It didn’t take long for the Sacramento River Cats to become one of the biggest success stories in minor league baseball history.
After going 25 years without baseball California’s capital city reintroduced itself to America’s pastime in 2000 when Raley Field opened on the banks of the Sacramento River.
In their first season the River Cats drew 861,808 fans, which lead all of Minor League Baseball and broke the all-time Pacific Coast League attendance record by nearly 150,000 people.
The River Cats success has been far from short lived, as Sacramento has led all of Minor League Baseball in attendance during their first five seasons (2000-04) at Raley Field.
The team has also been successful on the field, winning back-to-back PCL Championships in 2003 and 2004, and their ballpark naming rights deal with Raley's Supermarkets - $15 million over 20 years - is the most lucrative in Minor League Baseball by a good distance.
From the outside, Raley Field exudes a lot of charm. The name of the ballpark is displayed in big letters, in a manner resembling Atlanta’s Turner Field, next to a clock tower near the main entrance behind home plate. Raley Field also has a right field gate entrance, although there are no ticket sales there.
My only complaint about my experience in Sacramento concerns parking, for which the team charges $9. But I did find out later that there was a $5 option for parking behind right field.
When I entered Raley Park I found all of the standard features associated with ballparks built in the modern era, such as an open concourse, berm seating, a foul ball deck in left field, and a sunken playing field (17 feet below surface area).
The ballpark has a capacity of 14,680 fans and most of them sit in the 11,092 seats located in the main seating bowl. Raley Park does have an upper deck but there are only six small sections (201-206) available for public sale. The vast majority of the upper seating belongs to the ballpark’s 36 skybox suite holders.
One of the more interesting facts about Raley Field, which was privately financed for $29.5 million, is that it actually resides in West Sacramento, a fact I didn’t notice until after the game started. Only when I saw the fence padding down the right field line, about 300 feet from home plate, with the inscription “West Sacramento Welcomes You” did I realize that I was actually outside of the Sacramento city limits.
Apparently when an opportunity to build a ballpark presented itself, political haggling in Sacramento opened the door for the folks in West Sacramento and thus the ballpark was built there. The Sacramento River separates the two cities, which are only about a mile apart but reside in separate counties.
One of the most important aspects of a successful ballpark is its location and Raley Field takes advantage of its close proximity to downtown Sacramento and the Sacramento River.
The yellow Tower Bridge, which spans the River to connect Sacramento to West Sacramento, is prominently visible from the main seating bowl. The Tower Bridge, which is part of the team's logo, looms in front of the Sacramento skyline and the best seats to take advantage of the view are located on the third base side of the ballpark. If you sit in the first base grandstand you can’t really appreciate the view.
The Ziggurat Building, which houses offices for local government jobs, located just beyond center field is the only West Sacramento building tall enough to be seen from anywhere inside the ballpark. You’ll probably notice the Ziggurat before anything else because of its unique pyramid shape.
Raley Field features berms in both left and right field, although the majority of fans pack the grass hills in right field, where the berm has a more suitable slope for viewing the game (despite a couple of small obstructing trees). The left field berm is mainly an area where fans can stand behind the fence or look into the batting cages and clubhouses that are located in left-center field.
Interestingly the two berms are not connected, as the outfield concourse does not wrap around the ballpark. There is, however, a dirt walkway the size of a warning track that separates fans standing in the left field berm from the main fence. Players use this walkway to get from the clubhouse to the playing field, so interaction is possible as they walk by.
One of the more impressive aspects of my visit to Sacramento was the friendly people I met and the enthusiastic support of the home crowd for the River Cats. Considering the unprecedented support, it’s hard to believe professional baseball had been absent from here for so long.
The city of Sacramento had hosted the Solons of the Pacific Coast League beginning with the league’s inception in 1903, and the team was a local staple for all but seven years up until 1960 when they moved to Hawaii.
The Solons played their games at Edmonds Field, which was torn down in 1964, and the River Cats have plenty of memorabilia and information from the Solons era located in their team store. Among the items fans can see is the original home plate used at Edmonds Field and an action shot taken during a 1944 game of the Solons’ Paul Bowa, father of former Phillies star and manager Larry Bowa.
It was nice to see a ball club with such an impressive present taking the time to remember Sacramento’s baseball past. The River Cats even named an area of the ballpark in remembrance of the city’s original team, as the private Solon Club is located in the second deck of Raley Field and open to founder club and suite ticket holders.
For me, Raley Field served as a reminder that a ballpark can exact a very positive influence on its host city. If not for coming to see the River Cats I would not have experienced the vibrant yet quaint city of Sacramento, which is one of the only cities in California to host baseball that isn’t prone to bouts of wind or cool weather.
I came away very impressed with the ballpark and the city of Sacramento itself. Now I can see why the record setting crowds keep showing up at Raley Field.