Rockies inaugural season selected 2012 top sports story
Fans, fireworks make Grand Junction Rockies' 1st season special
Three months later, Tony Diaz still marvels at the first season.
“It was such a special year, and that makes everybody somewhat eager to get back,” the Grand Junction Rockies manager said in mid-December, taking a quick break from working with players in winter ball in the Dominican Republic. “We were embraced with such magnitude.
“Hopefully we’ll get back out there and hopefully have some good players again and have another good year.”
Diaz will be back in town briefly for the Rockies’ Western Slope Baseball Camp at Colorado Mesa University, which is Jan. 4–6, before returning to the Dominican to wrap up winter baseball. Then it’s on to spring training, extended spring training — and then, after the amateur draft in June, back to Grand Junction for the second season.
When the Colorado Rockies moved their Rookie affiliate club from Casper, Wyo., to Grand Junction, they were banking on the Western Slope’s baseball tradition to make it a success.
And after drawing 101,496 fans during the regular season to Suplizio Field — more than twice as many as Casper attracted in 2011 — the gamble appears to have paid off.
Hundreds of people showed up to select their seats in February, months before the first pitch.
Residents opened their homes to be host families to players, and many of them have stayed in touch with their “summer sons” since they left Grand Junction in September. About 2,000 season tickets were sold, and the club averaged 2,671 fans a night. Four games drew more than 5,000.
Opening night came with all the pomp and circumstance for the 5,312 fans who showed up for the first minor league game in town. Players and coaches signed autographs, were cheered loudly during introductions — even though the majority of fans didn’t have an idea of who was on first — and the club won its home opener, 10-6 over Idaho Falls.
Colorado Mesa University graduate Jeff Popick, drafted in the 16th round, started in left field on opening night, getting one of the biggest ovations of the night.
“I knew this town would be excited about the Rockies coming here,” Popick said after the game. “The crowd was into it. We fed off their energy. I was pretty proud out there of the community and its support.
“It was an awesome feeling. I was still trying to take it all in. I loved it. I’ll never forget it.”
Popick had a solid first year in professional baseball, hitting .350 with six home runs, but an Achilles injury ended his season a couple of weeks early. Still, Popick made the Pioneer League honorable-mention list when the All-Star team was announced.
Eighteen-year-old David Dahl, No. 10 overall selection, and pitchers Eddie Butler, the club’s first-round compensation pick, and Scott Oberg made the Pioneer League All-Star team, with right fielder Julian Yan and second baseman Juan Ciriaco joining Popick on the honorable-mention team.
The biggest glitch of the season was long lines at the concession stands — waits of up to 45 minutes were reported on opening night — and the club plans to rectify that for the 2013 season with more points of sale, especially for drinks.
Through the 38-game home season, everyday fans started identifying their favorite players. A couple sitting behind first base every night started showing up with “Waldrip 40” jerseys, and at first, people thought they might be first baseman Ben Waldrip’s parents.
Nope. Butch and Beth Austin met Waldrip after a game, and they immediately formed a friendship with the big first baseman.
“People like that make you happy to come to the park every day, especially when they give you the support they have,” Waldrip said after a two-home run game during the season.
“He talks to me about huntin’ and fishin’, and I see him before every game. The games I sit the bench, he meets me on the other side of the dugout, and we just talk about life for 10, 15 minutes. They’re great people.”
Later on during the season, some of Waldrip’s family traveled to Grand Junction and sat with the Austins — wearing their own “Waldrip 40” shirts.
Todd Helton, the Colorado Rockies’ first baseman, made a two-game rehabilitation stop in Grand Junction, and fans came out in droves.
His first night in town in late July drew 5,161, the second night 5,447.
And during the final week of the regular season, Jorge De La Rosa made his first rehab start after Tommy John surgery, helping the Rockies beat Ogden 5-4 and pick up some momentum heading into the playoffs.
Because of the summer drought, the July 4 fireworks show,which was to follow a Rockies game, was postponed until Sept. 2.
Grand Junction loves fireworks — a season-high 6,137 watched Grand Junction beat Idaho Falls 4-0 in less than two hours, then patiently waited for the skies to get dark enough for the pyrotechnics.
At times, the GJ Rockies played like future big-leaguers, and at times they played like the rookies they were, going through the ups and downs of what was the youngest team in the Pioneer League, with an average age of 21.
The Rockies loaded the roster with their high draft picks, including Dahl.
“He exceeded expectations,” Diaz said. “At 18, to do what he did in the Pioneer League is very admirable. It will be tough to keep those numbers up, but he is a special player. He’s a pretty mature kid, and that’s what makes him even more special. He couples his maturity with talent.”
Dahl, now listed as the organization’s No. 3 prospect, led the league in hitting (.379), had a 27-game hitting streak, 41 extra-base hits and made only four errors in the outfield, playing nearly every day in center field.
He was the Pioneer League MVP and received a truckload of postseason awards from Minor League Baseball and other baseball publications, including Baseball America Rookie of the Year.
In turn, Dahl took his new job seriously. After the season, he was one of 22 GJ Rockies to report to the instructional league in Arizona, and after a quick trip home to Birmingham, Ala., Dahl packed up and moved to Arizona to work with Athletes Performance Institute.
The Rockies started slowly in both halves of the season, but hit their stride and made the playoffs for the first time since 2001 (the franchise’s first year in Casper).
They lost the first game of the series against Ogden at home, 4-3 in 11 innings, with 1,690 fans at the afternoon game. After an 8-7, 11-inning win in the second game of the best-of-three series, the Rockies’ first season ended with an 11-9 loss in the final game.
It’s a season Diaz, who has been with the Rockies since 2001 and was promoted to manager in 2007, won’t ever forget.
He figures between eight and 10 players from that first year will be back in Grand Junction in 2013, and he’s just hoping his second GJ club can replicate the chemistry the 2012 team had.
“I would say based on the character of the club, the first couple of weeks, we could tell something special was going on,” Diaz said. “We signed a bunch of really good kids, good character, and they gelled with the Latin kids, the high school and college kids.
“It was a special group.”