BY MATT LaWELL
WEST SACRAMENTO, California | Inside a corner office on the top floor of one of the few baseball stadiums in the country constructed with nothing other than private funds, a row of packed white binders more than eight feet long rests on a pair of cabinets. The office belongs to Dan Vistica, a man with a mind for numbers and an intrinsic love for baseball. For more than a dozen years, he has worked as the executive vice president and chief financial officer for the Sacramento River Cats.
And he references every one of those binders, filled with numbers about the team that have nothing to do with batting averages or strikeouts or some advanced statistics, at least every week.
“That is what makes all this so interesting,” he says. “There are a lot of moving parts. There are a lot of different things going on.”
Vistica arrived at Raley Field before the gates even opened for that first wave of fans back in May 2000. He had worked for years in public accounting with Haskins & Sells, which operates today as Deloitte, one of the Big Four accounting firms, then shifted to private work, first in oil field services, then in environmental engineering. Many months ended with an invoice somewhere in the low six figures mailed to a single client.
“This thing is really a lot more complicated financially than I thought it was going to be," Savage said. "I really do need a CFO. You want to come to work?”
“I love sports and I love my profession,” Vistica said. “I know I can separate the two.”
Then his old friend Art Savage called and offered an opportunity too good to let pass.
After stints with a major public firm and a small investment firm, Savage entered a different world, one filled with balls and pucks. He entered into a business deal with two of his clients, George and Gordon Gund, brothers who went on to purchase the Cleveland Cavaliers, and helped them save basketball in Northeast Ohio. Not long after that, the three of them involved themselves with hockey, ultimately moving the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas and bringing a new team to San Jose. For a stretch, Savage was the first president and CEO of the expansion Sharks.
Savage had long wanted to bring professional baseball back to Sacramento, a city that he and others considered the best market in the country without an affiliated team at any level. He purchased the old Vancouver Canadians of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League with the plan to move them south to California. He also planned to build a new stadium without public funds — an idea that spawned $39.9 million worth of River City Regional Stadium Financing Authority bonds and the need for not just someone to make sure the books added up, but a real CFO.
“‘Dan,’” Vistica remembers Savage telling him, “‘this thing is really a lot more complicated financially than I thought it was going to be. I really do need a CFO. You want to come to work?’”
Savage had pitched the idea of the two working together in San Jose with the Sharks about a decade earlier, but the timing never worked. Vistica says his sons were at an age when a move would have been less than ideal, and his wife had recently opened a restaurant in Sacramento. He wanted to give them all the time they needed to succeed.
This was different, though. This was in Sacramento.
“‘I love sports and I love my profession,’” Vistica remembers saying. “‘I know I can separate the two.’”
Savage, Vistica and the rest of a new front office started work immediately to make sure the organization was ready well before opening day. At the same time, a team of hundreds raised Raley Field in less than eight months. During the 12 seasons since, the River Cats have won 10 division crowns, four PCL championships and a pair of Triple-A titles, success at all levels.
The Savage family still owns the River Cats today — Art’s wife, Susan, is the owner and CEO, and their sons, Jeff and Brent, are the general manager and the website and research coordinator, respectively — and pay back the bonds every year, one time on the principle, two times on the interest. Some time in 2029, they will be paid back in full and the team will own its stadium and the land on which it sits. Just like a standard 30-year home mortgage, but on a far larger scale.
“We’re in control, and it’s our obligation to maintain it, so we spend a lot of money in terms of general maintenance, adding new things on,” says Vistica, a Portlander by birth and a Dodgers fan by choice who attended Sandy Koufax’s perfect game — he has the ticket stub framed on a wall in his office — in 1965. “All of this stuff, we do out of our own funds.”
And they will continue, for the next 17 years, at least, for the foreseeable future.
♦ ♦ ♦
Time for minor league trivia. Sacramento is one of the six cities that fielded a team for the inaugural season of the Pacific Coast League back in 1903. What were the other five? (A big hint: Four currently have a Major League team and one is without even an affiliated team.) Keep reading for the answer.
The River Cats batted in silence for eight innings Sunday afternoon, then erupted for three runs in the bottom of the ninth. Too bad they needed four runs. The Iowa Cubs beat the River Cats, 4-3, thanks to a home run by left fielder Ty Wright in the third, a wild pitch by Sacramento starter A.J. Griffin in the fourth and a sacrifice fly by shortstop Luis Valbuena in the eighth. The River Cats pushed across three runs in the ninth, but left the tying run on first in a failed effort to pick up their sixth win in seven games.
Remember A.J. Griffin? He crooned Elton John for us in Midland, Texas in late April. He received a promotion to Sacramento not long after that and made his 2012 Triple-A debut on Sunday afternoon. He pitched well — a quality start by standard definition, if not his own — but picked up the loss after allowing three runs on four hits over six innings. He finished his stint with the RockHounds of the Double-A Texas League with a 3-1 record, a 2.49 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP and 44 strikeouts against seven walks in 43 1-3 innings.
Wes Timmons has played in Macon and Rome and Myrtle Beach. He has played in Pearl and Richmond and Lawrenceville and Midland. Right now, he plays in Sacramento — or, more appropriately, he sits in Sacramento and trains before games in an effort to return from the disabled list. On Sunday morning, he was in the outfield, running wind sprints. His long hair trailed behind him each time he ran across the grass. “Those are just eyewash,” he says. Timmons will turn 34 in July. He has played 1,020 games in the minors. He has never played in the Majors. At 947 hits, he has an outside shot of becoming the second or third player this season (behind teammate Brandon Moss and possibly New Orleans Zephyrs infielder Chase Lambin) of collecting his 1,000th minor-league hit. How much longer will he hold on? “Not sure,” he says. “Not until I’m 40.”
Want the answer? The five other cities that fielded inaugural season Pacific Coast League teams along with Sacramento are Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. Even after rounds of Major League expansion, it is hard to believe that only one of the inaugural cities is still represented in the league.
And in random statistical news, the game started three minutes later than scheduled, a group of children from local St. Joseph Parish sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” in 2 minutes and 1.7 seconds (they added a bit of a prologue to the song), the first pitch was a strike and the first batter stuck out swinging. We ate some bacon, some sausage and some delicious quiche because, as an old high school Latin teacher said often, “Real men eat quiche.”
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.