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Ben's Biz gets crackin' with Modesto

Road to the Emerald City begins at the club's Single-A affiliate
May 17, 2024

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE. The following ballpark road trip recap is presented by Wyndham, proud sponsor of Minor League

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE.

The following ballpark road trip recap is presented by Wyndham, proud sponsor of Minor League Ballpark Guides. Plan your road trip today, and check out the Modesto Nuts Ballpark Guide HERE.

On Friday, May 3, I woke up in San Jose and went to bed in Stockton. Those two California locales were merely the protective shell around that which comprised the day’s kernel: Modesto, the home of the Nuts. I arrived in this Central Valley city after a 100-minute drive that included a pit stop at a gas station in Livermore. Finally, for the first time this season, I really and truly felt like I was on the road. It’s the little things.

After posting the above photo on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, no less than two people replied that they were Livermore natives: Nicholas Badders and Erik “The Peanut Guy” Mertens. The former is currently the voice of the Omaha Storm Chasers, but I first met (and wrote about) him at a Nuts game in 2013. In those days, he was a teenage ball hawk. The latter is a Tri-City Dust Devils icon, a gameday employee since day one who has since been immortalized with his own baseball card and a life-size ballpark bobblehead.

I arrived in Modesto with a couple of hours to spare, amid a lot of downtown hustle and bustle in preparation for that evening’s First Friday event. The first thing I did on this Friday afternoon was seek out the city’s famous arch. Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health -- Modesto has it all!

Other things I saw while wandering about downtown Modesto included, but were not limited to, the McHenry Museum, a record store (Broken Records), various examples of art deco architecture and a plaque dedicated to George Lucas and his love of cruising around in classic cars (Lucas is a native of Modesto and his film "American Graffiti" was inspired by his teenage years there).

John Thurman Field, a 69-year-old stadium located less than two miles from downtown proper, has hosted California League baseball for the entirety of its existence. Modesto’s team adopted the Nuts moniker -- a tribute to local agriculture -- in 2005. Since 2017 they have been affiliated with the Seattle Mariners.

John Thurman Field is a throwback. The seating bowl gives way to bleachers on both sides, with the concourse stretching behind the facility.

It was from this location that I spoke with second-year Nuts manager Zach Vincej about the success he’s had thus far. The Nuts won the California League championship in 2023 and, as I type this, sit atop the Cal League North Division with a lofty record of 24-8.

In the photo at the top of this post, I can be seen with my friend Al Almond. Wally the Walnut was also in the house.

When I last visited Modesto, in 2016, Shelley the Pistachio had just been added to the Nuts mascot family. She was nowhere to be found on this evening, and I forgot to inquire as to her whereabouts. I apologize for this lack in journalistic judgement, but please know that she can be found on a 2017 Topps “Ben’s Biz” baseball card.

Al and Wally soon migrated to the seating bowl, and so did I. It was almost time to play ball on a pleasant Friday evening in Modesto, with the Nuts taking on the Quakes of Rancho Cucamonga. The Quakes are managed by John Shoemaker, who began his Minor League managerial career in 1987 (four years before his counterpart on the Nuts, the aforementioned Zach Vincej, was born).

I was on the hunt for stories and found one soon after the game began, when I was speaking with Nuts marketing manager Mary Cortez. This marks her first season with the Nuts in a full-time capacity, following three decades of professional experience that had nothing to do with the world of sports. I’m so used to new MiLB employees being just out of college, in their early 20s, not answering my emails. Talking to Mary was a great reminder that there are different pathways into the industry, and her enthusiasm and positive spirit were contagious. A feature story is coming soon.

Newly imbued with enthusiasm and a positive spirit, I next met the evening’s Designated Eater. Introducing Travis Sullins.

Travis lives in Bristol, Virginia, home of the Appalachian League’s Bristol State Liners (Bristol straddles Virginia and West Virginia). He loves to travel -- to ballparks and National Parks -- and was in the midst of a trip with a similar itinerary to mine. In the above photo, he’s standing in front of the Wally’s Wagon food truck.

Unfortunately, Wally’s Wagon was all out of Loaded Tots and Buffalo Chicken Fries. We settled for the Burrito Bowl, which Travis deemed to be “heavy on the sour cream” while “having a little heat.”

“It’s pretty good,” he concluded, before establishing a very high bar for any foodstuff: “But it’s not going to change my life or anything.”

Wally’s Wagon was parked next to a stand run by an outside vendor, selling birria tacos (supremely tender beef, which had been marinated and then slowly cooked in broth).

While Travis lamented the lack of a dipping broth (often served with birria tacos), he praised them as having “lots of flavor.” You really can’t go wrong with birria tacos. They’ve made their way to the East Coast in recent years, and I order them all the time.

Travis and I brought his food to the Beer Pen, located down the first-base line and so named because it’s right by the actual bullpen.

Wandering back across the concourse, I ran into this terrifying fellow. The Nuts’ promotion this evening had a Halloween theme, with fans encouraged to dress up, but no one else took it this far. Kudos to Mr. Blood-Spattered Psychopath here for going the extra mile.

No one could kill the Nuts on this evening, however. They were down 11-2 entering the home half of the seventh. Entering the ninth, the game was tied!

The contest went into extra innings, with the Nuts winning it in the 10th on a leadoff single by Caleb Cali that scored zombie runner Jonny Farmelo (hey, better to be a zombie than a blood-spattered psychopath).

This is what victorious Nuts look like.

As for me, it was time to head on out to my hotel room in Stockton. But first, there was one more stop in Modesto that I wanted -- nay, needed -- to make.

And, as always, thank you for reading. To see all of my 2024 road trip itineraries, kindly click HERE.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.