Modesto, Calif. -- The city of Modesto lies in the San Joaquin Valley, an hour southeast of the San Francisco Bay Area and off Highway 99. It’s not a picturesque sight, no—it’s besieged by factories and farms, a slice of the city’s rich agricultural history. It’s also not the California you would expect if you’ve never been to the Central Valley, or even heard of it.
Modesto, which is Spanish for the word "modest", was founded in 1870 and incorporated in 1884. The oldest iteration of professional baseball dates back to 1914, with the Class D Modesto Reds, and baseball has been woven in through the city’s history since. When the current California League began in 1941, Modesto wasn’t a part of the league and didn’t join it until the league returned from a hiatus during World War II in 1946. Those Modesto Reds would one day become the Modesto Nuts.
Just as baseball weaves through Modesto’s history, the culture and history of the community weaves through the Modesto Nuts. The name itself was chosen by the community through a vote after the Oakland Athletics left Modesto for Stockton and the Colorado Rockies came in. HWS Baseball Executive Vice President Mike Gorrasi, who runs the Nuts' day-to-day business activities, remembers the process.
"I think we had a two-week period where we said give us your ideas, and we had hundreds of ideas," Gorrasi says. "And then internally with the help of some local consultants and our graphic designer, we narrowed it down to five. And then we just threw it out there to the community, and Nuts was the winner. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think of it, and when I first heard of it, I thought oh, well, that could be interesting, but as you started developing it, yeah, it makes perfect sense."
One of Modesto’s biggest exports is nuts—almonds specifically, but also walnuts—with Blue Diamond Growers up the road in Sacramento. The Modesto Nuts pay homage to this with two of their mascots, Al the Almond and Wally the Walnut.
"We wanted something that was going to be indicative of the community," Gorrasi says. "Something that can stay forever. So if you look back, obviously agriculture is big."
As for the other names, Gorrasi recalls that they were the Dusters, the Strike, the Steel, and the Derailers.
"Modesto as a city developed when the railroad came through town," Gorrasi says of the train-themed names that didn’t make the cut. "Nolan Ryan has the Express locked on lockdown. We love that name, but obviously with Round Rock having it for their minor league team, [and] that was that."
Another area of the city’s history is Modesto native George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti. The film, set in Modesto, is a reminder of the days of downtown cruisin’ in candy-colored custom cars, and it still has a month dedicated to it every June. Graffiti Month, it’s called, and it’s the focus of many community events up and down this part of the Valley.
There’s car shows and sock hops, and the Nuts take part in Graffiti Month with their very own Graffiti Night, featuring classic cars on the concourse, staff in 1950s attire, and a classic rock 'n roll soundtrack. Gorrasi says that the Cruisers were one of the team names being tossed around at the time.
"I think the thing was for a couple of reasons," Gorrasi says. "There was actually a semi pro soccer team in town called the Cruisers. So obviously, you don’t want to take a name that’s already there, especially if it’s that close."
The Graffiti influence was never forgotten, though. In 2011, when the Nuts hosted the California-Carolina League All-Star Game, the game’s logo incorporated the 1932 yellow deuce coupe featured in the movie with Al the Almond and Wally the Walnut sitting shotgun and in the driver’s seat, respectively. The logo is still used and can be seen on the team’s website and in various areas of John Thurman Field. You can even see it on some giveaways.
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As interesting as Modesto may be, though, for the ballplayers who come through Modesto—and their parents—the city isn’t exactly what they imagine when they hear they’re going to play in California.
"Cali isn’t as glamorous as it seems on TV," says Correlle Prime, a first baseman in the Rockies organization who spent 2015 in Modesto.
Teddie Story, mother of Rockies shortstop Trevor Story who spent 2013 and part of 2014 in Modesto, echoed Prime’s sentiment.
"It was different than I thought it was going to be," Story says. "When I think of California, I think of the beach. And when you get to San Francisco where you fly in, oh my gosh it’s lovely and it’s beautiful and then you start driving to Modesto and all of a sudden you’re in these crops. And there’s nothing but nuts and almond trees everywhere, and it was almost like the surface of the moon. That road, I don’t remember which freeway it is, but it was just barren, and there’s just crops everywhere. But then, when you think about Texas, that’s the way a lot of Texas is, too."
Prime notes that Modesto is only an hour inland from San Francisco, and close to places like Yosemite. He says he had a good time in the area. Good food, a good host family, good teammates, lakes, fishing, mountains—the Valley had a lot to offer.
"It’s definitely not as bad as people made it seem," Prime says. "It’s a new place, it’s historic, there's a lot of history running through that area and the whole Cal League, so to whoever thinks about going out there they will enjoy it, for sure."
Rockies farmhand Carlos Estevez, who spent part of 2015 in Modesto, wasn’t thinking about beaches and things like that when he came to California to play ball. For him, the focus was always on the field.
"We got the heads up from the guys that played there before, that it was going to be kind of a hard place, city-wise, that it’s dangerous and all that stuff," Estevez says. "I was just thinking about playing ball, and just keep winning again."
Dustin Garneau, a catcher in the Rockies organization who spent part of 2010 and then all of 2012 in Modesto, offers a different opinion of the city.
"It’s different," Garneau says. "It’s not the greatest city. They call it ‘Methdesto’ there, so that says it all."
Matt Carasiti spent 2015 with the Nuts as a reliever. For him, a couple buddies that played for the team before had warned him about the league—it is generally a hitter’s league, after all—and that the city isn’t the nicest place.
"We lived in a great area in Modesto," Carasiti says. "The travel wasn’t bad so that’s a plus, and when you’re pitching really well you don’t really care where you are, I guess. It wasn’t too bad."
Though Modesto doesn’t seem to have the reputation as one of the safest cities in California, parents were able to feel safe when their sons play for the Nuts—but maybe most especially when that son's host family worked for the city's police department.
"Where we were, it was a nice area, and being with two officers made it a lot easier to sleep at night," Garneau says. "It makes it easier on everybody knowing we have a good family looking after us, and that we’re all taken care of, definitely."
Modesto as a city has changed over the years, just as any city would. The Great Recession hit the Central Valley two years earlier than the rest of the country, as Gorrasi notes. Crime has gone up significantly, even being one of the most dangerous cities for car theft.
Still, Modesto pushes on, as a city, and as a ballclub. Entering their 11th season as the Nuts, they have one of the most recognizable logos and brands in the minor leagues. The city continues to move forward from the recession and through the ongoing water crisis as it affects local agriculture. As a community, locals still head to the ballpark for family fun and entertainment away from the stressors of life.
"I think with a farming community, with a small town, there’s a lot of pride, there’s a lot of family values, and I think that does well in minor league baseball," Gorrasi says. "That’s what we focus on. ... Our fans, they’re not hanging on the edge of their seat for every game and living and dying with every loss. They want to know when they come out that it’s gonna be safe, and affordable, and the kids are gonna have a good time."
For 70 games a year, from April to September—as the song goes—John Thurman Field’s the place for fun. It’s part of Modesto’s culture, just as Modesto is a part of the Nuts’ identity.
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Editor’s Note: This is one piece of a special seven-part feature series Purple Row is doing today to celebrate the beginning of another season of Modesto Nuts baseball. Below are all the other parts of the series about the Rockies’ High-A affiliate in the California League.
Click here to read more about the California League itself, a unique outpost in minor league baseball that's celebrating its 75th anniversary this summer.
Click here to learn more about the Nuts' host families, and the story of one specific family that has hosted the likes of Trevor Story and Dustin Garneau.
Click here to read more about Mike Gorrasi, the man behind the Nuts' success in the community for the last 15 years.
Click here to read more about the long relationship between the Nuts and the Rockies, told by front office and player development executives.
Click here to read more about John Thurman Field, the Nuts' home ballpark that sits on a site that has hosted baseball in Modesto for a century.
Click here to see more pictures from Modesto’s John Thurman Field, to get a better sense of the ballpark the Nuts call home.
Unless otherwise noted, all images produced by and copyright of Jen Mac Ramos and Purple Row, and may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.
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