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West Sacramento Sun

River Cats Changing in the New Baseball Year

Mar 05, 2024 03:49PM ● By Mitch Barber, photos courtesy of Sacramento River Cats
  Fans arrive at Sutter Health Park to watch a ball game. 

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - If you’ve ever watched Triple-A baseball, you know that it is extremely competitive and just one level below the major leagues. It also happens to be a lot of fun.

Before the 2024 season gets underway in late March, Messenger Publishing Group interviewed a well-informed man in Sutter Health Park’s press box: Jake Ward, who is the Sacramento River Cats communications coordinator.

The interview began with discussion about Dinger, the River Cats’ full-of-fun mascot who plays a key role with the team at and away from the ballpark.

Dinger Sutter Health Park

  Dinger stands perched on top of the dugout at Sutter Health Park, 400 Ballpark Drive, West Sacramento.

“Every year, one of the big events that we do, one of our draws, is Dinger’s birthday party. So, we have a lot of mascots in the area come to the game for his birthday,” Ward said. “Last year, there was Quackals…Dunkson from Stockton…I believe Herky T. Hornet was here.”

The UC Davis mustang mascot, Gunrock, also attended.

Dinger’s birthday event will be on July 21 this year during the Albuquerque Isotopes game.

Dinger beachball

  Dinger stands on the dugout with a beachball, ready for some fun with fans. 

Ward outlined another enjoyable event, a ballpark get-together, that took place last year.

“We did a sleepover night where we had some fans who could purchase a package to stay on the field and then they showed the movie, ‘Sandlot,’ while they had some sleeping bags and some tents out there on the grass,” Ward said. “…That was a pretty cool one (event).”

This year, on March 30, gameday festivities will revolve around the movie.

But the River Cats aren’t a team of kids with one that says, “You’re killing me, Smalls.” They are a professional team affiliated with the San Francisco Giants in the Pacific Coast League (a league that includes the Sugar Land Space Cowboys, a team name indicative of more fun).

The River Cats’ field is a step up from the makeshift one in the movie. Ward explained how Sutter Health Park is different from the former Raley Field: “We’ve been completely remodeling the inside of our clubhouse.”

Sutter Health Park clubhouse

  Sutter Health Park will have a newly-remodeled clubhouse this season.

There is no irony in what the organization is doing with Sutter Health Park.

“Mental health is just as big as physical health,” Ward said. “It’s something that our organization stresses all the way from the Giants up at the top, all the way down through San Jose (its Single-A affiliate).”

“In addition to expanding our weight-room area and adding a second batting tunnel, they’re also adding family rooms and they’re adding a mental health room,” Ward continued.

The family rooms would make it possible for players to meet a spouse or their children in a laid-back atmosphere.

Another modification has to do with the lights.

“We’re replacing a lot of our lights; we’re moving to LED lights just to be a little bit more energy efficient,” Ward said.

He said they wouldn’t have to go through the warmup period required of standard floodlights before they shine bright.

Sutter Health Park fans

  Fans relax on the outfield grass during a game at Sutter Health Park. 

Ward was happy to announce that what will stay the same is the head coach.

“Dave Brundage will be back for his seventh season,” he said.

Brundage has the second most wins in franchise history.

A staff change this season revolves around a promotion.

“Our pitching coach from last season — Garvin Alston — he earned one of those promotions (to the major leagues) and he is now going to be the bullpen coach for the Giants,” Ward said.

He was happy about the news, but more focused on the River Cats. “The home opener is Friday, March 29, against the Salt Lake Bees at 6:45 p.m.,” said Ward.

Ward also knew about another special game: “Just about a week prior — this isn’t our opening day but a big event that we’re excited for — we’ll be facing off against the Giants in our exhibition game on Sunday, March 24th.”

Tower Bridge outfield grass

  The Tower Bridge looms behind the outfield grass at Sutter Health Park.

The San Francisco Giants and the rest of Major League Baseball don’t use the automated ball-strike (ABS) system, but this year, like last season, the River Cats and the rest of the PCL will use the automated ball-strike. The first three games of each six-game series “will be all-automated,” Ward said, meaning that all ball and strike calls will be relayed to the umpire through an earpiece and called using the Hawk-Eye tracking system. (Tennis fans might recognize the Hawk-Eye name.)

The last three games of each series, Ward said, “We go back to a more traditional system where your umpire calls balls and strikes but we use a challenge system…so if a batter feels that a pitch was called a strike, but he thinks, no, that pitch was outside or it was high, he can turn around and he can initiate a challenge by tapping his helmet.”

Each team will get three challenges to start the game. The pitcher, batter or catcher can initiate a challenge — the inquiry cannot be initiated by the dugout.

“It goes up on the jumbotron,” Ward said.

It's all part of the competitive, fun experience that is Sacramento River Cats baseball. Play ball!

Sutter Health Park is at 400 Ballpark Drive, West Sacramento.

Nick Avila Turlock Sacramento River Cats

  Nick Avila, Turlock native and member of the Sacramento River Cats, pitches at Sutter Health Park. 

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