State

Late arrival is lucky for 5 millionth fan

Shel Thompson's Sunday afternoon strategy was shot when the phone rang.

The 60-year-old Modesto native had planned to go out to John Thurman Field for the Modesto Nuts' game, and hoped to get there in time to watch the team celebrate the 5 millionth fan in the 63-year history of California League baseball in Modesto.

"What I wanted to do was come about an hour early," Thompson said. "I thought there might be a good crowd today and a few hundred fans would line up ahead of time. But our daughter from New Orleans called and kept us on the phone forever. We didn't get here until the end of the second inning."

He and his wife, Marie-Merced Thompson, got to the game in the middle of the second inning and were greeted at the gate by the Nuts' mascots and members of the front office.

"When we walked in, I told my wife that I wished we had been here to see the ceremony," Thompson said. "The person who sold me the ticket asked if we came to many games. I noticed the mascots and other people were there at the gate, and I asked when the 5 millionth fan came through. They said 'You're it.' "

Thompson, a lifelong baseball fan and 1966 Downey High graduate, could not have chosen a better day to get lucky at the turnstile. Not only did he collect a prize package valued in excess of $3,700, but he and his wife got to watch a terrific game in the comfort of one of the team's air-conditioned suites while temperatures outside soared into triple digits.

Becoming Fan No. 5 Million is only the latest in a long history of Modesto baseball memories for the Thompson family.

He told the story of how his grandmother, born in 1893 in Newman, once attended a game between the Newman and Modesto city teams as a teenager.

"She snuck out to watch a Newman Lambs game against Modesto in Newman and got severely grounded for sneaking out on a Sunday afternoon," Thompson said.

Thompson's father, he said, sold sodas and near beer at baseball games in Modesto in 1933. According to Robert Santos' book "Sunday Afternoon at the Ballpark," Modesto fielded three semi-pro teams that season -- one in the Don Pedro League and two in the Central California League.

Thompson also recalled buying a kids' season pass for $2.50 in 1962 to watch a Modesto Colts team that featured Joe Morgan, Sonny Jackson and John Bateman.

He passed along the minor league spirit in 1996 by taking a group from the Pioneer Little League to the pre-renovation Thurman Field for a game, getting lucky when he caught a foul ball off the bat of Miguel Tejada. He said he had the ball autographed and still owns it.

He remains very much a baseball fan, he said, and wanted to see a game in this weekend series against San Jose to catch a glimpse of some of San Francisco's young prospects.

"I wanted to see the Giants' prospects, even though they've already sent a few of them up to Connecticut," Thompson said. "I wanted to see Angel Villalona and then I read that the 5 millionth fan would be arriving today. I thought it would be neat to see that ceremony."

Approaching the ticket booth, Thompson knew he was too late to see the ceremony.

As it turned out, he was just in time to be a part of it.

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

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