Modesto Nuts

Modesto Nuts settle for long haul

There is no room for sentiment in baseball, except on Opening Night.

The Modesto Nuts' first home game of the 2008 season presented ritual tradition -- decorative bunting, ceremonial speeches and, in the clubhouse, young men still introducing themselves or exchanging old pleasantries.

Two hours before the first pitch, right-hander Aneury Rodriguez (Dominican Republic), infielder Hector Gomez (Dominican Republic) and catcher Nelson Robledo (Panama) are locked into a card game called Casino. They're speaking Spanish and trying to forget how far away they are from home.

At the far corner, outfielder/designated hitter Jay Cox still can't figure out what happened to his North Carolina Tar Heels, the NCAA Tournament favorites until their loss in the semifinals.

"I heard about it pretty good. I dished it out before the game. I thought they had it for sure," Cox said. "Kansas (which beat Memphis for the title) shot 77 percent the first 10 minutes. I couldn't believe that."

The Nuts, like all other ball clubs so early in the season, desperately seek a routine. Rest assured, they and the rest of their California League rivals will find their comfort zone soon enough. They'll repeat this pregame process 140 times before it's over. By then, the Nuts -- ranging in age from 20 to 27 -- will be hardened by baseball's cement-lined code.

Remember, this is the game where only the winners shake hands, and that's among themselves. Even bone-weary football opponents acknowledge each other after three bloody hours.

Not baseball. The losing side looks on sadly, collects its equipment and fights another day. It's where sympathy has taken a permanent holiday.

In baseball, teammates work together by blending solo jobs. Here is where the game's true beauty lies -- the meshing of about 1,000 individual skills toward a single cause.

That's why the day-to-day emotion was bred out of the game long ago. Only on Opening Night, the start of something fresh and new, does it drop its M.O. and celebrate its special family.

There's San Jose Giants manager Steve Decker, who was managed two decades ago by Nuts hitting coach Duane Espy. There's Giants hitting coach Gary Davenport, the son of former San Francisco manager and third baseman Jim Davenport. There's Nuts third baseman Matt Repec, whose Winthrop team whipped teammate Michael Paulk's Cal State Northridge by 10 runs several years ago.

"We always bring it up," Repec admits.

Once again, Modesto greets a far-flung bag of Nuts. Players from five countries and 11 states will share the same dugout for the next five months. Eighteen of them competed last year for the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists, who finished 22 games above .500 but barely missed the playoffs.

They reunite 3,000 miles away at their new home, and the new go-to guy is center fielder Anthony Jackson. Jackson, of Modesto, is armed with local knowledge.

"I've told them about the food places and about the girls," he said. "On our first day off, my dad is going to barbecue for the whole team."

Predictably, Jackson was nervous. At least 30 family and friends gave him a rousing cheer when he was introduced. By now, any local fan worth his seat cushion knows Jackson is the first Modesto position player in 25 years to start for the local professional team.

"I kind of want to play good in front of them. They haven't seen me play in a while," Jackson said. "I want to show them what I'm all about. I'll be fine."

He's already fine. About five hours after he spoke those words, Jackson's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth tied the game. Mike McKenry's bases-loaded single then capped a thrilling four-run explosion and won it 5-4 for the Nuts.

You'll enjoy McKenry this season. He's listed at 5 feet 10 inches (a bit generous) and weighs 200 (every pound of it) and resembles a highway crash barrel. He slugged 22 home runs with Asheville, and the pop in his bat could make him a Modesto favorite.

I'd say he's off to a good start.

"I've never been to California. The humidity is not bad," said McKenry, a Knoxville, Tenn., resident who can teach us all about humidity. "I have no complaints. I feel lucky to be out here every day."

Yes, sentiment counts on Opening Night.

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

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