California League baseball has been played in the valley town of Modesto, CA since 1946 when the Modesto Reds started play in the post-war league. Though never affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds, the Modesto team has had two stints as the Reds (only a reference to their uniforms) even as they've been affiliated with other major league franchises. The Nuts moniker was chosen via fan voting after the 30 year affiliation with the Oakland A's came to an end in 2004. Since then the Nuts have been the Class A-Advanced squad for the Colorado Rockies of the National League.
John Thurman Field has been in operation since 1955 and benefits from a 1997 major renovation and ongoing cosmetic touch-ups since 2007 when the city of Modesto put in a new, fancy scoreboard and LCD display (the nicest I've seen for a Class A team). Also new are the two large party decks on either side of the press box. The one that was inhabited was by far the most buzzing part of the stadium.
The seating is done in a traditional grandstand style with the club seats behind the plate and the bleachers stretching out into shallow outfield on either baseline. All 4,000 seats can be found in the grandstands with the exception being the group-party picnic area along the 3rd baseline between the visiting dugout and their bullpen. This area is covered and paved and near the restrooms and near the promenade that lines the backside of the grandstands where all the concessions are served.
Similarly, on the opposite side of the diamond is another open space, this side without picnic tables. Instead it's where kids tend to congregate as it is near the playground and the Nuts' bullpen. This area is particularly unique because the relief pitchers sit facing the field a few feet above the same paved area where people can watch the game from. Autographs are attainable before and after the game and this is the spot that seems the best as the players are at eye level and accessible.
The Tuesday night California League matchup I went to pitted the Nuts against their neighbors 30 miles north, the Stockton Ports.
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There was nothing out of the ordinary in Modesto. Funnel cakes made their presence known as it wafted aggressively from its designated booth near the entrance and overpowered any barbecue aroma. As I moved past the sugar-coated cloud I found two unattended, empty concession booths that weren't needed for a quiet Tuesday evening.
I made my way around the concourse and found the operating concession stand offering the typical fare of nachos, hot dogs and beer. You can put together "meals" by adding chips and a soda for a reasonable $9-$10. Domestic beer is $4.50 and import and craft beer is $5.50, very reasonable ballpark prices.
As I talked to the friendly vendor at the beer cart he rattled off a half-dozen beer specials for different days throughout the week. The ones I remembered were $2 beers until 8 o'clock on Thursdays and half-price pours during the top of the 5th inning on games Saturday through Tuesday.
I expected a little more from this Northern California rivalry but the Tuesday night tilt let me down a bit. The Nuts were going for a sweep of the Stockton Ports which would move them into sole possession of first place in the Northern Division of the California League. The crowd did get more and more excitable as the game progressed, particularly when the Nuts took the lead late in the game.
It was a pleasant night and I'm a sucker for a warm night and the crack of the bat, but all that did not hide the fact that there were only a few hundred fans in the 4,000 seats. On a different day I could definitely see how this score could change as the setting (beautiful sunset beyond the outfield wall), fans and vendors were all agreeable. John Thurman Field was also the site of this year's California League-Carolina League All-Star game.
They also have two mascots, Al the almond and Wally the walnut. These two have some pretty fun antics but are lead around the stands by a less than thrilling hype man. However, the fans seemed to be receptive to his requests for choreographed chants.
Just beyond the outfield wall is a grove of trees hugging the diamond and lending a beautiful view as you watch the action. Though there isn't anything in the way of shopping or eating in the immediate neighborhood, John Thurman Field sits in a beautiful city park.
The field backs into a fairway on the Modesto Municipal Golf Course (beware of errant slices from the tee box) and proves to be a picturesque environment. Also nearby are soccer fields, filled with pickup games and picnic areas with built-in barbecues.
Only a mile and a half away from the ballpark is downtown Modesto (separated by a major highway) where drinking and dining and shopping are more readily available, a five minute drive.
There just weren't enough fans at the park for a nice summer evening. This was particularly strange as the Nuts had just won ten of eleven games to move into a tie for first place in their division. I wonder at times if the rebranding of the team after 30 years as the Modesto A's affects the support from the hometown fans.
Whether the new moniker affects fan support or not, the fans that were there certainly awoke as the game got tight and worked themselves into a healthy roar once Modesto took the lead. They clearly understand the game and many knew the names of the players.
Though this weeknight game was nowhere near capacity, this article shows that the Nuts, on average, are having great success with ticket sales since their renovation.
John Thurman Field is easily accessible off of highway 99 by taking the Tuolumne Rd exit and following the signs onto Neece Dr past the golf course and into the parking lot. Street parking is also really easy to find, just watch for signs that may prevent it.
Due in large part to the lack of patrons in the park, getting around once inside was a breeze. Access to the grandstands, restrooms and concessions were quick and easy. The restrooms were nice and clean, again in part to the lack of use. It was appreciated nonetheless.
Keep in mind that downtown is not within walking distance and the area isn't the best for exploring at night.
Ticket prices run from $6 to $12 for individual games. The $6 general admission ticket is probably the way to go as no one ever checks your ticket and there weren't enough fans for it to matter if they did. A $6 ticket gets you a bleacher seat farther down the line without a back and for just $1 more you can get a seatback and be closer to the infield. I also recommend checking out the standing areas down either baseline near the bullpens, a good place for foul balls.
With the cheap parking ($5) and beers ($4.50-$5.50) and the reasonably priced food a Modesto Nuts game is a great buy. They are currently fielding a first place team and on a nice day or night John Thurman Field can be a very pleasant place to be. You could make a whole day out of it by barbecuing at one of the nearby public picnic areas or play a pickup game with friends beforehand.
The Nuts do the typical minor league team gimmicks to hold attention in between innings that can be somewhat stimulating but their leader for these wasn't the best entertainer. There are contests that keep the fans engaged including a medicine ball bounce-off between some kids and one of the mascots.
It seems that the Nuts franchise could do more to honor their longtime past in the area and at John Thurman Field. Though many big name players have made their way through Modesto (albeit, most not as a member of the "Nuts") there is no mention of Mark McGwire, Rollie Fingers, or Joe Morgan. There are however two numbers retired above the right field wall: 1, for former owner Fred Anderson who funded much of the renovations; and 26, for former Oakland Athletic and Modesto native Joe Rudi.
There's a reason why this is called John Thurman "Field" and not "stadium" or "ballpark", but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a very nice place to catch a game but I do think the atmosphere needs to improve a good deal. Perhaps a weekend game would provide that.
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