Saturday, August 27, 2016

How Many Dingers Are There, Anyway?

I was in Sacramento, California at the beginning of August. The girlfriend had flown out there a few days prior for the International Food Blogger Conference in downtown Sacramento, and after a few busy days at work, I boarded my first Southwest flight to meet her there and spend a couple more days.

We had lots of good food and saw some interesting sights, and while she was wrapping up some conference notes, I caught a Minor League game at Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats.

Ever since the Rockies began play in 1993, I had only seen Major League games. Before that, I did see the Denver Zephyrs a couple times in the cavernous Mile High Stadium, gigantic by Minor League standards. In fact, that could be where my first-ever baseball cards came from, now that I think about it.

I made sure to snap a #walletcard shot while enjoying some snacks before the game. Ballpark food in Sacramento wasn't markedly different from any other stadium I've been to, but the slider trio with a side of potato chips and a cold beer really hit the spot on a hot August day.

The River Cats, Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, squared off against the Salt Lake Bees, part of the Angels farm system (the Salt Lake Bees of Utah?), the same team that Jon Gray faced before his Major League debut.

2015 Sacramento River Cats Team Set #03 Clayton Blackburn
Clayton Blackburn didn't have quite as many strikeouts as Jon Gray, but he still cruised to a 7-0 win on 7 innings pitched. His fastball hit the low 90s, which is not bad for just returning from the DL. Blackburn has yet to make his Major League debut, but if he keeps that up, he shouldn't be far away.

I did purchase this River Cats team set at the souvenir store, and it was half-price since it's the 2015 set. Progress doesn't always happen that quickly in the Minors, so a lot of the same players could be found, including Blackburn.

2015 Sacramento River Cats Team Set #23 Jarrett Parker
Right fielder Jarrett Parker also had a good game, going 1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored. Unlike Blackburn, Parker has spent some time in the Majors, about 70 games since last season. A lot of the players at the Triple-A level are either top prospects, or have spent some time in the Majors, as we'll see.

2015 Sacramento River Cats Team Set #04 Brett Bochy
That includes Brett Bochy, who is no longer active in professional baseball, but in 2014 became the first player to play for his father. Bruce Bochy has managed the Giants to three World Series championships, and also took the Padres to the 1998 World Series, where they got swept by the Yankees. Ken Griffey, Sr. and Jr. were the first father/son duo to play together, but having your dad as a manager must be a whole different ballgame. Brett only pitched in seven Major League games, and underwent Tommy John surgery as a college junior.

At least he had it out of the way if his Major League career took off.

2015 Sacramento River Cats Team Set #11 Kevin Correia
Kevin Correia was at the tail end of his professional career in 2015, having pitched with several Major League teams since 2003, including the Giants. He was a National League All-Star in 2011 as a reserve.

The quality control of these cards is not quite up to Topps' level. The stats all seem correct, but the write up shifted dates by about a decade, saying he was picked in the 2012 Amateur Draft, and made his MLB debut in July 2013.

For a moment, I thought this might be an entirely different Kevin Correia, but it all makes a lot more sense when you just subtract ten years from those dates.

2011 Topps #276 Miguel Olivo
A couple other former Major Leaguers, though not found in the 2015 team set, still played well in that August 1st night game. Miguel Olivo, a catcher who spent a year as a Rockie, is presumably in sort of a Crash Davis role, the veteran catcher helping groom the next generation of baseball stars. Olivo was 2-for-4 with two runs scored, and made a few excellent defensive plays behind the plate.

Play-by-play stats are rather hard to come by on minor league games, but fortunately the River Cats provided me with a handy scorecard inside the booklet they handed out at the gate. My trusty ballpoint pen recorded the River Cats' side of things, but I didn't track any of the Bees' stats other than their pitchers. It left some time for social media, beer and snack runs, and photos. They also had a fun interactive promo called Baseball Bingo Mondays. Like keeping score, it requires you to pay attention.

At the gate, they handed out bingo cards, and the numbers you can punch out depend on what happens during the game. For example, a home run by the first baseman is G 60. I was not a winner, but it was a fun thing to do on top of keeping score. I imagine that a Minor League crowd would be a bit more into something like that, as I wouldn't expect more casual fans to spend the time showing up to a Triple-A game.

2015 Topps #364A Travis Ishikawa
A few of those bingo squares were punched out by the biggest contributor to the River Cats' win, Travis Ishikawa, a name that is definitely familiar to Giants fans. He easily got the most applause from the roughly 6,000 fans in attendance, and for good reason. Ishikawa sent the Giants to the 2014 World Series with a walkoff home run against the Cardinals.

Leave it to Joe Buck to take all the emotion out of "The Giants win the Pennant!" That's not your line, Joe!

Anyway, the long ball was working for Ishikawa that night in Sacramento as he hit two out for five RBIs. Olivo and Parker were both on base for his second shot in the bottom of the 8th, and the fans loved it, especially the ones catching the game from the grassy area beyond right field. A fan chased down one of those home run balls as fast as a professional outfielder.

2015 Sacramento River Cats Team Set #34 Brad Lawson
The Minor leagues aren't really all that different from the Majors, at least at the Triple-A level. Just scaled down a bit. The fastballs are a little slower, the stadiums a bit smaller, the crowds more intimate, the tickets significantly less expensive, at least for an equivalent seat. My 16th-row seat at the edge of the screen was a mere $25.

But they're still professional athletes, and trainers and coaches are still needed to keep them in top physical condition. A Minor League team set is just the sort of place for a card of the team Strength and Conditioning Coach. It is a bit underexposed, and they misspelled "New Brunswick" on the back (dropping the c), but I've sure never seen a card of a Major League trainer before.

2015 Sacramento River Cats Team Set #37 Dinger
The final card in the set is of their lovable mascot, Dinger. Like Topps Opening Day, this minor league set recognizes the existence of these furry critters. Curiously, the River Cats and the Rockies picked the same name for their mascot. Dinger the Rockie is a purple triceratops, and Dinger the River Cat is, well, a predatory cat that looks a bit like a bear.

The back of this card has quite the genesis story, mentioning "strange sounds...echoing through the air at the Raley Field construction site" on a "cold blustery night". Dinger the mascot was discovered on the river bank under the Tower Bridge (that yellow bridge you see in my Wallet Card shot). It turns out that Dinger's "energy and fun personality were a perfect fit for the official mascot of the Sacramento River Cats."

If Topps put out team sets like this for sale at the ballpark instead of just some rehashed cards from Flagship, I'd snap one up in a heartbeat. The kids would probably enjoy it too, because who doesn't love a mascot?

I still say the Rockies have dibs on the Dinger name. But either way, a mascot named Dinger has been leading the fans at nearly every single game I've ever been to. Even in Sacramento.

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