SACRAMENTO—Ten years ago, the Pacific Coast League's Vancouver Canadians relocated to newly constructed Raley Field in West Sacramento. The franchise retained its Triple-A affiliation with the Athletics, but it took on a new name for the 2000 season: the Sacramento River Cats.
The marriage has produced astonishing results. The club has:
• Won seven division titles in nine seasons—every year save for 2002 and '06.
• Won four of the past six PCL titles, not to mention each of the past two Triple-A championship games.
• Registered the league's top attendance figure in each of their nine seasons in Sacramento.
And with the PCL's top record this season, the River Cats appear poised for yet another encore.
"It's almost as if they have a magic uniform," Oakland longtime farm director Keith Lieppman said. "Once they put them on, it's like they're automatic winners. I don't think there are any clubs that have been able to do what the River Cats have been doing."
With a high turnover rate the standard at the minor league level—especially Triple-A—the River Cats' ability to jell in the face of a perpetually churning roster has proven crucial to the team's winning ways. And don't discount the organization's propensity for maintaining a casual atmosphere.
"I think it's how quickly the guys on our team got along," said A's righthander Brad Ziegler, who spent parts of three seasons in Sacramento.
"The A's bring in not just good ballplayers, but good guys. Everybody gets along. It's the interaction with each other—on the road, stuck in the hotel . . . we eat together, play cards. It's more than on the field. It's the off-the-field relationships that last."
Ziegler remembered his first spring training, back in 2004 when he was a raw recruit in the Phillies organization.
"It felt like boot camp. You got to the ballpark worried about whether your locker was in order," he said. "They had facial hair rules. You had to have two inches of sock showing at all times. You couldn't wear sunglasses, except flip-downs, if you were playing in the field. They had to have control of you at all times.
"The A's are, like, as long as your facial hair is not out of control, it's OK. They let us keep our personalities. We're not all structured to look the same and act the same."
"A lot of players don't respond well, especially newer players, to the structure or hard rules organizations implement," Lieppman said. "Sometimes we're better off dealing with circumstances . . . Players sometimes perform better when they can do their own thing. There's still structure, but we give them a way to express themselves."
Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco returned this season for his sixth go-round as the River Cats skipper after spending last year as third-base coach with the parent club. He said that while he doesn't feel a more relaxed dress code leads directly to more wins, it does help keep his players loose.
"This is still a game, and I want them to have fun," he said. "They just want to go out and play the game and be comfortable. I'm not going to enforce the way I dressed 25 years ago when I played. Styles have changed."
As volatile as Triple-A rosters are, Sacramento's coaching cadre has provided a steadying influence. DeFrancesco's return reunited him with a staff that includes hitting coach Brian McArn, in his fifth consecutive year with the club, and pitching coach Rick Rodriguez, who for nine of the team's 10 seasons has worked with a top-flight staff that regularly compiles one of the league's lowest ERAs.
"Morale is such a huge factor at Triple-A because there's so much movement," Lieppman said. "People are wondering if they're going to get called up or sent down. That's why I've been so impressed with the staff over the last few years, because it's volatile.
"It's easy as a Triple-A player to lose your focus by worrying when you're getting called up. The staff gets them to continue to work, and they work them hard. You'd have to start there. There's continuity, the understanding what Triple-A players need. That staff has a real sense to bring that about. That is a high point on the list that's made them successful."
"It's just the way you're brought up, what players and coaches you had, vets you looked up to," said Rodriguez, who pitched for parts of four big league seasons himself, including his first two with the A's. "My whole thing was I wanted to listen and learn from everybody, but I wanted the ability to be able to look back and give advice that might not have applied to me."
Help On The Way
While chemistry and staff continuity have played their parts in propelling the River Cats to unprecedented heights, talent remains the backbone to winning championships.
Oakland general manager Billy Beane has garnered a deserved reputation for trading homegrown stars for touted prospects, once the veterans price themselves out of the Athletics' budget. Consider the Athletics' roster of dealt-away big league talent: Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Matt Holliday, Mark Mulder and Nick Swisher.
Sacramento has reaped the rewards of those trades. This season, they have received offensive contributions from Daric Barton, Adrian Cardenas, Aaron Cunningham, Eric Patterson and Brett Wallace—all of whom were acquired in trades, as was ace lefthander Gio Gonzalez.
"As a farm director, I've watched the players come in and give immediate help to the system," Lieppman said. "Through free agents, trades and draft, (Beane) has had a remarkable knack for bringing in guys who not only help us, but are desirable to other organizations. It's been an outstanding process, and it makes my job a lot easier."
However, one of the most vital pieces to Sacramento's winning formula has been Raley Field itself. Long viewed as one the premier parks at the Triple-A level, Raley's immaculately manicured field and scenic cityscape make for an atmosphere that the team takes pride in calling home. And it's one that has continually lured a legion of loyal fans.
"There are a lot of nice stadiums that don't draw well," Ziegler said. "The weekend crowds there are better than what we can get during the week in Oakland. They make the effort to try to get to know the players, and as fans they really dive into the team. They're not just going to watch the River Cats, they're going to watch Brad. It's a lot more personal than other minor league teams."
"The city and the affiliate, you couldn't ask for a better place to play," Lieppman said. "The treatment, the field, everything is geared towards making it the best place to play. A lot of players absolutely enjoy being in that city."
Josh Terrell is a freelance writer based in Sacramento