Yes! 51s lead!

Closer Rommie Lewis pitched the ninth, walking Carter with two out but getting Carson to ground weakly to second to end the game. Final below:

An excellent result for me as the baby Jays pull out a late-inning victory. The game took 3:20, but no complaints. When the weather is nice, there's nothing better than being outside watching AAA ball.

Game 2 - Las Vegas 1 at Sacramento 2 (11)

Brad Mills (above), recently sent down from Toronto, got the start for Vegas while Guillermo Moscoso took the hill for the River Cats. I saw Moscoso win a game last season in Iowa when he was pitching for Oklahoma City.

I was hoping for a pitchers duel and got it. Mills pitched 7 innings of 1-hit ball, but gave up a run in the 4th on 2 walks, a wild pitch, and a sacrifice fly. Moscoso was even better, scattering 4 hits over 6 innings without yielding a run.

In the 7th, Gabe DeHoyos relieved Moscoso. With 1 out, Chris Woodward walked and Adam Loewen and Ryan Shealy followed with singles to tie the game. From there, both bullpens were solid and we went to extras still knotted at 1.

In the top of the 11th, Woodward singled with Eric Thames at second. Thames was sent home but Matt Carson made a great throw to nail him at the plate and keep the game tied. In the bottom half, Chad Cordero hit Steve Tolleson to lead things off. After Chris Carter flied out to deep, deep center, Carson singled and Tolleson took third with some good baserunning. Anthony Recker followed with a fly ball to center that was deep enough to score Tolleson (below) and the River Cats salvaged the last game of the series with a 2-1 victory in 11 innings. Both River Cat runs were Recker sacrifice flies that scored Tolleson.

Another great game that didn't end quite the way I wanted but still pretty exciting.

As I mentioned earlier, I sat with a group of people having a farewell party for two of their members. They work for the Salvation Army and were laughing all night long and keeping me entertained with their jokes and general good humour. Thanks to Ava, Syd, Bruce, Natalie (who picked up a foul ball), Larry, Lois, Danielle, and everyone else for making my stay in Sacramento so memorable.

Social Media and Sports Road Trips

I've recently begun tweeting regularly (@sportsroadtrips) and have found it to be a good way to increase awareness of my trip. I've begun following a number of sources, mostly sportswriters and bloggers, but also some journalists that have provided a lot of interesting insight into the post-tsunami world of northeastern Japan.

For this game, I was contacted by James Venes, a sports photographer who works freelance in the area. We chatted before the game and he was kind enough to take a picture of me and send it through. I'll use that as my profile pic here, while you can check out his work at Last of the Ninth.

I've also heard from some of the teams I'm going to visit and they are so helpful with tickets and other assistance. So if you are a blogger, you should get on Twitter. It's the best way to stay updated and let others know of what you are doing.

I'm on YouTube!

The River Cats put up highlights of the first game and I saw myself celebrating Cooper's dinger. Check out the link at the 15 second mark and look for the goof sitting by himself, dressed all in black and making the home run signal for a second or two before looking down to update his scorebook. Yep, me.


Las Vegas' manager is Marty Brown, who spent the last 5 years managing in Japan for Hiroshima and Rakuten. Here he is getting ejected late in the Thursday game after arguing a call.

Las Vegas reliever Chad Cordero tragically lost his daughter to SIDS this past winter, a very sad story that few know about. The Washington Post wrote a touching story which I encourage you to read. I wish Chad and his family all the best and hope to see him in Toronto later this season.

Chris Carter is Oakland's #2 prospect according to Baseball America, but he looks lost at the plate. He's hitting just .107 after pounding the ball for 31 homers last year. His swings were feeble and I wonder if he expected to be with the Athletics this year and is taking it poorly. It's still early and his last swing of the evening was a 400 foot out, so who knows. But it might be someone worth following if you are an opposing GM. Update: Carter hit a homer and had 5 RBIs in the next game. So much for my brilliant baseball scouting abilities.

I picked up my first freebie of the trip, grabbing a T-shirt thrown into the crowd. There was a poor old guy two rows behind me who couldn't quite reach it and the shirt fell into my row. As he leaned over the two rows to try and pick it up, I snatched it out of his reach, much to his dismay. He nearly killed himself trying to grab it, and I felt slightly guilty for using my youth and speed (yeah right) to leave him empty-handed, but the rules of ballpark freebies applied and he assured me he was all right with a high five. His friends spent the rest of the game hassling him though. Even better, it came with the free hot dog coupon which I mentioned earlier.

I also mentioned that Thursday was $2 beer nights. Of course, I had to have one (or two). I was surprised to be carded, but even more surprised to be told that my Canadian driver's license is not an acceptable form of identification. So no beer for me. Well, I'm not going to accept that! I went to guest services and asked why there was such a policy. The head of food services explained to me that there's a lot of problems with minors trying to get served so they limit IDs to those they can verify. OK, fine, I'll accept that. But then he then told me that I was obviously over 21 and he accompanied me back to the stand to approve my beer purchase. That's service!

All-in-all, a great two days in Sacramento and my long-standing dislike for the River Cats is done. Great staff there that really make you feel welcome. When they finish the West Sacramento Bridge District, I'll be back!



1 comment:

  1. Obviously over 21, huh? ;-)

    Nice getting to chat with you a bit. I've already got my own photos from the first game up on my site, or people can see them here:

    I love going out to work in that ballpark, though usually the crowds are smaller for me because I don't get to go there much on weekends. Glad you got to see a couple games and had a good experience. They've got some very good food there, too. I had the chicken fajita bowl the day we talked and it was excellent, and the donut burger last week. I survived!