A few nights ago my wife and I took in a Triple-A game between the Sacramento River Cats and the Reno Stars. The River Cats are an Oakland A’s affiliate and the Stars fill the same role for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Sacramento can be pretty brutal in the summer, so the mild spring weather, the light traffic, and a couple of free tickets from our friend John Cuneo, made taking in the game a breeze. Plus, we’d get to see how the rehabilitating Manny Ramirez is coming along.
Ramirez is playing briefly for the River Cats as he works his way back from his negotiated 50-game suspension for his second violation of MLB’s substance abuse policy. Naturally, the fans in Sacramento are excited about seeing one of baseball’s most interesting, if maddening, players of the last 15 years. Our seats were 3 rows back from the first base dugout, so we had a good view of Ramirez and his fellow minor leaguers all night.
I love minor league baseball. You just never know what or who you’re going to see at a minor league game. There used to be an independent team about an hour’s drive from here called the Sonoma County Crushers. The team’s mascot – a huge, hairy thing called the Abominable Sonoman – has got to be in the mascot pantheon. Jeffrey “HacMan” Leonard was the Crushers’ manager one year. Kevin Mitchell, a member of the San Francisco Giants’ 1989 NL championship team and league MVP that year, did a stint on the team, as did Bobby Bonds, Jr., brother of Barry Bonds. We saw them all, mascot included.
When we lived in Columbia, South Carolina, we took in a few Capital City Bombers’ games. The Bombers, in the South Atlantic League, were a Single-A ball club and part of the Mets organization. I don’t recall who any of the players were, but in the early 1990s their manager was a guy named Ron Washington who has gone on to much bigger and better things with the Texas Rangers.
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A few nights ago at Raley Field we had the good fortune of sitting right behind a Little League team from West Sacramento. They were at the game with their two coaches. You’ve got to tip your hat to these guys. It was Sunday evening during a three-day holiday weekend and rather than throwing down a couple of cold ones at the backyard barbeque, they were taking a group of boys to a professional ballgame. And there were two moments in the game that made me feel the connection of that game and those kids to baseball’s past and future in a way that reaffirms my deep affection for the game.
In the bottom of the 3rd inning the River Cats managed to load the bases for Ramirez. During his 1st inning at-bat, Manny looked all of his nearly 40 years. He watched two perfect strikes, fouled off some high cheese, and then waved lamely at a breaking ball he should have spit on. Not too impressive. But in the 3rd inning he brought his 555 career big league home runs to the plate with the bases juiced. As he dug in, a couple of the Little Leaguers right in front of me asked their coach if they could go get some cotton candy. He told them to stick around, that they might get to see Manny Ramirez hit a grand slam. That’s a good coach. They stuck around and Manny drew a walk, so they took off for the concession stands. Luckily, they got back in their seats just in time to see the next batter, Chris Carter, blast a towering shot deep over the left field fence for that grand slam. Carter has yet to prove himself at the major league level, quite the opposite, unfortunately. If he does, these kids can say they saw him before he made it big. And at least they can say, “I saw Chris Carter hit the grand slam that Manny Ramirez should have hit.” That’s a great lead in to any story one of those kids tells about last night’s game 30 years from now.
That grand slam was fun, but the moment that really got me was right at the top of the game. We’d already stood for the Anthem and the River Cats’ pitcher was taking his warm-up tosses. The Reno Stars’ manager came over to coach third base. First of all, the fact that the manager doubles as the third base coach in Triple-A, just like a high school coach, kills me. He seems like he’s more part of the game out there. Turns out Reno’s manager is Brett Butler. Butler was one of the premier lead-off men of the 1980s and 1990s, and a member of the San Francisco Giants’ 1989 World Series team. As soon as I realized who he was I called out his name and started applauding. One of the Little League coaches, also recognizing who he was, did the same and told his kids to give Butler a hand. Butler turned, smiled, and waved, and in that moment, a group of 10 and 11 year old boys were connected, through their applause of a smiling Brett Butler, to an era that seems like yesterday to guys like me, but is history to them. It’s as if my Little League coach had told me forty years ago to wave to Pee Wee Reese, or Pepper Martin, or Johnny Pesky.
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Manny Ramirez likes to call himself one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of the game. But those Little League coaches, those 10 or so kids, with their mismatched hats, sticky faces, and beat up gloves, and a smile and a wave from Brett Butler provided something more profound than anything Manny came close to last night.