Warszawski: As if Sacramento doesn't have enough, now it wants Fresno's Giants ties

The Fresno BeeMay 22, 2014 

Just what Fresno Grizzlies fans didn't need: another reason to hate the Sacramento River Cats.

It's not enough the River Cats must regard their Highway 99 rivals like 98-pound weaklings. During their 15-year history, they've won 11 division titles and four Pacific Coast League championships.

How many have the Grizzlies won since the River Cats came into being? Zilch.

It's not enough that the River Cats always rank ahead of the Grizzlies in attendance. Or that the River Cats were rated by Forbes magazine in 2012 as minor-league baseball's most valuable franchise while the Grizzlies were tied for 11th.

Fresno does possess one big bragging right: an affiliation with the San Francisco Giants, winners of two recent World Series.

Yup, you guessed it. Those greedy River Cats want to snatch that away, too.

Sacramento has enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Oakland Athletics, but some of that fruit may have spoiled.

According to a recent report, A's officials were stonewalled in their attempts to initiate discussions with the River Cats about extending their Player Development Contract that expires after this season.

Also contained within the San Francisco Chronicle story: The River Cats are making eyes at the Giants, whose deal with Fresno is also up.

Before anyone leaps to any false assumptions, a little understanding is required.

First of all, baseball has strict rules governing how major-league and minor-league clubs do business -- and can enforce them with six-figure fines for tampering.

That's why that story, written by the paper's longtime A's beat writer, contained mostly anonymous sources.

Major League Rule 56 spells out who pays for things like player and coach salaries, travel expenses and equipment while also forbidding any deal-sweetening outside the standard agreement.

For example, minor-league teams cannot lure major-league clubs with the promise of extra money or revenue-sharing over merchandise and major-league teams can't pledge they'll play exhibition games in minor-league stadiums.

Most PDCs last two years (a few are four years), and renewals can be announced at any point during the expiring season. Earlier this week, the Anaheim Angels and Salt Lake Bees announced a new pact through 2016.

But what about teams wishing to switch affiliations? They must wait until the end of the regular season, then give written notice to the league president.

These notices are collected for each minor-league level and revealed to all parties simultaneously, triggering a two-week window in late September when unmatched MLB and minor-league teams can find new partners.

We're still months away from that.

The Giants and Grizzlies have typically waited until August or even September to renew their PDC. The only time it happened earlier was in 2008, when the Giants visited Fresno for an exhibition game at the end of spring training.

Giants Vice President and Assistant General Manager Bobby Evans was reluctant to say much when I reached him by phone -- which is understandable, because any discord between the River Cats and A's has nothing to do with the Giants.

But Evans did point out the Giants face expiring PDCs with all of their minor-league affiliates. None have been renewed yet.

"We've been in Fresno a long time and have benefited from a great ballpark," Evans said. "Our affiliate discussions will take place at some point, but it's not fun being put in a position where anything I say will be tied to someone else's situation."

The Grizzlies have made it clear they want to keep the Giants.

What's less clear is why the River Cats would want them, especially after all the success they've had with the A's.

Here are a couple educated guesses: One, there are more Giants fans than A's fans; that's true in Sacramento, just as it is in Fresno. Two, the River Cats don't draw like they used to.

After surpassing five figures every year from 2000-07, average attendance at River Cats games dipped to 8,435 in 2013. So far this year, it's down to 7,880. (The Grizzlies are averaging 6,543, by comparison.)

Looks like Sacramento fans have gotten bored, and perhaps spoiled, by the team's success.

Even if the River Cats want the Giants, it's no sure thing the feeling is mutual. Sacramento might be closer to San Francisco and viewed as a more desirable location, though Raley Field isn't necessarily an upgrade.

Sacramento's ballpark has a superior playing surface, especially the infield. But Chukchansi Park does not lack creature comforts. For example, the home clubhouse sits next to an indoor batting cage and connects to the dugout via a tunnel.

Raley Field does not have an indoor batting cage, and both its clubhouses are located well beyond the outfield fence.

Those might sound like small things, but they matter to baseball players.

Financial stability might be another factor in Sacramento's favor. The Grizzlies routinely operate more than $1 million in the red and are always behind on stadium rent payments to the City of Fresno. The River Cats own their stadium, which was built without public funds.

So despite the Giants' long history here -- don't forget the three-decade run of the Fresno Giants -- team officials may decide Sacramento is a better fit.

If the Giants exit, it seems likely the A's take their place in Fresno. But maybe the Dodgers, whose deal with Albuquerque is also up, decide they'd rather have their Triple-A affiliate in California.

That would certainly please local Dodgers fans. While giving everyone else even more reason to hate the River Cats.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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