Jon Gray arrives at the ball field shortly before a dry and scorching sun pierces through the spattering of rain and distant thunder, giving hope that the day could still bring baseball. He carries with him two bags, each overflowing with assorted munchies. Heading into the home team's locker room he stops and looks at me, then smiles and says, "Snacks for the road! You can never be too prepared."
The journey he was really preparing for, it turned out, was not the road trip that the Grand Junction Rockies were about to embark on, but his own journey from one of the most exciting prospects in Colorado Rockies history to, hopefully, one of the most exciting players in Colorado Rockies history.
Gray emerged from the locker room a while later wearing a Grand Junction uniform for the last time. A small but excited crowd of baseball fans, ages ranging from 4-80, thank the star pitcher for his time and congratulate him on the news of the day: Jon Gray has been promoted to High-A Modesto.
But wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we get to the end, why don't we start at the beginning?
The Grand Junction Family
To simply say "thank you" to the handful of people who made this whole experience possible feels almost criminal. Linda Todd Romer, who is hosting developmental supervisor Tony Diaz, is my hero. She set up meetings and interviews for me with everyone from a young teenage fan who has been to every game since the Rockies arrived in Grand Junction to longtime MLB pitching coach Bob Apodaca.
She introduces me to Bruce, the head of security, who talked about how much he loves working at Sam Suplizio Field, how well-mannered the crowds are, how few incidents have ever occurred, and how the only one he could think of included the guy returning the next day to apologize for his behavior.
She introduces me to the head of groundskeeping, a lively and engaging gentleman named Eddie. Both Bruce and Eddie tell me something that is echoed by literally every other person I talk to; from the people in the stands to the people running the show, the Grand Junction Rockies are a family. The other common theme was unprompted praise of Jon Gray.
"Even with all the people and him trying to sign as many autographs as possible, he's always been real easy-going," says Bruce. "He's a great kid."
She introduces me to general manager Tim Ray, who stands near the gates selling programs as people walk into the park. In addition to being a greeter, the GM of the rookie club and de facto public relations guy (he graciously offered me credentials when he could have easily decided not to), Ray records radio addresses with the kind of baseball voice that conjures images of beaten wool jerseys and men named Rabbit, Peewee, Tris and Honus.
Ray summons the feel of baseball in corn fields or on city streets where light-poles and parked cars become bases, and the immortal sound of cracking bats goes skipping through the night.
She introduces me to several host families who sit down the first-base line in the bleachers that overlook right field. These are the unsung heroes of minor league baseball: the people who invite strangers to live in their homes, often times despite linguistic and cultural barriers, in order to help them chase their dreams.
One host family houses both Australian catcher Robbie Perkins and Venezuelan pitcher Helmis Rodriguez. "It's really great being here with them," says Perkins, in exactly the kind of awesome accent you would hope for. "We can't thank them enough."
Sitting together, the families -- probably understanding that Gray was the story of the summer -- volunteer all kinds of fun stories about his enduring kindness. My favorite comes from his own host mother. "It's sometimes hard for him to go out or go to the mall or anything like that (because of all the people), but he's always positive and even when he comes home tired at the end of the day, he still has time to play catch with my son," she said.
Linda introduces me to Correlle Prime and his mother, Debra. She rightfully beams for her son and his journey. Like almost everyone else in this story, she knows everyone at the park and helps keep families and fans up to speed on anything from the standings to how former GJ players are doing at higher levels of the system.
Debra and the others check their phones for texts from alumni or any news regarding the extended Grand Junction family. They live and die with the successes and failures of their young team in a way that reminds me of Little League.
The Grand Junction family is a part of the Colorado Rockies family. Debra tells me that due to its propensity to give up home runs, Suplizio Field is often regarded as "Coors Light Field" by the regulars.
The best embodiment of the spirit of this family is the first few minutes of a video Debra sent to me. The way Prime is shown interacting with his teammates is the perfect symbol of the way the front office, fans, players, families and staff interact with each other every day and night of each ballgame.
Linda introduces me to a young woman named Becca who is basically the GJ version of Jenny Cavnar, if Jenny was also emcee for the in-house crowd and responsible for keeping anyone under the age of 10 entertained throughout the game.
"They really are," Becca says, when I remark on how professional and classy the players seem. "I had a conversation with Jon (Gray) the other night and I asked if he was excited that he is probably getting called up soon. He just told me how much he was going to miss everyone here."
I spoke with Gray after his last start in Grand Junction, a dominant outing in which:
He was absolutely dominant in his five innings pitched, giving up only one run on a broken bat single and hitting 101 MPH (announced) on the radar gun. -Pebble Report 7/28
We talk about how excited he was over the development of his change-up. "I'm just glad to be getting over those early jitters," Gray remarked. "I'm settling in, really want to get that first win. The change is nasty right now."
He wasn't bragging either. He had a look about him while discussing the pitch as though he had discovered it under the tree on Christmas morning.
One only needs to see how the third pitch in this sequence changes the whole at-bat and makes Jon "the Flamethrower" Gray even that much scarier:
He confirms what Becca had told me about their conversation before. "It's been an honor ... I am really going to miss this place," he says.
"Yeah, this place," Gray reminisced. "And these guys."
Gray would go on to Modesto and dominate. When he was shut down after his fifth game for the Nuts, I summed up his first year as a professional with the following:
"37⅓ IP, 25 H, 11 R, 8 ER, 8 BB, 51 Ks, and a WHIP of .884. Gray's ERA after being moved to a higher level was 0.75 at Modesto, and during his professional career, he is striking out 13.5 batters per nine innings." -Pebble Report 8/29
... And these guys
Terry McClure is so fast, he can beat Jimmy John's in a delivery race. He's so fast, that scientists hope to use his DNA to develop 6G phones. In fact, he's so fast that instead of naming the next installment of that car movie franchise "Fast 7" they're just going to call it "Terry McClure ... and the Furious." No, but seriously -- I'm not a scout, and I don't even own a stopwatch, but -- this dude is fast.
I sat down with McClure (which is good, because I don't think I could've kept up if it was a mobile interview) in assistant GM Mike Ruvolo's office. I asked Terry about his signature trait."It's just one of those things," he says. "I just woke up one day when I was 13 and I was fast."
"I just knew I was fast."
He doesn't mind being known as a raw and toolsy player that has a lot to learn. He is, after all, only 17 years old. "I like learning from the older guys. Like Gray, you know? He's making whatever he's making ($4.8 million), but you wouldn't know it. He still takes time to talk when I ask how he would approach me as a hitter," said McClure
There will be plenty of time to break-down McClure's game in the future, but it was the performance of some of his teammates this season that has prospect junkies ready for the future like Harry Potter fans at a midnight release party.
Peter Tago's move to the bullpen could breathe new life into his career and pay off nicely for the Rockies. I am not the only one excited about this move. "It's a good opportunity," said Tago. "I get to go out there and give it all I got. No need to save anything."
If this move works, it will be because of Tago's still highly electric stuff and his mind for the game. Tago tells me he is relishing in being involved in "the pace and flow of each game."
Jordan Patterson profiles as exactly the kind of player the big league club is looking for right now. Unfortunately, he remains a few years away. His combination of size and natural athletic ability, strong throwing arm, versatility (plays outfield and first base) and both decent contact and power skills suggest that Patterson may actually have the highest ceiling of potential for any player on the roster.
His final slash line of .291/.386/.495 was accompanied by a .309 BABIP, suggesting he hasn't been particularly lucky or unlucky. Patterson added 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases bringing his total wRC+ to a healthy 128. He knows his bat will play anywhere.
"It doesn't matter what position they play me at -- I can still hit," Patterson said.
Zach Jemiola owns a deceiving 2-3 record and 5.21 ERA. "A lot of no-decisions," Jemiola said after a game in which he pitched eight innings of two-run baseball and received yet another ND on the scorecard.
"It's been frustrating but all I can do is focus on pitching each game the best I can."
Proof of this wacky dynamic comes in the fact that, in the next game I saw him pitch, Jemiola was pulled in the first inning after allowing four runs in what was eventually a Grand Junction win. In his next start, he pitched the only complete game all year for the rookie pitching staff and, naturally, was saddled with the loss.
A deeper look inside Jemiola's numbers confirm the eye test. His 3.96 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark suggests that he has been a bit unlucky. I particularly noticed a lot of seeing eye singles during his roughest outing. "I felt like I was fooling (the hitters) and missing the barrel," Jemiola said after the game. "They just kept putting the ball in play and finding holes."
Opposing batters are only hitting .251 off of Jemiola, but perhaps the most telling stat is that in 15 starts for Grand Junction this season, he allowed two or fewer earned runs eight times and four or fewer on 12 occasions. Jemiola did not give up more than one home run in any given start this season.
Going forward, these numbers suggest that consistency and the ability to limit damage when things start going against him will be the key to Jemiola's success.
His numbers took a hit during a tough stretch just before the end of the season, but his confidence never wavered. "I need to, and I think I can, get it back for the playoffs," Jemiola said.
Did he ever.
Jemiola pitched the best game of his young career in a playoff contest against Idaho Falls. After the game, he tweeted:
Crazy to think this will be my last night in gj! Had great memories with all the amazing people, fans, and teammates! I'll miss you all!— zjemiola23 (@JemiolaZach) September 12, 2013
I've missed my father every day since he passed away earlier this year from throat cancer. The time I've spent with the Grand Junction Rockies this summer has been a beautiful escape and a fitting tribute. Dad would have wanted me to work on something I care about, and I came to care about these people and this team a great deal.
When we watched sports together and he saw a player with class, dignity, and a respectful approach to the game, Dad would say, "I want that guy on my team."
I want Zach Jemiola and Jordan Patterson on my team.
I want Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, Dom Nunez, Terry McClure, Correlle Prime, Peter Tago and Robbie Perkins on my team.
I want Jon Gray on my team.
And the crazy thing is, there almost certainly will be a member of this rookie squad who I haven't even discussed in this whole series who will emerge as a prospect to watch in the future. That's the beauty of this game.
Luckily, in a way, they all are. Reflecting on my time with the rookie club, I am reminded of a baseball movie called "Sugar" that I wrote about earlier this year. It has become my favorite sports movie of all time and if I was the GM of a baseball team, it would be required viewing for all players.
Early in the first act, shortly after pitcher Miguel "Sugar" Santos has been promoted stateside, his uncle tells him, "Remember, life gives you many opportunities. Baseball only gives you one."
That opportunity is now for the Grand Junction Rockies, and it's up to them not to waste it.
Gray emerges from the locker room in street clothes with snacks, and luggage for the trip to California, in hand. He wears bittersweet emotions on his face. Excited and anxious for his journey to continue, his eyes hold sadness for the friends he is already beginning to miss.
As he walks away he hears a familiar voice.
It's Jemiola. Gray jogs back over toward the locker room for one last time, exchanges some final words of encouragement with his fellow pitcher and disappears to one side of the park while the rest of the team gathers on the other side to wait for the bus to the next town.
"It was a thrill and a privilege to watch you pitch," I say as Gray walks past me.
"Thank you," he replied. "I loved every minute of being here."
Even as he moved to a new team, Gray was thinking of his old teammates and fans first that night when he tweeted:
Thanks to everyone in Grand Junction for the support!! I'll miss you guys! Greatest fans.. Continue a great season. Go getem!— Jonathan Gray (@Graywolf_22) July 29, 2013
With the season now over, the players disperse and don't know if or when they will ever see each other again. Some will be called up to the next levels. Some will be signed by other teams or released. Some of them will even return to Grand Junction next year, ready to start all over again.
But one thing is for sure: no one will ever take from them the Summer of 2013.
More from Purple Row:
- DC in GJ, Part 1: A week with the baby Rockies
- DC in GJ, Part 2: Dom Nunez and Zach Jemiola
- DC in GJ, Part 3: Jordan Patterson and Ryan McMahon
- DC in GJ, Part 4: A conversation with Jonathan Gray
- DC in GJ, Part 5: Developmental Supervisor Tony Diaz
- DC in GJ, Part 6: The story of Raimel Tapia
- DC in GJ, Part 7: An interview with Bob Apodaca