Ron Agostini

Agostini: Relays leaves only memories in its dust

Lower your heads. Close your eyes. A little bit of Modesto died Thursday.

The California Invitational Relays, the city's signature sports event for 67 years, has been uprooted and transplanted to Sacramento. I'm told it's a bad news-good news thing -- bad because it's departed our fair burg, and good because our favorite track and field meet continues, though at a different address.

Sorry, I fail to see the good.

I would have preferred a clean break, a sip of champagne for the 31 world records and the 67 years, and a glass-toss into the fireplace. "A great run" we'd salute while the memories of Carl Lewis, Ralph Boston, Evelyn Ashford and Stacy Dragila are stowed for safekeeping. And then it's done.

Instead, Modesto's "Biggest Little Track Meet In the World" is packed into boxes and trucked to the state capital like just another outsourced company. What once was a virtual holiday here is reduced to just another date up there.

Look, every John Doe understands good business and the end of formerly golden eras. It's just that all the reasons make sense, the players say all the right things and the sympathy and sadness are all nicely stated, one side toasting the future while the other side reflects on the past. The drill is so practiced. Soon we'll be told to phone Brooklyn or Seattle for therapy.

So how do you vent raw emotion when one of your best friends bolts for a larger venue? How do you deal with a hole in your heart and an empty stadium in early May? How do you replace a living breathing part of the city, a treasure that often circulated the city's dateline around the world? Suddenly, it's reduced to a relic, a museum exhibit.

Sorry, I'm not in the mood to be rational.

Tom Moore's meet belongs in Sacramento like the Kings need me at power forward. It's like mixing the argyle shirts with the Hawaiian or Gov. Schwarzenegger moving the state government to Tenth Street Place. The first person who says "It's a good fit" earns a javelin to the big toe.

We're not arguing the facts. We are raging against them. The Relays have departed because Modesto basically checked out. Buying tickets to watch Jeremy Wariner, Lauryn Williams and Christian Cantwell ranked far down the priority list behind backyard barbecues and day trips to the hills. Track and field, rated about half a notch above bicycle racing by most sports fans, slowly has been relegated to Page 12. It will pay its steroids dues for years. Credit Modesto for hanging on longer than most.

In the 1950s and '60s, the Relays drew capacity crowds to Modesto Junior College Stadium. In 2008 on a perfect day as the Olympics beckoned, Modesto couldn't run fast enough away from the Relays. The first hint came earlier this year when "Modesto" was stricken from the official title. The second was all those empty seats.

"I have tears in my eyes, but I saw the handwriting on the wall," admitted Bob Stewart, a Friend of the Relays since the '50s. "I noticed that the Modesto Nuts outdrew the Relays this year. That told me it was all over."

Nor can we begrudge Save Mart Supermarkets, which spared the Relays from almost certain extinction 10 years ago. CEO Bob Piccinini, for all his well-documented passion for Modesto, did not build a 250-store empire on water-colored sentiment. Save Mart signaled its invasion of Sacramento by its purchase of the Albertsons chain in February 2007. When Piccinini confirmed a rejection of his vision of a track meet-community fair, he pivoted toward business awaiting him to the north.

Again, he is entitled. He more than crossed the 50-yard line for the Relays. Our only issue is this: Will he divert large quantities of cash from his NASCAR budget in Sonoma and suddenly lure Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix to break in his new trackfest? If so, we can only wonder why the big-ticket athletes largely were deemed unaffordable here.

Sorry, we're swallowing tons of angst today.

Meet director Gregg Miller believes he's following Moore's wishes by restarting the event somewhere else. Piccinini is doing the things that make him a CEO. Sacramento eyes another plum in its niche-sport collection. Perhaps we've been lucky the Relays outlasted Moore by six years.

All parties, it seems, walk away with something, while a part of Modesto dies.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at or 578-2302.

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