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Stadium, players give Modesto reason to be proud

Let's make a list as the 61st season of professional baseball in Modesto kicks into gear.

New scoreboard at Thurman Field? Great.

Redone infield? No complaints.

Better sound system? Not so grating on the ears.

Weather? A hard-to-believe 76 degrees at gametime, a boon for global-warming advocates if not exactly a spike for the coffee concession.

The 2007 Nuts? 1-0 after a 7-3 victory Thursday night over the Visalia Oaks. Bring on the next 139.

Put it this way: If the Nuts execute as well as the cartwheel-flip performed by shortstop Chris Nelson as he trotted onto the field, they'll be major players in the California League.

And isn't that the way it should be? For all the improved bells and whistles at the ballpark — and all were needed — it's still all about the young men migrating from all parts of the country and elsewhere. Modesto has embraced their chase for six decades because, frankly, it doesn't get more American than ballplayers pursuing future wealth.

Granted, it's A-ball. The guys here still haven't morphed into spoiled media-baiting mercenaries. In fact, their chances to reach The Show span from "longshot" to "I had my shot." I like their attitude because, for most, they haven't yet developed an attitude.

"I've never been to Modesto until now," said Chaz Roe, a first-round draft pick by the Colorado Rockies and tonight's starting pitcher. "This is a little different than I thought. I always thought of California as a lot of big cities."

Roe, 20, comes from Lexington, Ky., by way of the University of Tennessee. Yes, his hometown and his school are mortal enemies. You won't find many handshakes between fans of UK and the Volunteers.

"My room is all Tennessee," he said. "My dad always gives me a bad time."

Perhaps a new landscape will be good for Roe.

Then again, the Rockies' prospects haven't touched down in Modesto to sample the scenery. They understand that San Francisco and Yosemite National Park will be nice day trips on off-days, but their priority is working on their changeup, hitting a curveball, improving their stamina, etc.

What jolts them to attention, however, is what happened earlier this week with the parent club. The Rockies defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks when Chris Iannetta drove in Troy Tulowitzki. Both plied their trade at Thurman Field only two short seasons ago.

"Very encouraging," outfielder Daniel Carte acknowledged.

The Rockies don't necessarily rush their talent through the system. Eighteen members of the Nuts spent at least a portion of 2006 with the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists of the Low-A South Atlantic League. It follows that many of last year's Nuts have advanced to Double-A Tulsa.

Carte, a graduate of the Hurricane High Redskins (we're not kidding) of Hurricane, W.V., views Modesto as a necessary step in his journey. He hit 14 home runs and drove in 86 runs at Asheville, which were decent numbers but only a foundation for a second-round pick.

What radiates from Carte, however, is an affection for the game. Old-school scouts referred to clear-eyed prospects and their "good face." Carte qualifies.

"I've heard this league is good for pitchers. The ballpark here is bigger than most. The ball does carry here, though," Carte said. "Everyone says they've enjoyed it here. It looks like a nice place to spend the summer."

Two hours before the game, outfielder Cole Garner collected "walkout music" — the snippet of a song as the batter is introduced — for all the Nuts on his laptop. Whether he's paid for the press-box work is unknown but he's collected more than 8,000 songs. May his bat and his surgically repaired shoulder be as potent as his laptop.

Garner, raised about 30 seconds from Knott's Berry Farm and about 10 minutes from Disneyland, knows he's left Fantasyland. He's never batted lefty in a game, but his switch-hitting experiment begins now.

"This is going to be interesting. It will be nice with all those pitches breaking into me for a change," Garner said. "I felt comfortable with it during the spring. In my first live pitching this spring, I went 2-for-2 with a home run (hitting from the left side)."

It seems there's a different rite of passage for each of the 25 Nuts. Roe works on his breaking pitches to complement his mid-90s fastball. Garner tries a new side of the plate. Carte expects to fill Thurman's power alleys with doubles.

And outfielder Dexter Fowler, from suburban Atlanta, is humbled by the whole process.

"I came out when I was 18. I had to grow up pretty fast," he said. "You have to carry yourself a different way. All eyes are on you and all ears are there. You humble yourself, take your time, be a gentleman and go hard every day."

Sounds like a plan, Nuts.

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reachedat ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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