Ron Agostini

Relays left memories to last a lifetime

It began with an idea sparked over coffee and doughnuts by Tom Mellis, Fred Earle and Pop Green.

"Why not a track meet?" they mused.

From there, history.

I'm writing a column I've long dreaded, because the end of the Relays in Modesto had been pondered -- or worse -- for the last 15 years. Well, we've finally arrived at the intersection of Goodbye and See Ya, and the feeling is about right.


But on this day, three moons after our city's premier sports event for 67 years announced its move to Sacramento, we set aside the sadness. The reasons, legitimate or not, will be baked, scrambled and flipped for eons. Today's mission calls for a bow, a thank-you and a question:

Was that a great run or what?

It was Cornelius "Dutch" Warmerdam igniting the fuse in 1942 by pole vaulting 15 feet, 7¾ inches. One meet, one world record -- the first of 31 -- and one meet-ending celebration with parts of the clearance pole still scattered around town as souvenirs.

It was Warmerdam's reward: $10 in expenses and a $3 box of fruit cocktail.

It was Stacy Dragila, a women's pole vault pioneer, pumping life in the Relays nearly 60 years after Warmerdam.

It was John Carlos, the angry, arrogant and so-very-fast John Carlos, discovering a friend where he least expected it -- Tom Moore.

It was an informal chat on the grass one year with brother and sister -- Carl and Carol Lewis.

It was a $200,000 bounty for a world record in the 100 meters in 1999. Didn't happen, but Ato Boldon and Maurice Greene chased the cash like pros.

It was a night in 1963 when three world records fell, 10,714 fans cheered, and Peter Snell and Jim Beatty dueled in a mile run monitored by the entire planet.

It was Phil Shinnick, on that same incredible night in '63, long jumping to a world record erased because the wind gauge wasn't turned on.

It was track fan Wilt Chamberlain, watching from the press box in 1987, wearing a black tank top and a scowl. "Have a seat, little man," he ordered.

It was Edwin Moses owning the intermediate hurdles, over and over again.

It was vaulter Toby Stevenson cheerleading in his street hockey helmet.

It was the bright red Chevron 400 synthetic surface, a track so quick and durable it survived for 27 years, installed in 1980 by -- you guessed it -- volunteers.

It was the 6-foot-7 304-pound Ben Plucknett, before his steroid-infested downfall, tossing a world world in the discus (1981).

It was Dwight Stones in his Mickey Mouse shirt, Brian Oldfield in a growling funk and ex-Modesto Junior College high jump star Tyke Peacock in a victory jog for five consecutive years.

It was Moore, the event's heart and soul until his death on the eve of the 2002 Relays, bailing Oldfield out of jail the night after he set an American record in the shot put.

It was hurdler Al Oerter, a discus icon who carried himself with more dignity than the law allows.

It was hurdler Tony Dees donating a huge portion of shoulder skin to the track after a scary fall.

It was Bill Moorad, Lynn French, the Modesto Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Friends of the Relays.

It was Modesto's Wilbur "Moose" Thompson winning the Relays shot put in 1946, '47 and '49. In '48, he won the Olympic gold medal.

It was longtime MJC coach and Relays official Stan Pavko, his gnarly face protected by a huge straw hat, informing the shot putters, "Five minutes, gentlemen."

It was Mike Powell and Dan O'Brien, true friends of the Relays until the end.

It was Powell in '92 long-jumping a wind-aided 29-2½, matching the leap of Bob Beamon.

It was Stanford's legendary coach Payton Jordan and Sen. Alan Cranston defying time in the senior 100 meters.

It was Bobby Morrow, the anchor of Abilene Christian's relay teams, nearly setting MJC's cinder ablaze during the 1950s.

It was Lewis appearing here six times during the 1980s.

It was three-time Olympian Suzy Powell turning down appearance money elsewhere in 2007 to stay loyal to her hometown.

It was Parry O'Brien winning the shot put six consecutive years ('51 through 56). In the '50s and '60s, missing the Relays was a no-no.

It was Jim Ryun, 17 in 1965, getting his spikes sharpened by Pavko before he races to a 3:58.1 in the mile.

It was Harold Connolly, his hammer throw event banished to Ceres because it was deemed too dangerous at MJC, setting a world record there in '65.

It was Tri-Valley Growers, Coca-Cola and Save Mart Supermarkets extending the Relays' life-span the last 25 years.

It was Steve Prefontaine winning the two-mile in 1975 and dying in a car crash five days later.

It was Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her smile.

It was Wilma Rudolph and her here-to-there stride.

It was a 77-cent ticket in 1942 and a $15-ticket in 2008 and, in between, greatness at any price.

Most of all, it was Moore, his voice Johnny Cash-low yet reassuring: "Runners on your marks."

The sound of the Relays forever.

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