MODESTO -- The turf behind home plate and near the dugouts has browned out and thinned, a contrast to the rich green of April.
John Thurman Field, home of the Modesto Nuts, usually does not conduct the business of baseball after Labor Day. By now, the ballpark is prepped for winter maintenance rather than the season's most important games.
But on this Sept. 13, logos adorn that tattered pitch. "North Division Champions" decorates the area behind the plate. Down the base lines are twin signs celebrating the Nuts' appearance in the 2012 California League Championship Series.
The last time the Nuts reached this deep into the playoffs, they weren't the Nuts. The Modesto Athletics beat the Lancaster JetHawks in the 2004 Cal League final, and in the kind of delicious irony only baseball can deliver, the teams from the same cities are colliding again eight years later.
Game 1 of the best-of-five series on Thursday night went to Lancaster, 7-4, with Game 2 tonight at 7 p.m.
The crowd, a modest 1,155, came as no surprise. Minor-league playoffs are a day-to-day thing. The Nuts had about 21 hours' notice, courtesy of their winner- take-all victory over Bakersfield on Wednesday night, for Game 1 of the title series. At the Single-A level of professional baseball, the buildup to championship games is no more than a good night's sleep.
But the people who cared enough to be there understand the magic of the moment. They're the Nuts' hard-core fans, many of them season-ticket holders, and they know this doesn't happen every September. Modesto's last championship before 2004 was 1984, when Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire swatted balls out of the yard.
The Mayor of Section 112 knew this. "This is for all the marbles!" Jack Griffith told Nuts left-fielder Delta Cleary Jr. as the ballplayer strolled toward the dugout before the game. Cleary's smile indicated two things: He recognized the elderly fan, and he liked what he heard.
Griffith, 79, has sat in Seat 1, Row F, Section 112, six rows from foul territory, since Thurman Field was renovated in 1997. Seat 2 belonged to Wanda, Jack's wife, until her death in May 2010. That seat usually is filled these days by Jack's grandchildren or church friends. Below him sits Darleen Westley, the Nuts' den mother who housed Nuts players for many years. Jeff Plaster, another close friend of the Nuts, holds court a few seats away.
Thursday night was special for them and, especially, for Griffith. He wears a Modesto Li'l Rockies cap, which features what else? the mountains. Don't bother looking for a copy. It doesn't exist. "I didn't like the new nickname (the Nuts) they put on the team," he said, "so I designed my own logo and had a lady stitch it on."
You might say he's a special fan. "When you get to my age, you don't run around too much," Griffith said. "It's either baseball or church. I think I got to all the games after those cold games in April."
Griffith has enjoyed these playoffs because they're so rare. The Nuts have yet to claim the Joe Gagliardi Trophy, which goes each year to the Cal League champion, since they became a Rockies affiliate in 2005.
That's right, Al the Almond and Wally the Walnut have not reaped the biggest harvest of them all. If they and Thursday night's bell-ringing and horn-blowing crowd have their way, that streak soon will come to an end.
Regardless of the series outcome, the annual routine will continue. The Nuts will scatter like autumn leaves in this case, players from nine states, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. And Griffith will wait for spring training, when the grass again is green.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.