Roling down the road: Evolution of a pro career
Kiel Roling could catch and throw a baseball before he was old enough to play on a team.
His parents, Guy and Cindy Roling, offered to sign a release so he could start playing Little League when he was 5 years old, but were turned down.
“He was crushed,” Cindy said.
When Kiel turned 6 and was old enough to play T-ball, he was already hitting home runs over the fence and turning double plays with Andrew Martinez, who became a longtime teammate.
The next year, Kiel, who grew up playing with his older brother Brett and his friends, was pitching to one of Brett’s 13-year-old buddies on the T-ball field. Johnny Schmidt tried to take the 7-year-old deep for a home run, but hit a line drive back at Kiel, smacking him in the left eye.
“I remember (Schmidt) hitting the ball, then my dad carrying me to the car,” Kiel said.
He needed 11 stitches to close the gash, but that didn’t scare him off the field. Roling had a big-league shiner, and still has a scar near his left eye.
“We put a face mask on his helmet,” Guy said. “He didn’t miss a practice. He wanted to play. We didn’t let him catch for a while, but he was never gun shy.”
Kiel continued playing baseball until this year, when he retired after a six-year professional career in the Colorado Rockies minor league system.
Tonight, the Grand Junction Rockies are recognizing the former Central High School star before playing the Ogden Raptors.
“Since I can remember, baseball was the one sport that was my thing,” said Roling, who was heavily recruited to play Division I football out of high school. “I loved baseball and everything about it. I enjoyed the other sports too, but baseball was the one thing that was truly my passion.
“I grew up watching the Braves (before the Colorado Rockies existed) and wanted to play for the Braves. I was probably in the first grade saying I’m going to be a professional baseball player.”
Martinez played with or against Roling through Little League and into high school, and remembers one particular home run his friend hit in Montrose when he was 9 years old.
“Some of the home runs he hit were stupid,” Martinez said. “I remember playing in Montrose (in) 9-10 All-Stars. The fence was 200 feet and there was a big cottonwood tree on the other side. He hit the baseball into the top of the tree. It was probably 300 feet.
“You kind of expected it from Kiel because he was so much bigger than us.”
By the time he was 12, his dad and coach let Kiel call pitches.
“He knew how to pitch because he caught,” Guy Roling said. “He always thought ahead. He had that knack of seeing the whole picture. He was always very intelligent about the game. He liked to control the game.
“When he was 12, I thought, ‘What am I doing? He knows what to do.’ He was able to take over that portion of the game.”
No one complained.
“He became a leader doing that,” Guy said. “Everybody looked up to him. They listened to him.”
Kiel made the Grand Mesa Little League All-Star team every year he played. One year, the team came within one win of going to the Little League World Series.
“I’ve known him since he was 5 years old,” Grand Mesa Little League Director Dave Mantlo said. “In 50 years I’ve learned a few things. He’s one of the top two or three to go through Grand Mesa Little League. There’s none better than Kiel when you count personality.”
When he reached high school, Roling made Central’s varsity team as a freshman in 2001-02. That team won the Class 5A state title.
“Kiel got a feeling what we were all about when he was on our ‘02 state championship team,” former Central coach Ken Johnson said. “Even though he didn’t play a whole lot, he still had some pinch-hitting roles.”
He played more as a sophomore and became the starting catcher as a junior.
He quickly earned the attention and recognition of opposing coaches.
“The thing I always remember about Kiel when he was in high school was, it seemed like he didn’t belong in high school,” former Grand Junction coach Kyle Rush said. “He was beyond his years. He was just a man out there.”
“I knew he would go on to bigger and better things,” former Fruita Monument coach Johnny Bess said. “Even to this day, he’s got to be one of the top players I’ve seen play (in high school), along with Shaver Hansen, Dane Hamilton and Geoff Baldwin.
“I’ve pointed out four or five kids I thought would get drafted and he was definitely one of them.”
The Warriors continued to win Southwestern League titles as Roling and Martinez continued to accumulate awards.
Roling was a four-year letter winner and led Central back to the state tournament in 2003 and 2004.
Although he played football his senior year, he turned his focus to the sport he’s loved since he started playing catch.
He had a free hour during school and would use that to hit baseballs and work on catching with longtime baseball guru Tex Tolman.
“My senior year, I was hitting all the time with Tex,” Roling said. “Instead of going to football camps, I worked on baseball. I think all that work paid off.”
By the time the high school season rolled around, he was ready. Johnson said Roling had a higher batting average his junior year than as a senior, but he was hitting towering home runs into — and over — the lights at Suplizio Field.
“His senior year, he really took the reins of the team,” Johnson said. “Kiel was still the leader of the club. When there were issues within the team, he spoke up about it and came to me. He had good leadership qualities.”
“He conducted himself so well on and off the field,” Martinez said of Roling. “It was awesome to have someone that caliber of an athlete and yet be so humble.”
Even though Roling was seeing letters coming in seemingly every day from colleges during his junior and senior years of high school, he wasn’t getting the letters from Division I baseball programs.
Joe LeFebre helped Roling find a place to play at Central Arizona College.
“I’m glad I did it, because I don’t think I would’ve been ready to go Division I out of high school,” Kiel said. “Tex helped me to understand the failures and how to accept them. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way too, but he helped me with that.”
Clint Myers, who recruited Roling to Central Arizona, resigned before Roling’s freshman year to become the Arizona State softball coach.
Roling played for Jon Wente at Central Arizona and was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks after his freshman year. Roling opted to return to Central Arizona and played in a sophomore showcase event in the fall of 2006 for major league scouts and four-year college coaches.
Arizona State coach Pat Murphy saw Roling and told him he’d like him to transfer at semester so he could play on the 2007 team.
Roling wanted to return to Central Arizona, in part to honor his two-year commitment, but also for a chance to play in the JUCO World Series back home.
When Roling returned to Central Arizona in January 2007 after Christmas break, he realized Arizona State was offering a great opportunity.
Roling left Central Arizona for Arizona State. He blossomed into one of the Sun Devils’ top hitters on a team that now has a few players in the major leagues, and helped the Sun Devils reach the NCAA Division I College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. Roling hit .356 with 15 home runs and 63 RBI in 58 games.
Five of his teammates made it to the big leagues: Cincinnati pitcher Mike Leake, Detroit shortstop Andrew Romine, Baltimore first baseman Brett Wallace, Oakland second baseman Eric Sogard and Pittsburgh first baseman Ike Davis.
Roling’s numbers weren’t as good his junior year. He hit .340 with eight home runs and 51 RBI in 58 games, and was drafted in the sixth round by the Colorado Rockies.
He thought about going back to Arizona State for his senior year.
“I had a down junior year compared to my sophomore year and I had surgery on my knee,” Kiel said. “When you go into that season projected to be a supplementary round pick, then you don’t and you drop down to the sixth round, you’re disappointed. You’re thinking, if I go back and have a really big senior year, could I drop down there (as a high draft pick)? I talked to people, but realized I could do worse.”
Roling signed with the Rockies and started his pro career. It was then he realized how special his childhood years were playing baseball.
“All I wanted was to play professional baseball. Once you start playing there, you almost wish you were back in college or Little League, when it was just a fun game, playing carefree. It’s tough to know that in the back of your mind,” he said.
“Those years, I enjoyed them, obviously, but I wish I enjoyed them more.”