‘A special place for us’
Former GJ Rockies Gray and Dahl return to their pro birthplace with Rockies Caravan
David Dahl kept glancing out the windows of the press box at Suplizio Field, looking toward his old spot in center field.
Jon Gray gazed down at the snow-covered diamond from the third floor of the Tower and grinned.
“It’s very surreal,” Gray said Thursday during a stop on the Colorado Rockies Caravan. “It seems bigger than I remember it, the field and everything. It’s very surreal being back. This is the beginning to most of our journeys, we started here. It’s always going to be a special place for us.”
Gray, drafted No. 3 overall in 2013, wasn’t in Grand Junction long, only four starts in Rookie ball before he started his climb through Colorado’s minor league system.
Dahl was the first high draft pick to play in Grand Junction, on the inaugural GJ Rockies team in 2012 after being the No. 10 overall draft pick. He was the Pioneer League MVP, led the league in hitting (.379) and was on his way. A couple of injuries set him back, but he was called up to Denver last July, after only 16 games in Triple-A Albuquerque, where he hit .484. He spent much of the season in Double-A Hartford, which played every game on the road last season because of issues in finishing the Yard Goats’ new stadium.
“This was the trip I was looking forward to the most, coming back to where my career started,” said Dahl, who is the odds-on favorite to start in left field for the Rockies this season. “We had a fun team, Tony (Diaz) was a great manager. I learned a lot that year, how to become a professional, how to get ready for the grind of a long season for years to come.”
Dahl and Gray were part of the caravan to visit Grand Junction, along with catcher Tom Murphy and new manager Bud Black. The two former first-round draft picks figure to be a big part of Colorado’s success this season, and they’re no longer the young, fresh-faced first-year pros adjusting to pro ball.
Gray, with what’s now his signature long, red hair and facial hair, is primed to become the staff ace, at the very least one of the top-end starters. Last September, he threw an impressive complete game (his first as a major leaguer) in a 16-strikeout, four-hit shutout of San Diego. He finished his first full season in the majors 10-10 with a 4.61 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 168 innings.
“I’m ready, mentally, yes,” he said. “I’m ready to go out there and do my best every time, absolutely. I think there’s some steps I need to take, but I feel like I’m getting close, I really, really do.”
He’ll have two young catchers in Murphy and Tony Wolters, but worked with Murphy in the minors and Wolters last season. Murphy is eager to get to work with the pitching staff, which got a boost this week with the signing of former Kansas City closer Greg Holland, which Black said was “a big sign.”
“I don’t think anybody would be surprised to hear pitching is going to make the difference for us this year,” Murphy said. “We’ve always swung it pretty well, but pitching is what’s going to carry us, and that’s on Tony and I. The experience we accrued last year at the major league level and the Triple-A level myself, it’s just going to carry over into this year and that makes us that much more comfortable.”
Dahl, too, has grown up since he was in Grand Junction fresh out of high school. Now with a full beard, the 22-year-old played in 63 games with Colorado, hitting .315 with seven home runs and 24 RBI. His big-league career started out with a 17-game hitting streak, and in only 13 of his first 63 games did he fail to get at least one hit.
“I think I was just on fire at the time, feeling really good at the plate,” he said. “I just wanted to go up there and do whatever I could to help the team win. I wasn’t thinking about any kind of results, just wanted to compete with the guys. We were in a wild-card spot at the time, so that’s all I was trying to do when they called me up, just play your game and help the team win.”
He picked the brain of the other outfielders, especially Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez, asking about certain pitchers and learning how to patrol the expansive outfield at Coors Field.
Black figures Gray and Dahl will be crucial in his first year as the Rockies’ manager.
“What’s exciting to me are these guys, our players. You’ve seen a lot of our guys come through here who are now major league players, but for those of us in uniform, this season, I think, brings some expectations,” Black said.
“What I like is, I think these guys are ready for those expectations. I think these guys feel it, of what we can become and that’s exciting to me to be a part of this. For these guys it should be exciting because they look around, they look at each other and they look in the room and see other players, some older players, Gonzalez and Blackmon, (Nolan) Arenado and (DJ) LeMahieu, guys who have been Rockies, and these guys can look them right in the eyes and say hey, I’m right there with you as far as helping us win, and that’s a good thing. I think these guys are ready for those expectations, not only this year but years to come. This is a pretty good group of players.”
When the caravan arrived, the first stop was into the front office to sign some memorabilia and take a look around again.
“It’s cool to see the wall over there in the front office, seeing all the guys who have come through here that are now in the big leagues,” Dahl said. “We do have some pretty big expectations and we have to come together as a team and build every day. It’s gonna be a fun year.”
Gray had another word for what he expects in 2017.
“A lot of young guys who have been with me are up now. You kind of saw it unravel the last few years, but with these new additions, it’s going to be a little different,” he said. “It’s going to be electric.”