Portions of the infield at Thurman Field were rolled up, like an old carpet targeted for the garbage dump, the day after the Modesto Nuts' season ended.
Officials rushed ballplayers to the airport for trips home while final cleanup duties continued. Less than 12 hours after the Nuts' season-ending loss to the San Jose Giants in the California League North Division series, young men from 12 states, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela cut ties from a team that dominated their lives for nearly six months.
This is the final act for almost all professional baseball teams, yet from such closure sprouts the next season. The infield soon will be resodded, unmistakable evidence of plans already unfolding for 2011.
"We had a great season," concluded Mike Gorassi, the Nuts' vice president/general manager who wrapped up his 10th year in Modesto. "We showed we can thrive during a tough economy."
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Off the field, the Nuts set a regular-season franchise attendance record of 180,344 (2,692 per game) for the fourth straight year. On the field, Modesto spiced a so-so year with a compelling finish and its deepest postseason run in five years.
The Nuts failed to win each half, but their 73-67 overall mark yielded enough wins to keep them interesting. No one in the Cal League won more games than pitchers Ethan Hollingsworth (12-8, second-best 3.31 ERA) and Juan Nicasio (12-10, seventh-best 3.91 ERA). All-league catcher Jordan Pacheco earned a late-season promotion with his .321 batting average, fifth-best in the league.
Modesto no doubt saved its best stuff for the final two weeks.
The Nuts trailed Visalia by four games with six to go in their duel for a wild-card berth. Shockingly, Modesto closed by winning all six, while the Rawhide limped home 1-5, and the Nuts virtually stole a playoff berth.
They took advantage of that chance by sweeping second-half North Division champion Stockton 2-0 in the first round. Their season-best eight-game winning streak didn't shake first-half champion San Jose, however, as the Giants — beaten by Modesto 13-11 in the season series — swept the Nuts 3-0 and will pursue a second straight Cal League championship beginning tonight.
One of the most fascinating season-long performances was supplied by Jimmy Cesario, a 46th-round draft pick from New Orleans who stunned everyone with a sensational start.
He batted .316, eighth-best in the league en route to all-star honors, but always inspired his teammates with nonstop hustle. His all-out diving catch in foul ground during Game 1 against San Jose drew extended applause from even the Giants' fans.
"About 80 percent of this team was also together last year in (Low-A) Asheville," Cesario said minutes after the Nuts' final loss Monday night. "There was a lot of cohesiveness. It's hard for 30 guys to come together. We just had a good group of guys."
Jerry Weinstein, who wrapped up his fourth season as manager, also enjoyed the team's everyday work ethic. His teams in Modesto have won 76, 70, 75 and 73 games. In fact, the Nuts have reached the playoffs in five of six years since the Rockies replaced Oakland as the parent club.
"This team, maybe more than the others, was an exceptionally good group," Weinstein said. "From the first day of spring training to the last game, they were true to their colors — blue-collar and low maintenance. They ran balls out and didn't throw their equipment around. They put their work in every day."
Modesto's attendance record, more laudable considering three games in April were rained out, reflects growing nationwide popularity in minor-league baseball. It also shows the Nuts have improved at reaching their market.
"It's been gradual. We wanted to grow but we wanted to do it smart," Gorassi said. "Our goal actually was to draw 180,000 (over the previous best of 167,722 in 2009)."
The growth was recognized by first-year Cal League President Charlie Blaney, who attended the San Jose-Modesto series.
"I think Modesto is one of our model franchises," Blaney said. "They provide what we all point to in the California League — clean, wholesome baseball entertainment in a family atmosphere."
More good news happened in August when the Nuts and the Rockies agreed to extend their Player Development Contract through 2012. Twenty-seven former Nuts players, among them Ubaldo Jimenez and Troy Tulowitzki, have climbed to the major league since Modesto and Colorado hooked up in 2005.
And next year for only the third time in franchise history, Modesto will be the host of the California League All-Star Game. The Cal League's best will meet the Carolina League all-stars for the 15th time next June 21 at Thurman.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.