Sacramento’s first home game wasn’t until May 18, and the River Cats’ mascot Dinger danced on the dugout before threatening skies at Sacramento’s Sutter Health Park. (Photos by Steve Martarano)

Photos: Minor League Baseball Returns to the Central Valley

Back Web Only Jul 30, 2021 By Steve Martarano

When the Sacramento River Cats won the Triple-A championship in September 2019, nobody could anticipate the changes that would occur before the Pacific Coast League team would play again. Now, minor league baseball is back in the Central Valley.

Action started up again to limited crowds in May (full capacity in mid-June) after COVID-19 canceled the entire 2020 minor league season, including franchises in Sacramento, Stockton and Modesto.

“It is great to have fans back in the ballpark,” says Veronica Hernandez, director of marketing and promotions with the Modesto Nuts. “This season has had its challenges, but every step forward is a step in the right direction.”

When play resumed, a major restructure by Major League Baseball announced in early 2021 was in effect, resulting in a revamped 120-team minor league system, called MiLB. The restructure created new divisions ― Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, Low-A and Rookie ― and eliminated 40 teams, including some entire lower level leagues. 

The historic Pacific Coast and California leagues are no more, renamed Triple-A West and Low-A West, respectively, while other teams, including the Fresno Grizzlies, went from Triple-A, (one step away from the Major Leagues) to the Low-A West. 

It was a major shakeup, but local fans for the most part won’t see much difference in the product on the field. When play resumed, the three teams in the Central Valley continued on with the same Major League affiliations: Sacramento with the San Francisco Giants, Stockton with the Oakland A’s and Modesto with the Seattle Mariners. 

There’s nothing else in professional sports quite like the intimate experience of attending a game at a minor league ballpark, and local fans are lucky to have three of the best parks in the country within easy driving distance of Sacramento. Games are scheduled to continue deep into September and early October, about a month later than past years, meaning there’s still plenty of time to check out the action.

Sutter Health Park in Sacramento was allowed to open at full capacity June 17. Fans take in a June 18 matchup against the Salt Lake Bees.

Sacramento’s Thairo Estrada bats against the Reno Aces on May 20. Estrada was later called up to the Giants, becoming the regular shortstop throughout July when regular Brandon Crawford went on the injured list.

Fans show off their replica Sacramento River Cats 2019 championship rings, which were given out to the first 2,500 entering Sutter Health Park June 18.

Eric Tyler with Cheyenne, 3, and Adelyhn, 7, of Discovery Bay, wait for fireworks to begin July 3 at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton.

It’s a full house at Banner Island Ballpark July 3 as Stockton welcomes back its fans.

A post-game fireworks show delights fans at Banner Island Ballpark July 3.

The Modesto Nuts’ bullpen at John Thurman Field provides unique access to fans hoping to strike up a conversation with their favorite pitcher (though this is technically not allowed).

A play at first base on a hot summer night (107 degrees at game time) July 9 at Modesto’s John Thurman Field.

A pre-game parade of young ballplayers was one of the highlights of Carnival Cultural Night July 9 at John Thurman Field in Modesto.

The view of the bullpen of the visiting San Jose Giants from the Tioga Sequoia Pavilion July 9 at John Thurman Field in Modesto.

Sunset at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton July 3. The ballpark opened in 2005.

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Jul 7, 2020 Steve Martarano