On the Road: Nutting but a Good Time in Modesto

When I am on these Minor League road trips I have become accustomed to showing up at a ballpark and being told “Too bad you’re here on a [insert day of the week]. Our best days are [insert different day of the week].” But when I arrived at Modesto’s John Thurman Field on a recent Tuesday, Nuts GM Mike Gorrasi took this familiar sentiment into bold new territory.

“Of the 70 games in which you could have attended, this would have been my 70th choice,” he said.

This is because Modesto schools, due to some Un-American-seeming directive that may or may not have a valid justification behind it, were starting the very next day. When the first day of school looms families aren’t exactly inclined to take the kids to a Minor League Baseball game, but the sparse attendance certainly didn’t detract from my time at the ballpark. Far from it! John Thurman Field is a relatively no-frills facility, but regardless of whether or not the school year is looming ominously it’s certainly worth visiting and I hope that the remainder of this post adequately justifies this sentiment.

I didn’t have a compass on me, but I’m pretty sure that I entered the stadium while walking in a westerly direction.

008I’m a man of the people, and these inherently populist tendencies generally cause me to reject overly opulent surroundings. But the Nuts had set aside a suite for me, and who was I to disagree?

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Meanwhile, next door in the press box, onfield emcee Michael “Mike on the Mic” Smith was deep in conversation with a man who was asleep. Nothing can stop Mike on the Mic!

013 Down on the lower level, the scene was luminous.

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At this juncture I was with Nuts front office staffer Robert Moulette, who told me “I have to escort you to your chariot.” The meaning behind this cryptic statement shall soon be revealed, but until then please enjoy the photos I took while being escorted to said chariot.

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Moulette and I then passed beyond the left field fence, where the chariot was revealed.

A 1959 Corvette! The Nuts had arranged for me to ride the Corvette en route to the mound for a ceremonial first pitch.

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The Corvette came out of left field, but this first pitch delivery method didn’t come out of left field. As famously depicted in the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti, Modesto is a hotbed of classic car culture and every year the city hosts an “American Graffiti Car Show and Festival (George Lucas was the grand marshal at this year’s edition). The Nuts, for their part, annually host a Graffiti Night promotion and as such they have copious contacts within the classic car community.

The owner and driver of the car was a friendly, soft-spoken man by the name of Gene Carranza. He told me that cars were a post-retirement hobby of his, and that he’d restored the Corvette himself. I felt like a doofus being driven around like some sort of beauty queen or politician, but this was a great experience and certainly a very memorable way to be transported to the mound.

photo: Joe Price

photo: Joe Price

The first pitch itself was not so memorable, as I bounced it (I am now suffering from a full-on case of ceremonial first pitch Steve Blass disease).

IMG_9570On the plus side — the first pitch led to this memorable photo op: ceremonial first pitch catcher Brian Humphries (or at least I think that’s Brian Humphries), me, Al Almond, Wally the Walnut.

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The game was about to begin, and on a more representative night the ballpark would have looked like this.

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Don's Mobile Glass Party Deck (3)

But all things considered, the crowd wasn’t too sparse. Maybe 69 nights are better (they generally are), but it was a beautiful evening and time for some California League baseball.

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Some Modestans opted to spend their evening amid the company of smaller balls, however.

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With the game underway, I retreated to the private suite so that I could rendezvous with the evening’s designated eaters (you know, the individuals recruited to consume the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits).

Welcome, Joe and Bonnie Price!

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You may remember Joe from one of my Fresno dispatches, when he sang both the first and fourth stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner. He sang the National Anthem in Modesto as well and then went on to Stockton the next day and did it again. In the above photo he and Bonnie are wearing “Anthem Tour” shirts, which commemorate their season-long 2011 road trip during which Joe sang the National Anthem at over 100 ballparks.

But with singing duties complete, Joe and Bonnie were now free to sample the finest cuisine that John Thurman Field has to offer. They were joined in this endeavor by Jon Fischer, a good friend of mine dating back to middle school who showed up in Modesto simply so he could experience the ramshackle nightly improvisation that is the Ben’s Biz traveling roadshow. Jon now lives in San Francisco, where he teaches, curates art shows, blogs about his various creative endeavors, and wears t-shirts that display startling amounts of chest hair.

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Within moments, this unlikely triumvirate of gluten-tolerant suite denizens was faced with the following.

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Have at it, guys.

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As for what they were having at, the Super Pretzel is a jumbo pretzel whose negative space is filled with a variety of meat toppings (BBQ chicken, pulled pork, and tri-tip).  Chili and nacho cheese is served on the side, resulting in an “appetizer” that could serve as a meal and then some. The general consensus was that the meat toppings were well-seasoned and appropriately succulent, and the flavor of the chili surprisingly complex given that it was served in a plastic cup like some standard-issue condiment. The pretzel didn’t fare as well in the taste testing, however, as its best days (or day) seemed to be behind it.

“The pretzel is a little dried out,” said Jon.

“You’re not supposed to hear yourself eat it,” added Bonnie.

But on the whole the Super Pretzel was positively received, because on the holes were very tasty toppings. Pretzels have been a hard thing for me to give up in these post-gluten days, but there was no time to mourn. Because in addition to the Super Pretzel there was this:

As that comically inept Vine more or less conveys, this was nothing more and nothing less than bacon on a stick. Or, more specifically, bacon with brown sugar, maple syrup, and BBQ sauce. A product of Modesto’s Greens Market, it is thick, juicy, tender and altogether spectacular, one of the best concession items that I sampled all season. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a photo with just the bacon because my presence, it only detracts.

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Leaving Joe, Bonnie and John within their luxury digs, I headed back down to the concourse in order to investigate a certain piece of signage.

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This feline radio station mascot is surprisingly apprehensive and contemplative looking, not as fiercely resolute as one would expect. This KAT, like mainstream country in general, seems to suffering from an identity crisis. (The formula: pay hollow lip service to the legacy of Hank Williams while creating music that sacrifices Hank’s emotional complexity in favor of uber-condescending “pick-up truck, chewing tobacco, swimming hole and bonfire party” pop constructs that sound as if they were written by city slickers who’ve made a living on the conceit that the rubes don’t know any better. Rise up!)

And speaking of signage, here’s a concession stand pricing rundown. (The Super Pretzel was a suite-only item, I believe, while the bacon on a stick is available elsewhere in the facility.)

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My lackluster signage investigations didn’t last for long, as I soon returned to the field of play.

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And — look! — it’s Mike on the Mic!

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Mike’s name may not be original, but he is.

“I’m aware of two other Mike on the Mics [in Minor League Baseball], but I consider myself to be the most unique,” said Mike, now in his fourth season. “I’m just a man of the people, and make sure everyone’s having a good time. I have more energy and enthusiasm than anyone I know.”

Mike and the on-field promo crew had invited me to be a part of the next on-field promotion, launching t-shirts into the crowd via slingshot. This is an activity that I deeply enjoy.

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Al and Wally were on the field with me, but apparently they are a couple of omniscient nuts. The legume duo were up in the suite when I returned, engaging in one of their patented mascot dance parties.

They were also engaging in what can only be described as shenanigans.

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Being force-fed bacon on a stick by an anthropomorphic nut isn’t exactly my idea of a good time (although it is pretty close), so I headed back out for a bit more wandering and almost immediately ran into this character.

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That’s ballhawk Nick Badders, a Bay Area native who was on his way to snagging a career-best 13 baseballs on the evening. I had never written about a Minor League ballhawk before, so I rectified that situation by composing an MiLB.com piece about Nick and his hobby. You can read that HERE, and then you can go ahead and check out Nick’s account of the evening HERE (he even has a Vine video of me bouncing my ceremonial first pitch).

After interviewing Nick I was re-joined by Mike on the Mic, who was once again including me as part of the between-inning proceedings.

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I was a contestant in a videoboard trivia contest. A clip from a movie (American Graffiti, naturally) was shown on the screen, and I was then tasked with answering a question regarding what it was that I had just seen.

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The answer, I did not know, so there was nothing to do but grin and bear it as I suffered what was approximately my 125th ballpark failure of the season.

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Still single, ladies.

Back in the suite I alleviated my frustration via the consumption of pulled pork on a tapioca-based gluten-free bun.

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You can see Bonnie enjoying some St. Louis-style ribs there in the background. Jon, meanwhile, was enjoying them in the foreground.

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Simply the chest

The ribs were a popular item, and Bonnie, pointing to a stain on her shirt, lauded them for their “decorative appeal.” Joe, meanwhile, raved about the this chicken wrap.

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“One of the good things about the wrap is that it’s not simply lettuce, it’s radicchio,” he said. “It adds more body and flavor and adds a crunchy nip to it. Not a full bite, just a nip.”

Given that the Nuts are named the Nuts I was expecting the Nuts to have voluminous amounts of Nuts throughout the ballpark. This wasn’t exactly the case, although they did produce these limited edition delicacies when they hosted the 2011 California vs. Carolina League All-Star Game.

085Our ragtag group soon migrated next door so that Joe and I could lead the crowd in a poorly-documented but satisfying-in-the-moment rendition of the seventh inning stretch.

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I then stuck around for an inning on the radio with Nuts broadcaster Alex Margulies.

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By the time I returned to our palatial estate, said ragtag group was well into a dessert of “chimis” (cheesecake, raspberry and dulce de leche) and baked smores.

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My documentation skills were starting to wane at this juncture of the evening, but please let it be known that Bonnie exalted the Raspberry Chimis above the Dulce De Leche because the latter was “sweet on top of sweet” and hence too sweet.

Also let it be known that a baseball game transpired during the course of all of this nonsense. The hometown team, desirous of victory, emerged with just this.

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And with the cessation of play comes the cessation of this blog post. Take it away, Mike on the Mic!

Thanks, Mike on the Mic. Ben on the Blog is now over and out.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

2 Comments

Great entry! Thanks for linking to my blog and the article! Modesto certainly is a great stadium, even when it is pretty much empty. And isn’t Mike on the Mic great? You can tell he loves doing his job no matter how many fans are there! Occasionally, there is a vendor that just walks around with a tray of bacon, and in those games, there is usually a small stand to purchase the bacon.
-Nick
http://nbbaseball.wordpress.com/

Thanks for a fantastic central valley night. And thank you for your thorough coverage of the v-neck shirt referenced many times above, my simple attempt to dress modestno.

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