Fans help make Rookie baseball experience a good one
Bus rides and baseball. Dizzy bat and mascots.
Minor league baseball is all about balancing the game and the fan experience, and it’ll be no different for the Grand Junction Rockies.
“Our number one priority is to the fans, the season ticket holders, the people who come out to the ballgame,” said the club’s only current employee, General Manager Tim Ray. “We want to make sure the people who come out to see us play will come back tomorrow night. We want to make it a positive environment and a fun environment.”
Ray said he sees the responsibility of the new Rookie affiliate of the Colorado Rockies to be the fans; the product on the field is up to the big club’s player development staff.
“I’ve always considered us to be the shell of the ballclub,” Ray said Friday as he took a break from packing up the team’s office in Casper, Wyo. The moving van will be loaded today and leave Monday for Grand Junction.
“We’re responsible for the fan experience and the (Colorado) Rockies are responsible for the play on the field.”
Ray, who has been with the club in Casper since 2001, when it relocated from Butte, Mont., said the Rockies have been diligent in developing talent throughout their farm system.
“They’ve been cognizant of developing from the farm system since Dan O’Dowd came on board and they’ve done a terrific job,” said Ray, who started out as the radio announcer for Casper. “We have at least 40 players since 2001 who have gone on to the major leagues, either with the Rockies or somewhere else, who started in Rookie ball.”
Calls to the Rockies’ offices in Denver requesting interviews with player development personnel were not returned. A call to Pioneer League President Jim McCurdy seeking comment on how the move to Grand Junction will affect the league was not returned.
Ray said each team will save about 1,000 miles during the season by not going to Casper. The league hasn’t finalized the 2012 schedule, but Ray said when the GJ Rockies travel to Orem, Utah, or Idaho Falls, Idaho, they will follow that with a trip into Montana, saving more travel time.
The Rockies will be in the Southern Division of the Pioneer League, with Odgen and Orem and Idaho Falls. The four Montana clubs, Helena, Missoula, Great Falls and Billings, make up the Northern Division.
“They want to stay away from the Great Falls-to-Grand Junction trip,” he said. “That’s a 13-hour bus ride.”
Once the players who sign after the June amateur draft are assigned a club, they’ll report to Grand Junction.
“We always get four, five or six holdovers from the year before. They’ll come in whenever they report,” Ray said. “We’ll have a 10-day minicamp, get acclimated, go through drills and bam, our season gets rolling. We play 76 games in 81 days; it’s pretty intense.”
Three of the five off days during the season are travel days.
Despite the hectic schedule, Ray said the club will be involved with the community, from the front office to the players.
“I want to be very ingrained in the community, be a part of service clubs,” he said. “The Grand Junction Rockies will be a part of the school system, Colorado Mesa, the high schools. We developed a program (in Casper), Go to Bat for Kids, and if they’re doing great things in school, they’ll get tickets to the ballgame.”
Currently, Ray is the only employee of the Grand Junction Rockies.
“We’ll be developing the front office staff in Grand Junction,” he said.
In Casper, he had a handful of college interns, plus seasonal game management personnel in addition to the fulltime staff. The GJ Rockies’ offices will eventually be at Suplizio Field, but until the existing clubhouses are expanded and offices built, Ray will call an office at Alpine Bank downtown home.
“My wife (Karen) has another year and a half in the school district before she retires, so she’ll stay in Casper,” he said. She’ll join him in Grand Junction during the summer. In the meantime, he’ll be busy getting to know the Western Slope.
“We’ll be going back and forth but it’s going to give me more opportunity to get involved and worry about her sitting at home waiting for me,” he said. “It will really allow me some freedom to establish myself and the Grand Junction Rockies.”
Part of that plan is to establish host families for the players. It was a successful relationship in Casper, where families in town allowed a player to live with them during the season. Since the Rookie season is only a little more than three months long, it’s hard for the players to rent an apartment. Many of the players are fresh out of high school, and having a host family helps them ease into life on their own.
“It’s a tremendous help to our kids,” Ray said. “You’ve got high school kids away from home for the first time, and last year we had players from five different countries. The host family is an essential element to our success. They provide a room, shelter for the kids and gives them somebody who knows them, to watch them. It’s a neat, neat deal.”
The host families often follow their player throughout their career, planning vacations to watch the former Rookie player as he progresses through the minor leagues.
“P.J. Carey was our first manager here and he told our players, ‘You will always remember your first year of professional baseball. No matter where you go from here, you will always remember who your host family was,’ ‘’ Ray said. “He still got Christmas cards 30 or 40 years later from his host family.”
The GJ Rockies’ ownership group and city officials have scheduled a press conference Wednesday, and over the next several weeks, Ray will be getting things organized. There’s a staff to hire, a website to develop and season ticket packages to formulate.
As of Friday afternoon, Ray had received more than 250 requests for 2012 season tickets. Last year, he said Casper sold less than 300 season tickets, so he’s optimistic about the support in Grand Junction.
“It’s such a spacious stadium,” he said. “The ticket packages haven’t been developed yet. We’ll wait to see with the construction, but all the seats have to be numbered and then we’ll determine levels (box seats, field level, general admission). There’s no reason we can’t have 3,000 (to) 4,000 season tickets at a facility like that.
“If we have less than 5, 6, 7,000 a game it will be disappointing. We expect to lead the league in attendance. There’s no reason we can’t.”