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Some decisions are agonized over and others are no-brainers. Extending their Triple-A affiliation with the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento River Cats through 2010, as the Athletics did in September, falls in the latter category.
Not only is Sacramento less than 100 miles from Oakland, making it an ideal destination for major league reinforcements, but it’s also arguably the minor leagues’ most successful franchise–on the field and off. And those are just a couple of the reasons Baseball America is honoring River Cats president and general manager Alan Ledford as our Minor League Executive of the Year.
“The River Cats are, without a doubt, the premier minor league franchise,” A’s general manager Billy Beane said. “We couldn’t have been happier to extend our relationship.”
Sacramento’s Raley Field has been the most popular fan destination in the minor league since it opened in 2000. The River Cats have led all minor league teams in attendance in each of their seven seasons and have drawn a total of more than 5.5 million fans.
They’ve done it by bringing a major league-quality operation to the minor leagues and refusing to rest on their laurels. Ledford deflects the credit to his staff, the quality of the Sacramento market, and the natural appeal of minor league baseball, which provides an opportunity to be irreverent as well as giving fans a much closer relationship with the players on the field.
“We’re very fortunate to be in a market that allows us the opportunity to take the best of both worlds,” he said.
Ledford, a graduate of the University of California, began overseeing the day-to-day operations of the River Cats in September 2002, first as president and chief operating officer. He added GM to his job title in 2004.
But he’s really been with the River Cats since day one. Prior to officially joining the front office, Ledford was executive vice president of MGO Marketing Group, a sports and entertainment consulting group based in Lafayette, Calif. With MGO, Ledford was a consultant to River Cats owner Art Savage and was instrumental in the successful launch of the franchise.
He had had also developed business plans for other PCL franchises, including the Fresno Grizzlies and Albuquerque Isotopes, as well as the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.
Ledford’s ties to the A’s run deeper still. He spent 15 years prior to his time at MGO with Oakland, rising to the position of vice president of business operations. In that capacity, Ledford was responsible for all team business activities, including sales, marketing, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, in-park entertainment and ballpark operations. He was with the A’s during their late-1980s heyday and was involved with Oakland’s hosting of the 1987 All-Star Game and the 1988, ’89 and ’90 World Series.
“What it gave me, No. 1, was a passion for the sport,” Ledford said. “I gained an appreciation for baseball beyond what you have as a fan, and saw the role baseball can play in the community. Baseball can really play an important role in people’s lives.”
The opportunity in Sacramento came when a group led by Savage bought the Vancouver Canadians and moved the franchise for the 2000 season. Sacramento had been a charter franchise of the PCL when the league was founded in 1903, but had not had an affiliated minor league team since 1976.
“The minor leagues represent the epitome of all those elements of the sport that really make it America’s game,” Ledford said. “So this gave me an opportunity to continue to be around the sport, as well as have an impact on the community and run a successful business.”
The River Cats have been able to build on their success each year by continuing to innovate both at the ballpark and in the community.
For example, Raley Field became one of the first wireless ballparks in the country, major or minor league, when it introduced wireless access in 2002. It was a boon not only for fans, but also for the team. When employees found a luxury suite that was too hot or lights that weren’t working, they could make the fix wirelessly with handheld controllers, rather than crawling through the ballpark trying to find the right switch.
But Ledford is more proud of the team’s innovations in its grassroots outreach to the community. So while many minor league teams are always on the lookout for naming rights deals, how many are looking to pay for naming rights on someone else’s park rather than selling their own?
That’s what the River Cats did as part of hosting the 2005 Triple-A all-star game. “We were looking for a project that would give the game a legacy and provide a benefit for the community, as well as a presence for the team on a grassroots level,” he said.
So River Cats Independence Field was born. It’s a field where children with disabilities can play baseball, and the River Cats not only gave money to help build the field, but also helped raise the profile for the community center that wanted to build it.
And it’s one of the many reasons the Ledford and the River Cats continue to thrive in Sacramento, and show no signs of giving up the minor league attendance crown anytime soon.
“That’s something we take a tremendous amount of pride in,” he said. “We have an incredible product in the minor leagues, and to continue to grow, teams must continue to innovate and take advantage of the grassroots appeal of the sport and the product.”