Grand Junction, Colo. -- For those who live outside the great state of Colorado, know that I feel a privileged kind of guilt, living here in your stead. For those who have never visited this magnificent place, I have nothing but the sincerest pity.
If the word "breathtaking" was used only in its denotation, traversing this state's red mountains, black canyons, royal gorges, grand valleys, and dancing forests would require one to travel in an oxygen tent.
The world has so much to see, and I have been lucky enough to visit places from Piccadilly Circus in London to the French Quarter in New Orleans.
But If I could take only one train ride the rest of my life, it would be aboard the Amtrak from Denver to Grand Junction. I highly recommend it, and if you do go, bring your camera.
You won't just see natural wonders. Ghost towns and run-down old mines litter the path. Relics of time gone by lay in the sun, dwarfed on all sides by magnificent splendor.
And in a western Colorado desert town, an ancient relic that has stood the test of time -- a game called "baseball" -- is played under porcelain skies, draped in the arms of the grandest flat-top mountain in the world and monumental spires, held firmly in the embrace of two great rivers.
This is where baseball dreams take their first step toward reality.
Returning to one's home town can often bring mixed emotions. What was once a place I felt the need to escape has now become a sanctuary of perennial rebirth. My yearly summer pilgrimage acts as both exorcism and baptism. Each year I come to bathe in the waters of my religion -- baseball -- with all new experience and perspective.
This year, a return to Grand Junction with added experience and perspective is newsworthy because it applies to Kyle Freeland, arguably the Rockies most polished pitching prospect.
"I've had a chance to step back and evaluate everything," Freeland said. "Evaluate myself as a pitcher, and tweak little things here and there along the way throughout the rehab process. I've been able to correct some little things and be focused."
In front of a capacity crowd, Freeland's sharpened focus was on full display.
He threw three dominant innings, striking out four batters and allowing only one base-runner on a walk. He worked quickly and efficiently, looking all the while like a young Chris Sale.
It was clear to me who the crowd came to see, but Freeland's humility wasn't having it.
"Firework night," he said. "It's nice to see all these people come out and see a Rockies win."
A Rockies win.
And he was the fireworks.
Grand Junction pitching coach Ryan Kibler couldn't sing the praises of his young pitching staff loudly enough, and having Freeland around to show the young guns how it is done has been a gift.
"Three of his four bullpen sessions after his surgery while he's been here are three of the best I've ever seen him have," said Kibler of Freeland's work this season. "The stuff and command combination that he has shown is very advanced, well beyond what he did last year."
That's a mighty impressive claim, I said. He was no slouch last year.
"I know it," Kibler replied. "That says a lot about the guy. It says a lot about his competitiveness, his work ethic, his awareness of what's going on around him. He had a setback with the elbow but the focus he has shown in these rehab sessions has really taken him places. He is locked in right now."
So, his mind is in a good place, but of course we all want to know about that golden left arm.
"I feel great," he said. "I felt really strong out there. I feel healthy and ready to go. I'm taking it a day at a time. I just need to finish this rehab assignment strong and get back into being myself and playing baseball."
And boy did he play some baseball on Friday night. The Rockies and Freeland have been insistent on doing his rehab right (as opposed to fast) and as such he was able to hit the ground running.
We spoke for a moment after his outing.
"I'm trying to get a feel back for everything. My main focus is filling that strike zone up and giving my team a chance to win and I did just that. I felt good out there with all my pitches, felt like I could locate them and the ball felt good coming off my fingertips. I knew I was on an innings limit so I just went out there full arsenal and let it go."
And when this kid lets it go, it is a sight to behold. If I could wave a magic wand and ensure the health of one person in the Rockies minor league system, I would pick Freeland. But for now, he is healthy, and the best thing any of us can do is watch what happens next.