New Sacramento ballpark is a jewel

The muggy West Sacramento night couldn't keep the spectators away, not by a longshot. Despite evening temperatures in the 90s, a sold-out crowd came in droves out to the ballpark last Monday night to watch their River Cats play the Nashville Sounds.

The setting was Raley Field, the new home to the Pacific Coast League's River Cats. The place was packed, and there was plenty of excitement in the air.

It almost seemed as if Raley Field had been sitting on the edge of the Sacramento River for 15 years, but I knew that wasn't true.

Only two years ago, I stood at "home plate" for a press conference announcing that a Sacramento business group was seeking to buy a PCL franchise and move it to West Sac. The bases were marked by cardboard signs, because in all reality we were standing in the middle of a sheet metal mill, complete with the requisite amount of cracked asphalt, tractors and dust.

Raley Field was built in an industrial area that lines the river, just across the I Street bridge from downtown Sacramento. Two years ago, it was just a bunch of concrete and dirt, with a smattering of well worn buildings.

It hardly looked like the site for a Triple-A ballpark.

Fortunately, the people that brought the team to West Sac had greater vision than I. That includes Art Savage, who helped market the NHL expansion San Jose Sharks into a successful franchise, and Warren Smith, who worked with Kevin McClatchy years ago in an attempt to land a Major League franchise for Sacramento.

McClatchy has since purchased the Pittsburgh Pirates, leaving Smith to carry the torch.

I lived and worked in Sacramento for a few years, and I was always impressed by the level of support the area residents gave their teams. This isn't just pro sports, but also college and high school teams. Sacramento is a sports-hungry community, as evidenced by all the tickets the Kings sold during their lean years.

I had a hard time picturing this PCL dream coming together, though, while standing in the middle of that dusty steel mill. What I overlooked is that Camden Yards, the new home of the Baltimore Orioles and one of the most beautiful parks I've visited, was built in similar surroundings. And the same people who designed Raley Field were the visionaries that built Camden 10 years ago.

The circle was completed last Monday night, at least for me. Raley Field is a marvel, a place that anyone in Northern Nevada should visit at least once a season.

First off, like Camden Yards, there isn't a bad seat in the house. The stands are close to the field, and there's only one level for seating. Down the lines, you can get tickets for $5, and behind home plate it's $14.

You can even sit in the outfield if you prefer, although there are no seats - just a grassy knoll, some picnic tables and a barbecue area. Just bring a blanket and sit on the green.

As you walk in the cast iron gates guarding the front (another similarity to Camden Yards), you aren't shuttled into a small space and forced to find your seats. Right in front of you is a wide-open courtyard area, with vendors and information booths there to peruse.

Ticket takers and ushers are dressed in 1920s-style clothing, giving you an old-time feel for the atmosphere. There is also the official River Cats team store, where you can buy merchandise from golf shirts to mousepads.

The team markets itself with the slogan "Minor League baseball, Major League fun." It's the perfect description, too, because we saw some excellent baseball in a setting that kept the familiarity of the minor league game, including the contests and between-inning games that add to the sport's charm.

In the outfield, you get a great view of the Sacramento skyline, with its towering buildings in the distance. Down the right-field line, you get a glimpse of the I Street bridge, and in left-center is the Money Store pyramid, which looks fantastic when lit up at night.

From my point of view, the most attractive thing about seeing the River Cats play is the chance to see the stars of tomorrow. Sacramento is an Oakland A's affiliate, and they're known to have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball.

I got to see Mario Encarnacion, the A's best prospect of that level. He is indeed a powerful hitter, and his arm is as good as advertised. He should be in The Show within a year or so.

We also got to see pitcher Luis Vizcaino, the A's hot pitching prospect who throws in the mid-90s. My dad and I sat 14 rows behind home plate, and in front of us was a row of scouts, including representatives from the Florida Marlins and New York Yankees. When Vizcaino came on to pitch, you could see the excitement among the scouts as they pulled out their radar guns and began taking furious notes between pitches.

The Sounds are a Pirates affiliate, and I got a good look at center field prospect Chad Hermansen, who started the year with the big club before being sent down. He shouldn't be down there long - he swings a good bat and has decent plate discipline, but you should have seen him fly down the base line.

For some, it's the baseball. For others, the fun of going to a game is the atmosphere and experience. Raley Field has both, making this a great (and inexpensive) way to spend an afternoon. The stands are always packed - in fact, Sacramento leads the PCL in attendance at more than 10,000 people per game.

If you're interested in tickets and schedules, go to the River Cats' home on the Web at www.sacramentorivercats.com. Or, you can purchase tickets on www.tickets.com.

Jeremy Littau is the Nevada Appeal sports editor.

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