"Every day is baseball."
Hamlet Marte, speaking about the Rockies dominican academy where he and so many other young and promising ballplayers in the system got their start, could well have been talking about the whirlwind beginnings to the Grand Junction Rockies 2014 season.
So. Much. Baseball. And I drank it all up.
The home opener contained more plots and subplots than an episode of Game of Thrones and in each game I marveled at the swell of talent, energy, positivity, athletisism, and drive.
"In the academy," Marte says, "we would wake up at five every day and go to workouts or go run. Then we would do batting practice and positions. We work hard and we have fun. Every day is baseball."
What I saw in Grand Junction Colorado, the place of my birth, was a team of hopefuls in overdrive mode, learning from each other, pulling for each other, and challenging one another in healthy competition. The most interesting of these competitions comes at the catcher spot.
The GJ Rockies employ what can only be called a catcher rotiation. Each day one of Marte, Dom Nunez, or tenth round draft pick out of Texas A&M Troy Stein, catches, one is the designated hitter, and one rests his knees for a day. The next day they switch it up and so on.
I love this because each guy has a valuable bat and the team needs to see what each can do behind the plate without overtaxing their bodies too early in their careers. It allows each guy to get reps, rest, and still plenty of ABs while being plugged into every game on some level since the odd man out is also the bullpen catcher for that day.
If major league rosters weren't so restrictive this strategy might work well for keep major league catchers healthy and at their best (especially in the American League) but let's get back to our guys.
Nunez sees more pitches than anyone on the team, has a tremendous eye and feel for the strike zone, and while he is still getting used to returning to catcher after a season spent as a middle-infielder, his instincts behind the plate are excellent and his exchanges brilliant.
This was evidenced in two runners gunned down by Nunez in the second game of the homestand. Both runners got excellent jumps, and had the base actually been stolen it would have been charged to the pitcher in my view. Nunez, however, made quick exchanges and strong, on-the-money throws both times, nailing flaberghasted base runners.
"And there is still a ton of room for him to improve on little things. He is a great reciever already but will get better and better as he gets more comfortable," Developmental Supervisor Tony Diaz told me after that game.
Kyle Freeland spoke very highly of Dom's work including the intangibles. Balk all you wish at the notion of intangibles anywhere else on the diamond, but catchers need them in spades, and Dom Nunez has them. He's smart, communicates well (in two languages which is important) and always seems to have a calming effect on the proceedings.
There isn't a "C" taped to his chest but there might as well be.
"I can learn so much from those guys (Nunez and Marte) because they have so much experience," said Troy Stein after a game in which he blasted a no-doubt two-run home run to left-center field. "Dom was here last year and Hamlet has been with the team since spring training, they know their way around and I'm just kinda the new guy."
"They are super talented and being in this rotation will be a great experience for me."
Stein came off as an incredibly humble guy who snuck in some love for the community, his host family, and his excitement about being a member of the Rockies organization. After being the only offense in game two, he plated the Rockies first run in the next game with a line drive RBI single.
Stein produces a nice smooth swing that pulls the barell through the zone quickly and with natural uppercut. He hit the ball with authority to both sides.
Marte may be the sleeper though.
If Nunez is most likely to be this year's Ryan McMahon, Hamlet Marte (new entrant into the most awesome name in the system competition) is perhaps most likely to be this season's Raimel Tapia. Which is to say a fast riser due to his skills with the bat.
He hit third whenever he was in the lineup and has an immaculate batting stance. I asked hitting coach Lee Stevens why Marte's stance looked so good to me.
"He so balanced. That's what you're seeing. He doesn't lean or get out on his front foot. Everything is balanced."
Marte and big first baseman Henry Garcia, who has more than intriguing power, were hitting mostly singles (albiet rocket singles) at a high rate while I was there. I asked coach Stevens if this was due to not lining the ball up perfectly or if they were just doing a good job hitting the ball where it was pitched.
"Definitely hitting it where it's pitched, like you say. Neither guy gets cheated on swings and they've both hit it hard (Garcia did smash a three-run bomb in the first game in Ogden) so pitchers aren't giving in and they've made the adjustments not to force anything. Very good at-bats"
"I don't think too much. I react," says Marte. "I am always looking for a fastball I can drive, but I stay back and use my hands in case not."
I asked Marte if there is a player he models his game after, or anyone he would compare his game to.
There was a long pause.
"You don't have to have one. You can just be you," I said.
"Then...nah!," he responded with a head shake and a smile, "there are a lot of great players but I'm just me. I have to play my game. No limits."
With his exerburance and infective charisma it was hard to tell if he was a bit uncomfortable comparing himself to great players so early in his career and/or if he is driven and aware enough to legitimately believe that he could be a unique player in this game.
Whether tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of those claim confidence a vice, or to take up a smile against a sea of would-be haters, and by kicking some opposing ass end them? That is the question.
Hamlet will let his infectiously ecstatic play do the talking.
"This town and these fans! Wow! Awesome. They make us feel so welcome and so important. And that feels good," he says.
The fans may make them feel important now, but for Marte, Nunez, Stein, and the rest of their Grand Junction Rockies teammates, it will be their play on the field this season that determines how important they are to the Colorado Rockies future.
It should be a fun season.