By JIM McCUE | SportStars
By high school, some ballplayers have accepted the fact their Major League dreams from childhood will never become reality.
But, given the chance, each and every high school player would relish the opportunity to experience the neatly-manicured grass, monstrous video board, booming public address system, and palatial stadiums of a big league ballpark.
The Sacramento RiverCats, Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s, have provided such an opportunity for high school players throughout Northern California. This year marks the seventh season that teams from Antioch to Red Bluff and Benicia to Sutter have upgraded their facilities to one of the premier minor league stadiums for a memorable high school game with a big league feel.
Started in 2006, the Raley Field High School Baseball Program invites local (and fairly distant) programs to partner with the pros to raise funds for their school and give their players a big-league experience. This year, more players than ever will dig their cleats into the fine dirt and green grass of the ballpark on the Sacramento River waterfront. The schedule was increased from 10 dates to 22, and the River Cats included junior varsity games to the mix for 2012.
“The program has been very successful and grown tremendously,” said Ashley Hansen, who took over as program director for 2012. “It was set up to allow the RiverCats to give something back to the community, and everyone is so appreciative of the experience.”
High school programs that participate must sell vouchers for RiverCats games to cover costs, but most schools make money from the voucher sales and can add to their fundraising totals by auctioning off the use of the executive suite that is provided for each school to enjoy during the high school contests. But the real attraction for high schools is not the monetary benefit, but the experience itself.
“It’s not just a token appearance,” said Center coach Jeff Wise, whose team has played at Raley Field every year the high school program has existed. “(The RiverCats) make us feel very special, and it is the team bonding highlight of the year.”
The RiverCats’ aim has always been to create the same atmosphere for high school teams that the A’s minor leaguers and visiting players experience.
Even though admission and parking are free, fans can enjoy the Raley Field concession stands, the center field scoreboard and video board, and the public address system. Schools are offered the opportunity to provide guest PA announcers, students or guests to sing the National Anthem before the games, and even some fun minor league on-field antics, including between-inning activities and an occasional appearance by RiverCats’ mascot, Dinger.
The result is typically lots of smiling faces “” from the head coach and players to family, friends, and boosters. Even the local umpiring crews get the opportunity to work a game at Raley Field, which can be just as special an experience for the men in blue as it is for the players on the field. Hansen pointed out that the high school games draw more than just supporters of the teams facing off on the field.
“The games get a lot of interest from people in the area that just like to watch baseball,” she said. “Some people who frequent RiverCats see the lights on and come on out just to check out what is happening. And there are casual high school fans and other high school players that can take advantage of a free game at Raley Field.”
Jesuit pitcher Logan James, who will play at Stanford next year, and shortstop Zach Green, who is committed to Oregon State, were part of a matchup with Davis on March 16. Both guys have the potential to make return trips to Triple-A stadiums and beyond in their baseball careers, but the opportunity to share the experience with close friends and longtime teammates carries extra weight.
“Playing at Raley Field was a great experience the last three years, especially playing against my former hometown of Davis and all of the guys I grew up playing with,” James said. “The venue cannot be beaten and the quality of baseball is always great playing at a stadium like that. Having the chance to pitch there twice, I feel very blessed with the opportunity I have been given.”
Fifteen of the 22 scheduled high school games of 2012 are already in the books, leaving seven dates to catch a high school game for free at a spectacular venue. The next date features a doubleheader on Saturday, April 21 “” Mt. Shasta and Colusa start the day (9 a.m. for JV; 12:30 p.m. for varsity) with River City-West Sacramento and Linden completing the full day (4 p.m.; 7:30) “” and the 2012 high school program’s slate will be capped off this year with Showcase Games (both JV and Varsity) on Sunday, June 3.
Teams that participated throughout the season at Raley Field can nominate 2-3 players each to participate in the Showcase Games to fill out opposing rosters with players available and willing to play one more game after all of the CIF Section finals have concluded. Hansen and the River-Cats should not have a problem filling those rosters with anxious players hoping to get one more game in a big-time ballpark.
Said Center’s Devin Eldredge after battling to a 2-2, eight-inning tie with Chico in the Cougars’ 2012 Raley Field visit on April 7: “I admire so many athletes that have played here, so it is a great feeling to play at Raley Field.”
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