An Ode To Baseball Being Baseball… Even When It’s Boring
“Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a
Christmas in Sacramento cold evening watching the AAA affiliate Sacramento River Cats.”
Too easy or cheap to start this review by borrowing the opening quote of Lady Bird? I spent a total of 24 hours in Sacramento and that movie came up three different times. They have a not unexpectedly love/hate relationship with a film that has a love/hate relationship with their home town.
Here’s the thing about minor league baseball. At its best, its weird. Weird team names with weird mascots in weird towns with weird in-between-inning activities on the field with weird promotions drawing in the fans in the first place. This is because the product on the field is, by its nature, subpar (yes, yes, yes I understand that even the young men who never sniff a cup of coffee in the majors are still the superstars of their high school and college teams.) It also fits perfectly into the wonderful back-road Americana that has called travelers from across the county since the founding of Route 66 in 1926.
So let’s begin with this specific team name: River Cats. OK, at least it got me asking the question, “what is a River Cat”? Which is funny, because the last minor league stadium I visited, in Camden, NJ, had me asking “What is a River Shark?” First, the Urban Dictionary answer, which I swear to god came up first in my google search (WARNING, NOT SAFE FOR WORK/CHILDREN) – “When you stick your nose in your lover’s ass, draw whiskers on the inside of their cheeks, and then plunge your tongue into their ass.”
OK, so with that image out of the way, the actual answer seems to be that there are thousands of colonies of stray cats in Sacramento, many surrounding the Sacramento River, which runs just next to the River Cats’ Raley Field. Yup, their team is named after stray cats. Worse, the historic Sacramento Solons, which last played minor league ball in 1976 before the most recent incarnation returned in 2000, are named after an early Greek lawmaker whose name was often used as a synonym for “senator.” You know, cause its the capital of California. When the other major team in town is named “Kings” (NBA), that’s SUCH a cooler choice! And instead of having a generic cat as a mascot… you’d have a senator! Think how much fun the “Racing Presidents” are in DC! What would you pay to watch Schumer, Pelosi, and McConnell go head to head!
So yeah, the mascot was a cat, though I do have to give some credit to… The Recycle King. OK, so full disclosure, I had a chance to take a picture of this guy and I didn’t, because I ASSUMED a quick google search would reveal him. I can’t find him anywhere. He was a dude in a crown roaming the audience with a giant trash bag. I assumed he was either a genius taking advantage of cheap ticket prices and an insane amount of bottles and cans, or a locally famous season ticket holder, or, though I hoped not, an actual employee of the team. With his punny name and his callout to the local NBA team in doing so, he was the hit of the night. It was the one truly perfect minor league moment of the game.
OK, promotions. It was $2 beer night. Alright. That’s some minor league fun WAITING to happen. Except, nope, you could only enjoy your beers in the one spot in the whole stadium you couldn’t actually see the game, under the “Sactown Smokehouse” tent. So in a near empty stadium on a cold night, half the fans were treating it as their local bar getting started on an early weekend.
So, instead I paid an unhealthy, major league style $10 on a small size beer, and enjoyed such innovative, wacky activities such as… drum roll please… a 50/50 raffle. A scoreboard version of a shell game. Cameras scanning the audience for the most enthusiastic fan. A… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Sorry, fell asleep with my head on the keyboard.
OK, ok. Enough fun. Let me end on a positive note. Despite the cold, despite the expensive beer, despite the relatively sloppy game, despite a city performing its identity-crisis out in a stadium that seemed to be awkwardly stuck between a major league and minor league experience, what always saves a baseball game is… it’s baseball. It’s where men behave like boys, the same traditions you see in little league to the pros, the catcher whipping the ball to third base after a strike-out, who flips it to shortstop, who tosses it to second, who whips it back to third, who lobs it to the pitcher with an encouraging nod. I watched that ritual in awe all night, feeling a sense of belonging and warmth from the people around me each time, even if we were all bundled up and sitting in a row entirely to ourselves. This was our pastime, played out imperfectly. Which is kind of what makes it ours.
The 9th inning comeback felt inevitable, played out in front of what had to be less than a thousand fans at that point. A two-out single brought the score to within a run, and the author of a would be game-winning home run strode to the plate. And, as if he knew his role in the whole poetic justice of the identity of Sacramento, the River Cats, the river cats, the state senators, the drunk Sactown Smokehouse socialites, and all the rest, he launched a deep fly ball to right center field… and it was caught on the warning track.
I used to joke that my hometown of Baltimore’s slogan should change from “Greatest City In America” to “A City In America.” Sacramento, take a page from that book, and have a little more fun being what you are. An average place to watch the greatest game in the world.