Nuts About Modesto

nuts_about_modesto

23 Jun Nuts About Modesto

This season marks the 10th anniversary of the organization’s affiliation with the High-A Modesto Nuts.

Modesto’s hospitable front office, mild climate and tidy ballpark have the Rockies thinking they could easily spend another ten sending prospects to the Northern California town.

For Senior Director of Player Development Zach Wilson, the number one reason he enjoys the affiliation is the ownership and management of the club, which have worked closely with Wilson and his staff to make sure both parties get what they need out of the relationship.

“The synergy and connection between the two front offices has made my job much easier,” says Wilson.

That’s not always a given. Priorities between a Minor League club and its parent organization, says Wilson, can often conflict.

“For the Major League side, the number one priority is development,” he explains. “Although it’s also a priority for the Nuts, obviously they have to look at it from a business side as well. We have a balance that lets us work together, so they can sell tickets and we’re able to develop our players.”

The Nuts are owned by HWS Group, a Massachusetts-based sports management firm that also owns and operates two other Minor League baseball teams—the Mobile Bay Bears and Mahoning Valley Scrappers—and an NBA Development League franchise in Springfield, Mass. Managing partner Michael Savit spent more than 16 years in sports marketing and promotions with IMG before starting HWS with his brother, Jeffrey, in 1997.

HWS has strong ties to the Modesto community. Executive Vice President Mike Gorrasi served as the Nuts general manager 2005-2007 and 2009-2013, during which the team set single-season attendance records six times. Gorrasi now oversees all three HWS baseball teams and he still lives in Modesto with his family.

Current Nuts General Manager Tyler Richardson was born and raised in Modesto and fondly remembers spending childhood summers at John Thurman Field.

“Looking back now, a number of players came through here in the late ’90s who went on to be big leaguers,” says Richardson. “But at the time, you didn’t know who they were. What I remember more is being at the ballpark with my dad and eating a hot dog and having a good time.”

Richardson probably saw a young Jason Giambi, Tim Hudson and Miguel Tejada learning the ropes in Modesto, when the team was an Oakland A’s affiliate from 1975 to 2004. It’s no surprise that Modesto has a strong A’s fan base, although Richardson added that the San Francisco Giants’ recent run of success split the community in half.

That was a big reason why the club let the fans rename the team when the Rockies came to town in 2005.

“I think that helped fans really adopt the Nuts as their team,” says Richardson. “Almonds and walnuts are huge crops here, and that association really helped form more of a connection.”

And the Rockies keep gaining local support as more former Nuts graduate to the big leagues. Almost every homegrown Rockie has spent at least part of a season in Modesto. Starter Eddie Butler made 13 starts there in 2013 before a late-season promotion to Double-A. Left fielder Corey Dickerson hit .338 in 60 games there in 2012. Third baseman Nolan Arenado hit 20 homers and drove in 120 runs for the Nuts in 2011.

The first time Richardson can remember the thrill of seeing a top prospect wasn’t as a fan, but when he came back to be part of the Nuts front office in 2005. His timing couldn’t have been better.

“[Troy Tulowitzki] was here my first year,” he recalls. “I remember him pulling up to John Thurman Field after he was drafted. That was cool.”

Tulo was able to fit in just 22 games in his pro debut, but for Richardson, that was enough.

“When I first saw him play, that’s when I realized he could be a great player,” he says.

More future stars are playing in Modesto this year. The Nuts roster includes 20-year-old third baseman Ryan McMahon, ranked by MLB.com as the Rockies’ fifth-best prospect, and outfielder Raimel Tapia, the number seven prospect on MLB.com’s list.

For Richardson, watching these and other prospects play underscores the twin priorities he has as the GM: He strives to create the same fun ballpark environment he remembered enjoying as a kid, while also serving all the needs of the Rockies players and staff.

Mission accomplished, says Wilson.

“They do a great job at making our players and staff feel comfortable and treating them as their own employees even though they’re our employees,” says Wilson. “They’re always ensuring that when we move players in and out of Modesto, all of that goes smoothly. That’s imperative to our process.”

Modesto has a logistical advantage in that regard. Although it is a small community relative to other California League towns—Modesto’s population is roughly 205,000—the city is located within a few hours of Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose. If delays plague one airport, players can fly out of one of the other airports.

The weather is nice, too. According to ClimateData.com, average highs in Modesto from June through August top out in the mid-90s, while average lows dip to the low 60s. More importantly, there is virtually no rain during those months.

“Although it gets hot, you don’t have to deal with rainouts and doubleheaders,” says Wilson. “It’s helpful whenever you can get into a development situation where the players can get in their early work, take BP every day and do different things on the field outside of the game.”

Then there’s the ballpark. John Thurman Field is old, yet it is one of the finest facilities in the California League. The ballpark was originally built in 1955 as the home of the Modesto Yankees. By then, the city had already hosted nine years of professional baseball.

The first team, an independent squad, arrived in 1946. Modesto then hosted a St. Louis Browns affiliate in 1948, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate from 1949 to 1952, a Milwaukee Braves affiliate in 1953, and then the Yankees from 1954 through 1961.

The stadium underwent a major renovation in 1997 and has since been upgraded nearly every year since. For baseball nuts, the field is hallowed ground. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan played 45 games there in 1963. The 1966 Kansas City A’s affiliate included Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers. Rickey Henderson, arguably the greatest A’s player ever, hit .345 in that ballpark in 1977.

Richardson says that kind of heritage resonates with the fans today.

“I’ll see older fans who have seen the Modesto Reds and A’s play, and they always get a kick out of saying they saw Reggie Jackson play on the ’66 team or watched Rickey Henderson in 1979,” he says. “Baseball is a generational game, and so many great players have come through for every generation to see.”

Jerry Weinstein, the Rockies’ development supervisor in Modesto this year, is also the winningest manager in Nuts history. From 2007 to 2011, he guided the team to 368 victories and, along the way, he got a good read on John Thurman Field.

“It’s a really fair ballpark,” says Weinstein. “You can really evaluate the hitters and pitchers without it being skewed because it’s immense or a bandbox.”

In the California League, that’s a rarity.

“The Cal League in general is notorious as a hitters’ league if you look at the rest of the parks,” says Wilson.

When the Nuts head south for games at the desert-based ballparks in Lancaster and High Desert, for instance, pitchers know they’re going to see their ERAs rise about as far as the strong winds there carry balls out of the park. Bakersfield’s venerable Sam Lynn Ballpark has a center field porch just 354 feet from home plate.

“We have a good situation in Modesto,” says Wilson. “It works in developing our pitchers, giving them a fair chance to get outs. But if a batter hits it well, especially when it gets hot in the middle months, they’ll have success.”

While it seems as if every Minor League city in the country either has built a new stadium recently or is in serious talks to do so, Richardson says there have been no such discussions in Modesto. Part of that is because of the local economy. California’s years-long drought has made life hard on local farmers. But another big reason is how well the Nuts have maintained the stadium over the years.

Starting in 2007, for instance, the team has made a succession of improvements. It put up a new video board, added a pavilion area and party decks and replaced the seats. Meanwhile, it has one of the more spacious home clubhouses in the league and makes sure the team has access to the technology it needs.

“I think Rockies players who go through Modesto have had a positive experience,” says Weinstein. “From a player development perspective, I think it’s just the total package.”

Wilson agrees. It’s been a great ten years for both parties, and it sounds like it’s just the beginning.

Source: Rockies Magazine — June 2015