CAL LEAGUE TOUR: MODESTO

The Modesto Nuts are the hiA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies in the California League and it’s a pretty easy trek up Highway 99 from HotStoveHeat HQ to see them at John Thurman Field. It’s right off the freeway
and you don’t need directions, necessarily, because you can see the light standards before you get to the off ramp to Tuolumne Blvd. From there, they have clearly visible signs that take you right to the park, less than a mile away.

Modesto has a long tradition of minor league baseball that goes back to 1946 when the city had an independent team. In 1948 the St. Louis Browns had a team here for a season and, in the years since, they have been aligned with eight different major league clubs. The affiliation with the Rockies’ organization began in 2005.

The short drive off of 99 takes you to the field, which sits next to the Modesto Municipal Golf Course. Once inside the ballpark, there is netting all along the outer concourse to keep stray golf shots away. The park that was built in 1955 underwent a $3 million renovation in 1997. It was originally named after real estate developer Del Webb, but in 1983 it was renamed for John Thurman, who was a state assemblyman from Modesto.

My tickets were purchased online and the transaction was easy and cheap. I had purchased seats for other California League games previously so I had an account already. That being the case, the whole ticket-buying deal took less than five minutes. Look at the park map, pick the seating area you want, check out and print the tickets. Nothing to it. On to the drag strip that is known as the north-bound lanes of Highway 99.

The Nuts were taking on the Bakersfield Blaze, Cincinnati’s hiA affiliate. Ken Griffey Sr. is the manager of the Blaze and he was sending RHP Carlos Contreras to the hill against the homestanding Nuts. Contreras was rated by Baseball America as Cincinnati’s #13 prospect heading into 2013. The Reds used him as a reliever for all of 2011 and 2012 but they are leveraging his 93-96 MPH fastball in the starting rotation this year.

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Parking was easy and abundant. It cost $5, and I had mixed feelings on that, but it wasn’t the end of the world. My game ticket cost only $7 to have a back on my bleacher seat. I can think of at least one other Cal League team that charges nothing for parking. No matter. Not a deal-breaker.

Right away, the good vibe was obvious. On my second trip to Modesto, I still wasn’t an expert about the people and the city but, for the second time, it was nice to see that the fans were largely families and what I would call small-town friendly. Here comes the hatemail, I know, but that’s a tremendous compliment. Friendly interaction was everywhere and nobody was looking for an argument. It didn’t look like a tailgate area at a Raiders game or the infield of the Daytona 500. Nothing wrong with a good party, but this was a great crowd for a minor league ball game on a beautiful summer night.

The staff of the Nuts and the ballpark itself had the minor league experience down pat. Last time HotStoveHeat.com was here, in the concourse behind the third base line there was a rock/reggae band playing. This time, there was a cancer-awareness booth where fans lined up to spin the wheel and win something related to increasing knowledge about the risks that lead to cancer and how to deal with the treatment. It was an absolutely wonderful way to reach out on a grass roots level to this community that showed up in large numbers for minor league baseball.

At each available entry way to the seating areas there was at least one usher that appeared to be genuinely happy to see you. This was consistent with my previous visit to this park last year. Food/Beverage stands were spaced perfectly for each seating area and had a TON of options. The specialty seemed to be meal combos in the $10 range, while the soft drinks and adult beverages were a fraction of what you get held up for at a major league game or a big concert. That’s probably not a good comparison but the prices are very, very reasonable for a night out with the family or otherwise.

On either side of the two aisle ways closest to home plate you are greeted by a picture of Modesto alum Troy Tulowitzki. That’s something that all these minor league teams should be doing up big, if they’re not already. Tulo could probably have been even more prominent, but it was definitely a nice touch. It’s great for the guys like me that showed up with the Baseball America Prospect Handbook in hand, but, more importantly, it also lets the casual fan know that you might be seeing something really special out there. There are a million “can’t-miss” players that eventually miss, but nearly all of the superstars went through the minors and we didn’t really know then that they would be what they were projected to be. Look out there tonight. Trevor Story, Daniel Winkler or Taylor Featherson might be a big-time major leaguer, and we don’t know it here on this level. Maybe on the other side of
the field, starting  pitcher Carlos Contreras is the gem of the Reds’ organization. Who knows, anybody out here could be the next Tulo.

The well-known Central Valley sunshine was a factor in the pre-game and early innings as the seats down the third base line were in direct sunlight with no shade. Looking into home plate to see an at bat meant looking toward the setting sun. Predictably, the first base stands were full while those on the opposite baseline were nearly empty. Until the sun dropped low enough to cast shade over that side of the park.

Not to worry, John Thurman Field filled up nicely and was a great place to be for the Blaze-Nuts game. The aforementioned hospitality was in play all night long, the sight lines were excellent and the up-close experience with the players was as good as anything in minor league baseball. The Nuts’ players warmed up just a few feet from the fans on the other side of the fence running down the right field line. The bullpen seats were actually on the side closer to the fans, with the pitchers having their chairs set up facing the home plate area within the concourse, just beyond the first base grandstand.

Also down the right field line, just above the outfield  wall, are two retired numbers. One is that of legendary Oakland A’s outfielder Joe Rudi, number 26, who was born in Modesto. The other is for Fred Anderson, number 1, who owned the club in the early ‘90’s and funded the renovations that make this park so fan friendly.

Our journey to this venue takes us up Highway 99 from the Fresno area and, as we always do on our out-of-town minor league trips, we looked to head up early and drive around the town to get a feel for the area. All these minor league cities are significant and their culture is worthwhile to an outsider. We try to get there far in advance of the ballgame, drive around, find a place to eat, then go see some baseball.

This trip didn’t start off so well as we barely got on the road in time to make a quick run through the main streets of Modesto’s downtown. Passing through the welcoming arch, we made a quick run to see some beautiful buildings and some very nice neighborhoods. No time to pull in anywhere and sit down and eat, but we definitely will in the future. Our timing was the problem, not a lack of accommodations in Modesto.

This was a great trip and a great ballpark experience. The Nuts squeezed out a 3-2 win and over 4,000 locals had a fun night. That’s how it goes at John Thurman Field. The Nuts staff puts on a great product and the locals show up in droves. The Colorado Rockies have a lot invested in the players on the Nuts roster, but the fans don’t necessarily care which ones or how many make it to the bigs. They come out every night at a pace of over 2,600 per game. This is their team and baseball is one of the things they do in this community that ties them all together. Modesto Nuts baseball is a great way to spend your summer night.

All Photos: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com

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