River Cats Primed for an All-Star Season

River Cats Primed for an All-Star Season

Since its inception in 2000, the Sacramento River Cats have been a model minor league franchise. The River Cats enter the 2005 season seeking to win their third straight PCL championship and to continue their remarkable success at the box office. They will also be hosting the AAA All-Star Game. We sat down with River Cats President and COO Alan Ledford to find out about the upcoming season and more... <br><b>Free preview of premium content</b>

Alan Ledford knows all about putting on an All-Star Game celebration. Long before he joined the River Cats, Ledford spent 15 years as a member of the Oakland A's front office, where he was the Vice President of Business Operations. When the A's hosted the Major League All-Star Game at the Oakland Coliseum in 1987, Ledford was part of the team that organized the festivities. That experience was put to good use when the River Cats were awarded the 2005 AAA All-Star Game.

"One of things about the Oakland organization is that it has always been community oriented. We did a lot of things there from a community standpoint that were cutting-edge," said Ledford, who has served as President and COO of the River Cats since September 2002.

In honor of the 1987 All-Star Game, the A's funded a project to re-string lights around Lake Merritt, which was extremely important to the community at that time, according to Ledford. Based on the success of that experience, the River Cats decided to follow the A's model and find a community project of their own that they could fund in honor of the AAA All-Star Game.

The River Cats zeroed in on Independence Field, which was an effort to build a baseball stadium in Sacramento with a synthetic surface designed for children with disabilities. As part of their efforts to support the project, the River Cats have made a significant financial contribution to purchase the naming rights for the stadium, which will now be called River Cats Independence Field.

"We were fortunate enough to identify a project that was a perfect fit to meet our objectives. It is just an awesome fit for us and something tremendous for the community," Ledford said. "That idea [of pursuing a community project] really emanated from working on the All-Star Game in 1987."

River Cats Independence Field is scheduled to be opened with a ceremony in July right around the time of the AAA All-Star Game. July will be a celebratory month for the River Cats, as the All-Star Game will be accompanied by five days of festivities. The All-Star Game itself will be played on Wednesday, July 13. Beginning on Saturday, July 9, the River Cats will be hosting a FanFest in Old Sacramento that will run through the evening of Tuesday, July 12.

Monday, July 11 will be "All-Star Monday" at the River Cats' home, Raley Field. It will feature a homerun hitting contest and a celebrity softball game and proceeds from those events will go towards River Cats Independence Field. On Tuesday, July 12, there will be an All-Star workout at Raley Field, an All-Star Gala at the California State Railroad Museum and a large fireworks show in downtown Sacramento. The game itself, which will pit the best players from the Pacific Coast League and the International League, will be televised on ESPN2.

The All-Star week will be a culmination of the success that the River Cats have experienced over their first five seasons in Sacramento. Since the moment of the opening of Raley Field, the River Cats have been consistently among the PCL leaders in attendance. So what has it been about Sacramento and AAA baseball that has made it such a perfect marriage?

"I think the success of the River Cats in Sacramento has been a combination of things. Number one, it is a community that is very sports-minded and, secondly, there is a long-time affinity for baseball here. When the River Cats came into existence here in 2000 there was a real desire to have this form of affordable family entertainment," Ledford said.

"We have also been lucky in identifying the right product. Raley Field embodies all that you expect to experience when you attend a baseball game. You can enjoy all of the food and drink that they have downtown, attend the game with family, walk to the game and do it all for a price that is really affordable."

The River Cats' success on the field hasn't hurt attendance figures, either. Sacramento has made the playoffs every year of their existence, with the exception of 2002, and have won two straight PCL Championships. According to Ledford, that success can be attributed to the Oakland A's front office and their unusual commitment to winning at all levels.

"We are really the beneficiaries of the philosophy that the A's have on the player development-side in that for [Oakland GM] Billy Beane, winning is everything," Ledford said.

"He has noted more than once to me that winning in Oakland is his number one priority and winning in Sacramento is the number two priority. That philosophy, in terms of player development, is not necessarily shared by other organizations. We definitely like the Oakland philosophy."

Oakland has benefited from the marriage with the Sacramento River Cats, as well. Sacramento's proximity to Bay Area has meant that River Cat fans can follow their favorite players when they move on to the big league club.

"I certainly think that the River Cats' prominence in this region has created more A's fans here then there were here in the past because the fans here are able to equate themselves with the players at this level and then follow them nearby in Oakland. It's a great fit. It's good for us and it is good for the A's," Ledford said.

Last season, the lines between the Sacramento and Oakland fan bases were blurred further when a handful of River Cats' games appeared on FoxSportNet Bay Area. The River Cats are in negotiations with FoxSportsNet again to broadcast more River Cats games into Bay Area households in 2005.

The Oakland A's roster should have a decidedly Sacramento flavor in 2005, as at least two of the River Cats' biggest stars from 2004 are expected to play prominent roles for the A's this season – Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton. Ledford believes Oakland fans should really enjoy having Swisher and Blanton on board.

"Nick Swisher is just an awesome individual. He is someone who exudes his passion for the game when he is on the field and he is obviously an extraordinarily talented player. He also brings that same enthusiasm and passion for the things he does for the community," Ledford said.

"He was probably our most prominent player who would go out in the community. He would always raise his hands to go out and speak to groups and visit hospitals and schools. It was done in a way that was really extraordinary. I think Nick took as much away from the experience as did the kids that he visited. That says a lot because I think he made a lot of impact on the people that he touched."

As for Blanton, Ledford thinks he will add intensity and passion to the A's pitching rotation.

"Joe Blanton is a fiery competitor. He is somebody that A's fans are going to love to watch. He is a very talented pitcher and extraordinarily competitive," Ledford said.

Of course, there will still be plenty of talented players who will be staying behind in Sacramento this season. High-level prospects like Huston Street, Jairo Garcia, Omar Quintanilla, Dan Meyer, Dan Johnson, John Baker, Chris Mabeus and Jeremy Brown are all candidates to spend time in Sacramento in 2005.

"The early read on the 2005 River Cats is a positive one. Obviously the trades that were made in Oakland benefit us to a certain extent because Billy has brought in even more talented young players and there are only so many slots open in Oakland," Ledford said.

"We think we are going to have a great team again."

Melissa Lockard is a Senior Editor at OaklandClubhouse.com. She can be reached at melissa_lockard@yahoo.com.

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