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Modesto's spacious John Thurman Field evens out some other wild California League outposts

In this portion of our seven-part series on the Colorado Rockies' High-A affiliate Modesto Nuts, learn about spacious John Thurman Field.

The Colorado Rockies' High-A affiliate, Modesto Nuts.
The Colorado Rockies' High-A affiliate, Modesto Nuts.
Jen Mac Ramos

Modesto, Calif. -- Built in 1955 and later named for a California State Assemblyman and World War II veteran, Modesto's John Thurman Field makes up for its lack of special features with solid, functional facilities that meet the needs of both the hometown Modesto Nuts, and their Major League affiliate Colorado Rockies.

And while there's plenty of baseball history in Modesto—the game has been played on the field's site since the early 1900s, and the city has fielded California League teams since 1946—today the 4,000 seat venue doesn't reveal its history, thanks to a massive 1997 renovation and further minor improvements since then that have firmly pushed the ballpark it into the future.

"The way I try to describe Thurman Field is that it's functional," says Mike Gorrasi, the Executive Vice President of HWS Baseball who oversees daily front office activities in Modesto. "It has the basics. It doesn't have the bells and whistles, and from our standpoint, from a business standpoint, there are certainly several things that we wish we had."

"From the Rockies' player development standpoint too, I know there are certainly some areas they would like to see, and they see in their other ballparks," Gorrasi adds, citing the Major League club's brand new or relatively new facilities in Hartford and Albuquerque. "In terms of the Rockies' affiliates, I'll be honest as far as amenities, we are probably at the lower end of that spectrum."

That may sound negative, but for Gorrasi and the Nuts' front office, it certainly hasn't held them back; the organization has twice been named the California League's Organization of the Year in the last six seasons, and continuous minor improvements, like hospitality areas for group sales and special events down the foul lines, have upped the amenities Thurman Field offers to its guests.

"We have a wish list, and the Rockies have a wish list," Gorrasi says of the Nuts' future at Thurman Field. "We've talked to the city about it, but it's hard for minor league teams. We work on such small margins, so it's really hard to make huge capital improvements on some of that stuff. In a lot of cases you see where the city will do it, the improvements they made over the last couple years were with city funds. But the challenge now is even though the economy is getting better, it is hard to still get those funds to do these projects."

Of course the Rockies themselves are among the most important groups of people the Nuts have to impress with Thurman Field, and for the big league club, that wish list is pretty simple: anything that impacts player development including, primarily, the field's playing surface.

The Rockies' High-A affiliate Modesto Nuts' home ballpark, John Thurman Field, in pictures

Modesto's John Thurman Field. Image via Jen Mac Ramos.

"The field is really the biggest issue, because we want to make sure the field is going to play safe and fair for the players," Gorrasi says. "And that's something that we spend a lot of time, energy and allocated dollars to make sure that it's what they want."

From the Rockies' standpoint, while drought may have wreaked havoc on Califronia's Central Valley the last several years and made putting together a professional playing field a challenge at times in Modesto, things are still very good between the two clubs.

"I think as far as the relationship goes, the people there make it a perfect fit," says Chris Forbes, the Rockies' player development manager.

"The playing surface, on the other hand, is a work in progress," he adds, laughing. "But it always is. And that's just the California League. That's a league where you can't water fields sometimes."

Gorrasi knows all about that.

"Our situation is unique in that this is a city-owned facility, and based on our agreement with the city, they actually maintain the grounds," Gorrasi says. "So now you add a third party to it, which like everything, there are pros and cons. We certainly keep in contact [with the Rockies], and we let them know what's going on with the field. Once the team gets here, there's a lot of communication between the manager, the developmental supervisor, us, and the groundskeeper. If there are trouble spots, we'll address those."

"You've got to remember these players are investments, they're assets," Gorrasi adds. "You hate to just describe a person like that, but that's what it is, and you don't want someone to take a bad hop or have a divot in the outfield. Injuries are part of the game, but you don't want it to be something that could have been preventable."

Of course, along with California's unfortunate recent droughts comes the state's very enjoyable climate—and that's a trade-off the Nuts can use to their advantage relative to some other minor league venues.

"There are benefits and challenges having a team in California from an operator's stand point; we have very few rainouts," Gorrasi says, comparing Modesto to another ball club under the control of his ownership group. "Go to Mobile [Alabama], and there's a chance of a rainout every single day."

"But with the heat, and the dry heat, and the drought that we've had," he adds, "it puts a lot of strain on the actual playing surface. That's something that we are trying to work on, and I know that we can and we will get better with that."

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Thurman Field is relatively unique, at least for the California League, in its size. Very short porches down the lines expand quickly to massive, deep gaps in left- and right-center field, and in a league where it's generally easy to hit home runs thanks to small venues, Modesto's ballpark stands out for the opposite reason.

"It's huge," says Rockies catcher Dustin Garneau, who played at Thurman Field in both 2010 and 2012. "It's not like the California League at all, it's the exact opposite. The games at Modesto don't go as long as High Desert or Lancaster, so it's nice on that end, but it sucks being a hitter, because it's not flying anywhere."

Another Rockies catcher, Jackson Williams, also remembers Thurman Field the same way, though he approached games at the ballpark from a different perspective, spending his time there as an opponent in 2008 as a member of the San Jose Giants.

"I remember it being bigger, and they've got a short porch straight down the line, but I mean it got big in a hurry," Williams notes. "But that year, 2008, they were having a lot of fires, man. It was always foggy, dusty, kind of smoky. I think there were a couple games that we might not should have even been out there, but we played anyways."

"But yeah," he adds, reminiscing on his time in the California League, "Modesto wasn't bad. Kind of out in the middle of nowhere a little bit, not much around, but really not a bad place to play."

The Rockies' High-A affiliate Modesto Nuts' home ballpark, John Thurman Field, in pictures

Modesto's John Thurman Field. Image via Jen Mac Ramos.

Yet while hitters may complain about Thurman Field as a big venue, for pitchers, it's obvious those very same attributes make Modesto such an attractive place to play.

"It's bigger and it's not a launching pad, so it was nice pitching there," Rockies prospect Kyle Freeland, who made seven starts with the Nuts in 2015, admits. "The Cal League is definitely a hitter's league where you can get hurt if you leave balls up, but John Thurman was a nice field and definitely a nice pitcher's park."

Carlos Estevez, who spent half of last summer in Modesto before throwing well enough to earn a promotion to Double-A New Britain, also agrees that Thurman Field is different from most of the rest of the league.

"In other places, they hit the ball up, and it's gone, and because the wind is so bad, everything is going to be a homer," Estevez says. "At home, you feel more confident. It's better, you get a broken bat and it's going to be an out, unlike some other places where a broken bat is going to be a double down the line or something like that."

Rockies reliever Justin Miller, who pitched as a visiting opponent at Thurman Field in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the Bakersfield Blaze, remembers the ballpark as something of a make-up for all the tiny fields in the southern half of the league.

"Compared to some of the other parks that kind of get crazy, it's definitely one of the better parks for a pitcher," Miller says. "Other places are geared towards hitters all the way, so Modesto evens it out."

But while none of the pitchers we spoke with would say it, there might be something else going on that makes Modesto such a pitcher-friendly venue, and it has nothing to do with the park's dimensions.

"The really subtle thing about Modesto that people don't realize is that their groundskeepers build their mound way higher," says Donny Baarns, the broadcaster for the Visalia Rawhide, the Arizona Diamondbacks' affiliate in the California League, from 2008 until this spring when he accepted a job in the Pacific Coast League.

"Now I don't have concrete definitive proof of that," he hedges, smiling, "but everybody always says that. Our pitchers always loved throwing in Modesto because the mound is so tall. They have such a downhill plane that they have more velocity there. Our coaches lobbied our groundskeeper to make our mound more like Modesto's, and we saw a big difference last year."

The Rockies' High-A affiliate Modesto Nuts' home ballpark, John Thurman Field, in pictures

Modesto's John Thurman Field. Image via Jen Mac Ramos.

This year, Modesto's new crop of pitchers must now figure out their own perspectives on Thurman Field—and as it became plainly clear in spring training, they've asked around about what to expect to those who have played there before.

"Talking to the guys from last year they've been talking about it everyday," says Rockies prospect Ryan Castellani, who figures to be in the Nuts' starting rotation in 2016. "It's funny, they say with Modesto we get really lucky in that league with that being our home park, but for the road I've heard about 50 mph winds, and that the league has wind-outs? I've never heard of that before."

"But it's just set up right to weed out the pitching," Castellani adds. "Who can be tough, who can pitch their game, mix it up, and be effective wherever they pitch, rather than finding the excuse in giving up an homer and going, ‘ah, it's the wind.'"

"Like, no," the young right-handed pitcher smirks, already showing the mental toughness necessary to survive the California League. "It was you."

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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 the city of Modesto, and how a community like that impacts what the Nuts do on and off the field.

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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