The Modesto Nuts and Seattle Mariners officially joined hands at high noon Tuesday, signaling a new era in the city’s professional baseball history.
The Nuts and Mariners agreed to a four-year player development contract, marking only the second change in Modesto’s Major League Baseball affiliations over the last 42 years. In another noteworthy move, the Mariners purchased a majority interest of the Advanced-A ballclub.
The partnership is only the second of its kind in the California League. The San Francisco Giants are the majority owners of the San Jose Giants.
The change means the end of the Nuts’ 12-year tenure under the Colorado Rockies’ banner. Previously, Modesto served the Oakland A’s for 30 seasons. The announcement, held at Thurman Field’s Dust Bowl Pavilion, confirmed reports last month by The Modesto Bee and other baseball sources.
And, by the way, they’ll still be called the Modesto Nuts.
The Mariners, who have been represented in the Cal League since the franchise’s beginning in the late 1970s, based their affiliate in Bakersfield the last two seasons. Bakersfield and High Desert, the league’s 2016 champion, dissolved their franchises this month.
Kevin Mather, president and CEO of the Mariners, targeted Modesto since the league unrest became common knowledge over the summer.
“We thought, ‘How can we make a long-term solution?’ That’s when we started to talk about making an equity investment,” Mather said. “We came up with a very short list, with Modesto being on top of that list. I knew it (Thurman Field) was a great facility for player development, and we’re excited to be here.”
Michael Savit, managing partner of Boston-based HWS Baseball, which has owned the Nuts since 2005, could not attend because of his wife’s recent surgery. He and Mather worked out the framework of an agreement after only a few phone calls.
“I think this is a great day for the Nuts, the city of Modesto and all baseball fans in the Stanislaus County area,” Savit said in a statement. “The Mariners are a great organization, and the commitment they are making to the franchise says a great deal about Modesto and its baseball future. We couldn’t be happier about partnering with the Mariners.”
The Mariners undoubtedly like the upgrade to Thurman Field after two seasons at Bakersfield’s antiquated Sam Lynn Ballpark. They also are on board with HWS Baseball, anchored by veteran Mike Gorrasi, continuing to run the Nuts’ day-to-day operation.
“Pat O’Conner, the president of Minor League Baseball, had nothing but great things to say about Modesto and the HWS group, and nothing but great things to say about Michael Savit,” Mather said. “I called him (Savit), and within a minute I knew I wanted to do business with this guy. As he said, we could have done this on a napkin over lunch if we could have just kept the lawyers out of it.”
Modesto Mayor Ted Brandvold called attention to the team’s 70-season history and that the Nuts, after Bakersfield’s exit, have become the Cal League’s senior member.
“Modesto is proud of its baseball heritage and is proud to have the Seattle Mariners joining us as a part of our baseball future,” Brandvold said.
Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development and a Sacramento native, pointed out all seven Seattle teams reached the playoffs and went a combined 451-314 (.590). That’s the best overall winning percentage of any MLB organization in 2016. The Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings, the Mariners’ Class-A club, set a franchise record for wins. Most of those players will report to Modesto next spring.
“Every player that will play for Modesto next year will have celebrated a championship this year,” McKay said. “I hope they like that feeling and get used to it.”
McKay, who played and coached at Sacramento City College for Jerry Weinstein – the winningest manager in Modesto franchise history – took the job with the Mariners nine months ago after a stint with the Rockies. He admitted this year may have been a coincidence, but he stresses the importance of winning at the minor-league level.
“We do not believe that winning and development are two different things,” he said. “I think the number one criteria for developing a baseball player is to create a winning culture. We’re trying to win championships in the major leagues, so why aren’t we trying to win championships in the minor leagues? We’re trying to create not only major-league players but winning major-league players that understand how to be a part of a team and how to actually win a baseball game.”
That was sweet music to the ears of Nuts fans and especially season-ticket holders who watched the Nuts’ last three losing seasons. Before then, the team qualified for the playoffs eight of nine years. Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado, Dexter Fowler and Trevor Story were among the 75 players who made the jump from Modesto to Colorado.
“We had 12 great years with the Rockies,” Gorrasi said. “We had successful teams, especially early on.”
Gorrasi also said Modesto’s connection with Seattle already exists with three present-day Mariners: Nelson Cruz (from the Modesto A’s Cal League title team in 2004) and Chris Iannetta and Seth Smith from the first Nuts team in ’05.
The Nuts debut under the Mariners’ logo April 6 at Lake Elsinore. Their home opener will be April 13 against the Lancaster JetHawks, who might be housing the Rockies’ High-A team. The Rockies’ future in the Cal League is still unsettled.