With snow on the ground and temperatures in the single digits in Denver, it couldn’t be a better time to think about spring and the glorious pastime that comes with it: Spring Training.
The Rockies will play in their first Spring Training game on Saturday — 142 days after the 2022 season ended — marking the beginning of the 2023 season. Sure, the games don’t count, but with some bullpen and bench spots up for grabs, there is competition for who will make the Opening Day roster.
At 1:10 p.m. MST on Saturday, the Rockies will take on their Salt River Fields at Talking Stick co-host Arizona Diamondbacks. The matchup marks a tradition that started 12 years ago when the Rockies and Diamondbacks christened their new Spring Training home. Colorado elevated the bar with a first-class facility in Scottsdale, started a partnership with an NL West foe, and raised their Spring Training attendance from 78,638 in 2010 to 169,571 in 2011.
The starting lineup in the Salt River Fields debut 12 years ago included names like Dexter Fowler, Carlos González, and Troy Tulowitzki with Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound. The roster also listed other familiar names: third base coach Warren Schaeffer, AT&T SportsNet announcer Ryan Spilborghs, Triple-A Albuquerque hitting coach Jordan Pacheco, and Todd Helton, who was in his third-to-last season.
The game fit the mold of a stereotypical Rockies showdown with 32 hits and 16 pitchers, which is a lot even for Spring Training standards. It ended with a 10-inning, 8-7 Rockies win.
The reason for that win?
Charlie Blackmon. The 24-year-old, clean-shaven rookie hit a homer over the right field wall for the game-winner.
Blackmon, who was drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft, made his MLB debut later that season on June 6, 2011. He played just over a month before breaking his foot, ending his first season early. Over the next two seasons, he yo-yoed back and forth between the minors and the Rockies, playing 42 games in 2012 and 82 in 2013 when he slashed .309/.336/.467.
By 2014, he was an All-Star. Since then, he’s earned three more All-Star bids, was one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball, and became the face of the Rockies franchise as Chuck Nazty.
This season marks the last in the 36-year-old’s six-year, $108 million deal. He’s the franchise’s leader in triples with 58 and is in second place with 1,590 hits. With 110 this year, he could reach the 1,700-hit milestone, something only 470 hitters have ever done in MLB history.
Blackmon is near the top in multiple offensive categories in franchise history and while he’ll never catch Todd Helton in many of those lists, he could climb even higher this season.
Blackmon has scored 880 runs as a Rockie and he only needs 13 to pass Larry Walker to move into second place. With 11 doubles, he’ll pass Walker to move into second place in all-time doubles (starting the season with 286). With 14 walks, he’ll pass CarGo to be fourth all-time. He’s currently seventh in team history with 709 RBI and could catch No. 6 Vinny Castilla (745) and No. 5 Nolan Arenado (760). He’s currently sixth in homers at 207, but would need to have a power surge to pass CarGo’s 227.
While the future beyond this season is unknown in terms of Blackmon’s playing days, when he hit that home run to win the first game at Salt River Fields 12 years ago, he took the first step down a path to become one of the greatest Rockies of all time. That’s the beauty of Spring Training. It marks the start of a new season, but it could also be the start of a new star’s career.
In 2011, the Rockies went 73-89. They weren’t competing for the postseason. In 2023, they won’t be playoff contenders either. But the Rockies do have exciting prospects, who could build a strong foundation to return to a winning track. There could even be the next face of the franchise waiting for that special Spring Training moment to jumpstart his career.
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