It was a sunny, breezy afternoon, and I was walking along the warning track at the brand-new John Thurman Field, checking out the final stages of construction with Doug Gaynor, Modesto’s Director of Parks and Recreation.
Workmen were scurrying through the lower deck, ratchets in hand, making sure all the bolts securing the new green seats and rails were tightened to the point that the sellout crowd expected the next night wouldn’t find anything loose.
As we reached the area until the new scoreboard, I grabbed a quick glance back toward home plate. It looked so bare, since the press box wouldn’t be in place for another 14 months. But home plate looked so far away, and I mentioned that to Gaynor.
“We haven’t measured everything yet,” Gaynor said. “But we really think this ballpark will play fair.”
Remember that when construction on Thurman Field began within weeks of the final pitch of the 1996 season, the first move was to bulldoze the old grandstands, then take home plate and move it back 30 feet away from fence in centerfield. The fence would stay.
In essence, the new ballpark – a design-and-build project – was erected around home plate, creating the short porches down each line and the spacious power alleys.
But on that afternoon of May 6, 1997, the dimensions had yet to be painted on the outfield wall. It wasn’t until the following day that I was able to look across from my “press box” seat behind the first base dugout and see “393” in the left field power alley.
I bring up that old story because the Opening Night game of May 7, 1997, was the first home game I covered for the Modesto Bee upon returning to the area the previous summer after 11 years on the east coast.
I stepped into the role of beat writer in 1997 not having any notion that it would remain one of my beats at The Bee through 18 full seasons, through an affiliation change and too many changes to journalism to mention.
My 19th season of minor league baseball coverage, spanning more than 1,100 games, began early this month when the Modesto Nuts came to town for a couple days of workouts before opening their California League season on the road.
My involvement with the coverage ends Wednesday, when the Nuts host Visalia in an afternoon game.
The Modesto Bee will continue to cover our only local professional team, and this blog is likely to resurface under a different name, written by another baseball lover. But I am leaving the Modesto Bee on Friday to start a new career in the communications department at Cal State Stanislaus.
I’ve saved all the blogs I’ve written over the years and someday might turn them into something fans will be able to peruse online. And I’ll continue to snark on all sports via Twitter (the handle is below.)
Until then, if you see me around (and I’m not going anywhere) feel free to ask me what former Modesto outfielder Nick Swisher thinks of John Thurman Field and I’ll give you the G-rated version.
A hint: 393 is not his favorite number.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2150. Follow him on Twitter @modestobeek.