A friendly guardian at the gate

After 28 years, Frank Johnson (a k a 'Mr. Tickets') still stands at the

It's a warm summer evening some two hours east of San Francisco, a perfect night for fans to be making their way into John Thurman Field to see the Class A Modesto Athletics play entry-level pro baseball.

It's a night, like all others, that starts off well because the first thing that happens is many of them get to say howdy to Frank. One of the fans, Mike Cobleigh, is a former assistant general manager of the team. "It wouldn't be the same without Frank," he says. Current GM John Katz says, "With Frank, it's like having a piece of history, a good piece of history."

Around the Modesto A's, Frank is one of those luminaries who, like Elvis and Madonna, requires no last name.

Frank is the ticket taker.

That is, he was the ticket taker until three years ago when the A's decided to have two gates instead of one. Says Frank, now a ticket taker: "It's fine with me. It's easier."

Since 1942, Frank has been working at the Modesto ballpark. For the first 14 years, he worked in the concession stand. Then 28 years ago, he became ticket taker. For 70 home games a year (minus a few absences, like when he goes to an Oakland A's game), it has been impossible for anyone who has come to a game not to meet Frank.

His daughter, Judy, wants him to quit. Frank asked her, "What do you want me to do? Sit home and die?" Dying is not on Frank's schedule. He figures he'll live at least another 25 years.

So how many of those does he expect to keep taking tickets? "Twenty five."

Could happen. Whatever Frank does, he does for a very long time. He has been married to Ila for 53 years; lived in his same house just six blocks from the ballpark for 45; worked for the City of Modesto for 38 years (starting salary: $1 an hour), mainly mowing grass. "It would be terrible for him to have to quit," says longtime A's fan Jack Hanney. "He takes great pride in what he does."

Indeed, Frank is a throwback to those quaint times when loyalty counted and pride in work mattered. That he makes only about $5 an hour doesn't matter. "It's just a little kick-around money," he says. But in the spirit of yesteryear, he shows up to work early, about 5 p.m. for a 7:05 p.m. game. On this evening, he brings beef jerky he makes for bosses and friends.

Gates open at 5:30 and all Frank has to do is put on his apron into which he stuffs tickets, and wheel his turnstile a few feet to its position at the gate.

Frank is not a complicated guy. He likes taking tickets: "I can't just sit around the house." He's not a philosopher about what he does: "Just tear off the stub and give it to them, then put the ticket in my apron." Nor is he a hard-core fan, normally seeing only a few hitters before heading off about 9 p.m., long before the game normally ends: "I should get home."

What truly matters is that he is out with the people, always with a smile, always with a kind word and, perhaps most of all, he is a constant in a world that changes too much and too fast. Says Mr. Cobleigh, "He has been here since dirt."

And so Frank has seen it all. He remembers when Mark McGwire played here part of 1984 and all of 1985, hitting a non-head-turning .274. "A real nice fellow," says Frank, "but small then." Others who passed through included the likes of Bob Feller, Jose Canseco, Rollie Fingers, and, in 1977, Rickey Henderson, who stole 95 bases as a harbinger of things to come. "There were a slew of great players," says Frank.

Not much dramatic happens to Frank, known by some as Mr. Tickets. Occasionally, a youngster tries to sneak past him. During 1998, someone tried to get in with a 1997 ticket. That's about it.

A woman smiles and says, "Tickets for me and her. Wait, she and I. Ahhh, I don't know." Frank does not require proper grammar for admittance. "It's OK," he says. "You've got tickets."

A convincing story nicely put generally will ease a fan past the gate sans ticket. "My husband said he'd leave me a ticket and he didn't," grouses a woman. Frank produces one, instantly repairing things on the home front.

Frank (Johnson, for the record) is not one who believes the past was better. He sees no changes between 1942 and 1999. "Nice people then," he says. "Nice people now."

On this night, the A's draw 4,573 fans, biggest home crowd ever. The greetings sing out: "Hi, Frank." "Good to see you, Frank." "How are you, Frank?" He fumbles around with one ticket and the fan says, "You'd think you'd be able to do this by now, Frank." Everyone laughs, mainly Frank.

The night is cooling and Frank is leaving, at 8:30 p.m. He is asked how he felt he did tonight. "Good," he says.

*Second in a series on 'Baseball People.' This series runs on Tuesdays through the summer.

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