I got a late start to my trip. I slept in. I wanted to get going early in the morning to avoid heat and traffic, in my rickety car with no air conditioning. But I felt exhausted and slept in. It's a good thing I did, because I was going to need all the energy I could get for the four days that lay ahead.
I took the I-70 turn that cuts between the Grand Mesa (the biggest flat-top mountain in the world) and the equally scenic Bookcliffs about an hour and a half before game time. My mother and I planned to meet up at my brother and his wife's house for a quick bite to eat, then straight to the game. 7:00 start time.
We arrived at Sam Suplizio Field about 30 minutes before first pitch, paid the $10 it costs to sit almost anywhere in the park, walked past some friendly ticket and security people whom I would come to meet in the following days, and grabbed a $3.50 local brew all in a matter of minutes. We still had time to listen to the live pre-game music, tonight a singer song-writer with his own unique style, tomorrow would be some friends of my family including a guy named Scott who played at my dad's service.
Walking further into the stadium, underneath the first base bleachers that have their back to the football field and track that I ran on in high school, I saw a familiar face. It would not be the last time I would double-take on this trip as I saw there, manning the elevator and greeting nearly everyone in town who seems to know him, my high school football coach Vern McGee (go Central!) We exchanged a few quick "hello, how ya been"s and it was time to take our seats just a few rows back from home plate a little way down the third base side.
"Beeeeeer baaaaaattttterrrrr!" the fans would chant. You see, every game a player on the opposing teams is deemed, "the beer batter." If this batter strikes out, all draft beers are $2 for ten minutes. When he comes up, people go crazy. Some super fans I spoke with named Don and Alma have a self-made (go Alma!) large-sized purple flag (a sequel to one they were given last year) with a beer on it. They wave it just behind home plate to remind the pitcher what he is really pitching for.
When this batter does strike out the frenzy actually turns into a pretty calm walk down to grab a beer and most people make it back to their seats before the start of the next half-inning. I witnessed no pushing and shoving, and the lines really didn't get too long despite the always large crowd. It really goes down as one of the cooler in-game promotions I have seen, and I usually hate that kind of stuff.
I have written on the Grand Junction baseball experience before, but it's worth quickly reiterating that the newly renovated ballpark and the amazing views of the aforementioned sprawling mountain formations combine to create an incredibly pleasing aesthetic ambiance. I'll leave the last word on this to the Toddfather himself, "if you're going to get some work in," Helton said during his brief stint with the rookie team, "May as well do it in a beautiful place."
That evening's game would be a struggle for pretty much everyone involved. You can read my notes on it in the Sunday Pebble Report, but while it was mostly a night to forget for the team, it was encouraging to see them fight back in the end. Even down double digits late, there is no quit in these guys.
I would attend the next day's afternoon game before actually speaking with anybody, but will leave the discussion of that game for the conversation I had with its star player; starting pitcher Zach Jemiola. Check for that tomorrow in Part 2.
GJ Rox Assistant General Manager: Mike Ruvolo
It should be noted that none of the conversations I had with anyone in Grand Junction were fully transcribed or recorded so keep in mind that these were more free flowing conversations than interviews.
Assistant GM Mike Ruvolo was getting some food when a friendly security guard pointed him out to me and suggested it might be worth asking for some time. He turned out to be very right, as Mike would without hesitation agree to sit down with me and talk baseball. I told him I was from Purple Row and when I started to ask/explain about PR, he quickly let me know he was familiar with our work.
I'd like to begin my report of of this conversation at the end. My final question, to pretty much everyone, was one of a blank slate, "is there anything more you would like our readers to know?" He answered immediately and with confidence that he believes the Grand Junction Rockies fans are as knowledgeable about the game of baseball as any fans. They cheer for good plays made by the other team, recognize small things that players do well, and stay glued to the game the whole time regardless of the score.
"It might have something to do with the JUCO background," Mike told me, "but the whole community knows their baseball." We even talked briefly about the old professional Eagles teams, and the little leagues that I played in as a kid. I have said it before, but it bears repeating - in Grand Junction baseball is king. "We have over 1,400 season ticket holders and that whole section is sold out every game." It isn't a soft sellout either. I mentioned earlier that $10 could get you a seat almost anywhere, the almost coming in the form of the section just behind the home team's dugout up the first base side where each seat is filled with a true die-hard every night.
But what about the players and the play on the field?
Mike, actually unprompted, told me that he had spoken with David Dahl just the day before. He says the rehab is going very well and he is, "definitely not settling." "He is a workhorse who spent the entire off-season in the gym, taking very few breaks." He told me he has always been impressed with Dahl's work ethic and maturity. His use of the word "maturity" prompted me to mention the incident earlier in the year where the outfielder was sent back to extended Spring Training for missing a team flight.
"And David takes full responsibility for that," he told me. We both agreed that the whole thing probably got blown up a bit more than it needed to and he was as certain of David Dahl's maturity as anything else we discussed.
We moved on to his first observations of Jonathan Gray. He hasn't pitched yet (July 10th debut!!) but Ruvolo was still struck by how active he has been with the team, cheering his guys on, talking with the younger players, and bringing his quiet confidence to the ballpark every day. More on Jonathan in part 4, but suffice it to say for now that his current Assistant GM seems as excited to have him as the rest of us are.
An interesting connection arose when we began our conversation about Ryan McMahon (PuRP #17). It seems Mike and Ryan actually played against each other in high school. McMahon comes out of a highly touted HS program (Mater Dei, CA) that also produced Danny Espinoza. Ruvolo beamed about his baseball smarts and abundantly positive attitude, using the phrase, "super polite" to describe his young third basemen. More on all of that when we get to my conversation with Ryan. But seriously, the guy radiates fun and baseball.
Mike and I also discussed the coaching situation in Grand Junction, most specifically the team's move from having more roaming instructors to instead having stationary "developmental coaches." Tony Diaz serves that position for GJ and, Mike tells me, he generally spends the game moving around to different parts of the park so he can see each player from all different angles.
Based on my conversation with Mike, it seems like they have enjoyed the development coach idea, that it helps lessen the responsibilities on the other coaches so they can simply manage the game. I actually met the woman who is acting as "host" for Tony Diaz and hopefully we will be able to set something up in the near future where I can speak with him, some of the other coaches, and even some of the players and host families away from the field in a more relaxed environment.
I asked Mike what "under-the-radar" players I should be on the look out for. He gave what I believe to be an absolutely earnest answer that he wouldn't be surprised if any of the guys on this team eventually made their way to MLB. There are certainly always surprises, and no one can perfectly predict who will and who won't make it. When I pressed him slightly he could only answer about who has an "under-the-radar" personality. He clearly cares about his players and wanted everyone to know what a stand up guy Correlle Prime is.
I had observed this just the night before as I watched for quite a while after the game as Prime made sure that every single person who wanted an autograph got one. Every. Single. One. He also took pictures (towering over most people at a healthy 6'6) and chatted with fans until they all went home, then he made his way to the locker room. Honestly, that general attitude seems to permeate the entire team and organization. It is not difficult to get autographs at a GJ Rox game. The players clearly view themselves as a part of the community and the kids love it.
Since I started at the end, it is only fitting that I end my report on this conversation at the beginning. The first thing on my mind, and the first thing on Mike Ruvolo's mind, was Zach Jemiola's incredible start just the day before. "And in 100 degree weather!" Mike points out. We gushed for a moment about Jemiola's performance and after a while Mike asked if I would like to speak with him. "Absolutely," was the only answer to that question. But before that, in fact at the very beginning of our whole sit-down, Mike would offer me this observation:
"Yesterday, Zach (Jemiola) had the best start I've seen since Grand Junction has been a team. Eddie (Butler, now PuRP #4) had some great, great games, but what Jemiola did yesterday was really special."
Check back tomorrow for my conversation with Zach Jemiola. Also, I talk with Dom Nunez (PuRP #21) and discuss more of the baseball on the field.