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Pleasant night, pleasant company at minor league park

Aug 19, 2014 - By Craig Blumenshine, Staff Writer

On Star Wars Night, which was also Fireworks Saturday, we saw Roof Man.

Actually, we saw Roof Men -- two guys in Darth Vader Suits high above Raley Field drifting in and out of sight, lobbing baseballs down to the crowd Saturday night in Sacramento.

In between innings of the Triple A minor league baseball game, a Little Leaguer caught all three balls launched toward him and earned his prize. The John Deere utility vehicle sped around the field with mascot Dinger in the back, tossing what we thought were hot dogs, but what turned out to be T-shirts, to the crowd, and we enjoyed a coordinated dance by the infield grounds crew midway through the game between the Sacramento River Cats and the visiting Oklahoma City Redhawks.

And we met Coach Pop (Mike Papadpopulos), head football coach at Vacaville (California) High School, and his family. Sitting next to us in section 101, we couldn't have found a nicer group to chit chat with during the beautiful summer evening as a game that looked like it would be high scoring early was still tied 2-2 in the eight inning.

Here's what we learned from Coach Pop. He's coach of the Bulldogs, where "Big Black" -- a larger-than-life black bulldog is carried onto the field by four Big Black captains prior to pregame warmups at Vacaville home games.

At his school, 1,200 of the 2,000 students play at least one sport. He has coached four NFL players, none of whom played football until the ninth grade because there is no middle school football in Vacaville. Five more of his players have earned Division I scholarships to PAC-12 schools.

He's not a fan of high school combines, but instead has worked to create relationship with college coaches who now come to him.

His longest bus ride during the regular season is 45 miles. His team is one of the few California teams that still play on grass, and he hopes his community will support an upcoming bond election that will improve school and sports facilities and will give the Bulldogs and their rivals an artificial home surface.

Vacaville has 175 players out for football this year, freshman through varsity. Vacaville won't play its first game until Sept. 6, and he was surprised to learn that Wyoming schools in Riverton's Class 3-A play their first game just two weeks after practice begins.

And we learned why community college football in California thrives. Coach Pop played his college football as a defensive tackle at then NCAA Division II UC Davis, but there is today only one remaining NCAA Division II school in California (Humboldt State). While many of his athletes want to continue to play football, they're not ready to play at the Division I level, have almost no Division II options, and use one or two years at one of the 73 California community colleges that have football to refine and improve their skills.

Back to the baseball game. We watched the River Cats outfielders gun down two Redhawks runners at the plate, but, in the end, Oklahoma City plated five in the ninth for 7-2 win, before a capacity, standing-room-only crowd.

It's not news to my family that high on the retirement priority list is a home near a minor league baseball park. I could enjoy many more summer nights just as we did last Saturday in Sacramento, watching the River Cats -- and meeting new friends.

Have a great sports week. Go Big Red!

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