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Decade's Finest: Team changed, players stood out for Modesto

At about 10:15 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 20, 2004, a fly ball sailed through the cold, windy Lancaster night sky before settling into the glove of left fielder Brian Stavisky.

That moment ended both a rare championship season and an era in Modesto minor league baseball.

It was the final act of the Modesto A's.

When 2005 rolled around, Oakland had taken up digs in Stockton's new ballpark and the Colorado Rockies had invaded John Thurman Field.

The Nuts were born.

The decade of the 2000s was pivotal for Modesto's California League franchise. It started with a a three-year-old ballpark and no sense that Oakland would ever leave. It ended with a long-term lease and a Rockies' affiliate playing before record crowds.

In short, the franchise enters this decade in as secure a position as it ever has been.

But this yearly 140-game exercise is not about ballparks, leases and affiliations, it's about the players who come through Modesto. Some see their athletic careers end right here, while others use Thurman Field as a stepping stone to a major league career.

With the 64th season of California League baseball in Modesto set to open Thursday night when the Nuts play host to the San Jose Giants, it's time to look back at the players who stood out at their positions while in Modesto during the last decade.

Stavisky's career year

So it's fitting that the 30-year Modesto A's era would end in the glove of Stavisky. No one put up better numbers while here, and no one but the University of Notre Dame graduate would earn a league MVP award in Modesto during the decade.

Stavisky hit .343 in 2004 with 19 homers and 83 RBIs. But the toughest thing he had to do all season was find a spot in an outfield that boasted both Andre Ethier and Nelson Cruz in the opening day lineup.

"Stavo started out on the bench that year," said manager of the decade honoree Von Hayes. "I wanted to slide him in there but he wasn't high in the organizational depth chart.

"Hitting coach Eddie Williams went on vacation and I chose that time to put Stavo in the number 3 hole and he responded by driving in the winning run in three straight games against the Ports."

Stavisky seldom again was out of the lineup. But the way he remembers it, he was just holding up his end of the production in a lineup filled with exceptional hitters.

"Everyone came ready to play and ready to get better and Von oversaw all of that," said Stavisky, now 29 and playing in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. "With the guys on this team there was very little talk and a lot of action. I had my bast year in pro ball that year, but I felt like I was just filling my spot on the team."



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Going out with bang

That 2004 ended up as the best hitting team in Modesto history with a .301 team batting average and a league-record 354 doubles. It stands alone as the team best able to take advantage of Thurman Field's spacious gaps since the 1997 renovation.

"Eddie and I agreed about the philosophy we needed to win in Modesto," Hayes said. "To drive in runs you had to hit the gaps, and to do that you had to work the count and get a pitch out over the plate."

There was gap-to-gap pop throughout that lineup. Shortstop Omar Quintanilla hit .314 with 48 extra-base hits, catcher John Suomi hit .295 with 51 extra-base hits, and third baseman Isaac Garcia hit .303 with 53 extra-base hits.

When Cruz was promoted before the All-Star break, Jason Perry joined the team and hit .338 with 24 homers and 80 RBI in only 83 games, and was the post-season MVP.

"That team had so much fun and had so many good players," Stavisky said. "We finished 90-50 and I know a lot of times in sports you talk about teams playing just well enough to win, but I felt that on that team everybody gave their best every day as individuals, which made us a great team."

The team had two chances to fold in the postseason. After gaining the first-round bye, the A's were taken by San Jose to a fifth game in the North Division finals. The Giants' Fred Lewis hit the second pitch of the game right back at Modesto starter Brad Ziegler, fracturing Ziegler's skull.

Then, down 6-5 after eight innings, Perry and Quintanilla lined two-out RBI singles in the ninth off San Jose reliever Jeremy Accardo to send the A's into the championship series.

The best-of-five set against Lancaster started in Modesto, where the teams split two games. The JetHawks, managed by Hayes' former Phillies' teammate Wally Backman, won Game 3 at home when Reggie Abercrombie bowled over Suomi at home and was ruled safe with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

New era begins on high note

The force of the collision blew out Suomi's right knee, and Hayes was suspended for the rest of the series when he bumped the home plate umpire while arguing the call.

"Suomi got hurt and Von was suspended and we were down 2 games to 1," said Stavisky, who was reunited with Suomi for the first time since 2004 in this year's Phillies' spring training camp.

"We lost our catcher and then our manager wasn't going to be there after protecting his players. But that kind of summed up the whole season. We could have folded because the odds were against us, but instead we just rallied and pulled it out in Game 5."

Stavisky had a hit, two walks and an RBI in the decisive fifth game.

By that time it already had been reported that Oakland was pulling its High-A team out of Modesto in 2005, but that was the last thing on Stavisky's mind as he squeezed the ball for the series' final out.

"You always want to end whatever you do on a nice note, whether it's the last swing of batting practice, or the last shot in basketball warmup," Stavisky said. It doesn't always happen.

"That was one of the great moments I've ever had on the field -- catching that last ball and going to celebrate. As it ended up, that was not only the end of the season but the end of an era in Modesto."

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

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