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Nuts on verge of cracking 5 million mark

On April 4, 2003, the Modesto baseball franchise became the first in California League history to win 4,000 games.

Sometime this weekend, more baseball history will be celebrated at John Thurman Field. This time the party will be in the stands instead of on the field.

Modesto entered its four-game series against the San Jose Giants Friday night just 8,441 fans short of 5 million in all-time attendance as a California League affiliate. Friday's crowd of x,xxx pushed the team within x,xxx of the mark.

A huge crowd tonight could push the franchise over 5 million, but it's more likely the soon-to-be-celebrated fan will come through a turnstile sometime before Sunday's 1:05 p.m. first pitch.

"It's a great milestone for the organization," said vice president and general manager Mike Gorrasi. "It shows that even after 63 years of baseball in Modesto, the community is still coming out in record numbers to support us."

Modesto began play in the revamped California League in 1946 and has fielded a team continuously, except for a one-year hiatus in 1965.

Modesto will be the third California League team to reach 5 million. Rancho Cucamonga, a fabulously successful franchise that has led the California League in attendance each year since beginning play in 1993, hit the milestone early last season. San Jose reached the mark in April, 2006.

Modesto Nuts staff will be closely monitoring the two entry gates, and the five-millionth fan will know immediately whether he or she is the lucky attendee.

The fan's group will be invited to watch the game from one of the VIP suites at Thurman Field after the honoree throws out the ceremonial first pitch. The front office is working on a prize package that Gorrasi said will include several gifts.

The Modesto franchise needed 56 years to reach 4 million fans, hitting that mark on July 4, 2002. The four-millionth fan was five-year-old Bren Schiers of Modesto, who attended with his family. His prize package, valued at more than $3,000, included a Modesto A's lifetime pass, a team jersey, concert tickets, a year's worth of sandwiches and oil changes and several autographed baseballs.

Moving from four million to five million has taken less than seven years and is a reflection of how this franchise has found rebirth with the 1997 stadium renovation.

In 1996, the final year of the old Thurman Field, the Modesto A's drew 98,795 fans for its 70 home games. As recent as 1990, the team lured only 62,089 through the gates, or less than 1,000 per home date.

But the construction of the new park, which included expansion of the seating area from 2,500 to 4,000, immediately paid dividends in the stands. The 1997 Modesto A's drew 140,861, a 43 percent one-season increase, and the new-ballpark honeymoon has continued in its 13th season.

The Modesto Nuts drew an all-time record 164,306 in 2008. Last Saturday, the added space of the new press box-level sky decks and left field covered picnic area allowed John Thurman Field to comfortably embrace the stadium-record 5,083 fans who came out to watch the Nuts play the San Jose Giants. Concession lines were long, but the stadium itself did not seem close to bursting with people.

Last Saturday's crowd was boosted by the annual breast cancer awareness night, a promotion that includes the auctioning of the pink jerseys worn that night only by the Nuts players.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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