The Obit For Art Savage

River Cats owner, 58, dies suddenly at his home

By M.S. Enkoji and Matt Weiser
The Sacramento Bee
Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009 - Page 1B

Arthur Lynn Savage, the man who changed summer evenings in Sacramento and gave baseball fans a home team to brag about, died Saturday at his East Sacramento home.

Mr. Savage, who with his wife, Susan, owned the Sacramento River Cats, one of the nation's most successful minor league franchises, was 58.

Mr. Savage, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 2007, but after undergoing two months of treatment, he was cancer-free by the start of the season in 2008.

A team representative said Mr. Savage suddenly became ill Saturday and collapsed at home.

"He had a clean bill of health," said his son, Jeff Savage. "We were all very optimistic, so as you can imagine, this came as kind of a shock."

Mr. Savage was at the stadium late Friday, talking about plans for the 2010 season and had been working hard and full time, said Alan Ledford, the team's president, general manager and chief operating officer.

"That's why it's a shocking loss," he said. "He"d been doing fine."

Mr. Savage's team wrapped up its 10th season in town in October, a span during which the River Cats won eight division titles, four Pacific Coast League championships and two Triple A championships and sent as many as 160 players to the Oakland A's.

During the decade, River Cats fans broke attendance records year after year, outdistancing 200 other minor league teams in the country.

Mr. Savage, who was as modest and low-key as New York Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner is not, was named The Sporting News Minor League Executive of the Year in 2000 and the franchise was bestowed the Bob Freitas Award for excellence in Minor League Baseball for the 2004 season.

"He had a great vision and passion and level of perseverance unlike anybody I've worked for before. That's what made the River Cats and Raley Field possible," Ledford said.

Because of the team's success, other team executives often sought Mr. Savage's counsel and advice, he said.

"He did it with such humility," Ledford said. "He never sought the spotlight."

A Texas native, who never advanced his own baseball career beyond Little League, Mr. Savage graduated with a business degree from Texas Tech University, where he met and married his wife.

Working as a tax manager for a large accounting firm, Mr. Savage took on a client who owned the National Hockey League's Minnesota North Stars, George Gund.

When Gund later owned the San Jose Sharks, he hired Mr. Savage as CEO in 1990. By 1997, Mr. Savage was vice chairman of the parent company that owned the Fresno Grizzlies, a minor-league baseball team.

There, he met Branch B. Rickey III, grandson of one of baseball's legendary baseball executives and who is president of the Triple A Pacific Coast League.

The idea of a team in Sacramento brewed between the two. In a 2004 interview, Rickey said: "As soon as we talked about a situation I thought would be challenging, his eyes seemed to light up - there was a glint."

Mr. Savage plowed sometimes rocky fields to bring baseball back to Sacramento, which had not had a professional team in a significant way since the 1970s.

As many in town believed the River City should settle for no less than a major league team with a field near Arco Arena, Savage plunked down $10 million in 1998 for the Oakland A's Triple A team in Edmonton. The team played in Vancouver for a year while Mr. Savage got a home field built in West Sacramento.

Mr.Savage brought his team to the area in 2000.

He seemed to enjoy the niche he had found and filled so well. In a 2006 interview, Mr Savage said: "What we provide is fan-friendly entertainment that is affordable, which you can't always do in major-league sports. And we can. People love the River Cats; they love coming to Raley Field, and that's been a fun part of it for myself."

In the fall of 2007, Savage noticed a cough so slight he almost didn't mention it to his doctor. Probably hay fever, he thought. Tests proved otherwise. After a two-month stay in a cancer clinic, he came home to run his team and his showcase stadium.

"He was a very private person and he was not one to complain. He just moved on," Ledford said.

"We've all learned a tremendous amount from Art. He wanted that long-term success for the team owned by the Savage family," Ledford said.

Mr. Savage's two sons, Jeff and Brent, both work for the team and on Saturday, Jeff Savage said his mother will retain controlling ownership of the team.

Mr. Savage envisioned the team as a legacy for his sons to inherit, Jeff Savage said.

Burial services have not been arranged yet.