Sports

Former Modesto players help Rockies rise

There always has been some purple in the house of Peter and Marilyn Johansen, since it's the primary color of Johansen High School, named for the former Modesto mayor and businessman.

But after Monday night's stirring 13-inning victory for the purple-clad Colorado Rockies over San Diego, the color might become a little more prominent in their home for as long as the Rockies stay alive in the playoffs.

There is a connection other than the color.

Seth Smith, the rookie outfielder who smacked a pinch-hit triple in the sixth inning of Monday's game, is the Johansens' son.

Hold on. Don't order a paternity test just yet, because there is no blood relation between Smith and the Johansens.

But like so many other baseball players who stayed with hosts in Modesto during the California League portion of their rise through the minor leagues, Smith breezed past occupant and resident status before settling in as a full-fledged Johansen family member in the summer of 2005.

"Seeing the boys on the Colorado team should make Modesto proud," Marilyn Johansen said. "These are home-grown boys who lived here five months. Modesto has housed a lot of important players on their way up."

For 30 years, Modesto's adopted baseball family members eventually landed in Oakland. It was a tree that included honorary family branch names such as Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Tim Hudson, just to name a few.

And while all of those players flourished in the Bay Area, it wasn't until they reached the national stage of the postseason that Modesto came to embrace them as our boys of summer.

That's what made the Modesto-Oakland breakup following the 2004 season so difficult to digest. Well, that and the team's new name.

That the Rockies were the Nuts and not the A's in name or affiliation was a double-whammy certain to not set well with local fans -- until some of the new breed of Modesto's sons began to make a national impact.

Like right now.

Troy Tulowitzki, who began his professional career in Modesto in 2005, had four hits Monday and is a leading candidate for National League rookie of the year.

Manny Corpas was the setup man for the Nuts in 2005 and now is Colorado's closer. He needed six pitches to record three outs in the ninth inning Monday.

And then there was Smith, who came to bat in the sixth inning against Padres ace Jake Peavy with the score tied 5-5, one day after his 25th birthday. He settled for a triple after his shot to center missed clearing the wall by inches -- his fifth hit in eight major-league at-bats.

"To watch that game and see Tulowitzki get four hits, to see Corpas pitch a big inning and to see Seth get the triple, well, that's bringing it home because we just had those guys here," Nuts general manager Mike Gorrasi said. "We have a lot of Rockies fans in Modesto now, and we're going to be rooting for them in the playoffs."

Make no mistake: This is all part of the Rockies' plan. When Colorado rolled into town just days after the Modesto A's won the 2004 California League championship, they preached an approach of drafting and developing a combination of talent and character that would endear the franchise to the town.

"Modesto is very similar to our situation in Tulsa because the Rangers had their (Double-A) team in Tulsa for many years before we got there," said Bill Geivett, Colorado's assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations. "In the last three years, Tulsa has broken its attendance record, and I know Tulsa has more enthusiasm now about the Rockies. We just hope through time that people in Modesto see talented, good people rolling through their town and into the majors and eventually play in and win a World Series for Colorado."

But on Monday night in Modesto, Marilyn Johansen was squirming on the couch when Smith came to bat.

She and her husband saw Smith bat many times in Modesto in 2005, when he hit .300 for the Nuts, and made a trip to Fresno in August to see him play with the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

But Monday was the first time she'd seen him in a Colorado uniform.

"I was nervous," she said. "Even here in Modesto, every time he came to bat I got nervous. It was just like my own child was playing soccer and baseball again. I get tense every time he comes to bat."

The Rockies' roster Monday included nine former Nuts and one former Modesto Athletic. The local baseball ties don't stop there. Rockies All-Star reliever Brian Fuentes is from Merced, third base coach Mike Gallego played for the Modesto A's, and first base coach Glenallen Hill was the Modesto manager in 2006.

Stretching the local ties to the breaking point, tonight's Game 1 starter for Colorado is Jeff Francis. On July 6, 2003, Francis threw a nine-inning no-hitter against the Modesto A's while pitching for the Visalia Oaks.

The Rockies, who dressed 38 players Monday, will announce their 25-man playoff roster this morning, and no doubt many of the young ex-Nuts won't play for the big club this postseason.

It's just a guess, but Smith, Ian Stewart, Josh Newman, Juan Morillo and former Li'l A's shortstop Omar Quintanilla likely will watch from the stands while former Nuts Tulowitzki, Corpas, Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales and Chris Iannetta should continue to wear purple.

Whether Smith makes the roster cut is irrelevant in the Johansen household, which will continue to fly the purple.

"I didn't realize at first how attached we would get to Seth, and his wife is just precious, too," Marilyn Johansen said. "I just felt so comfortable having Seth here in our home. I never worried about a thing. He was a member of the family."

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

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