Fan focus

For many GJ Rockies, playing in front of a crowd is a new thing

Grand Junction Rockies first baseman Hidekel Gonzalez lunges to catch a fly ball Friday as Shael Mendoza looks on during an open practice in front of around 50 fans at Suplizio Field.

Grand Junction Rockies infielder Shael Mendoza works on turning a double play Friday during an open practice in front of about 50 fans at Suplizio Field.

There were only roughly 50 fans at the Grand Junction Rockies’ open practice Friday at Suplizio Field, but that’s a few dozen more people than players from the Dominican Summer League are used to.

The DSL features many future Major League Baseball players as teenagers from South and Central America hone their skills in front of coaches and scouts, but not many fans.

So for the 18 players who have reported to Grand Junction — many of whom hail from outside the United States — the opportunity to play in front of fans is thrilling.

“Participating was fun because I was trying to be relaxed,” outfielder Ramon Marcelino said through a translator. “Practicing in front of fans was exciting, a nice adventure like that.”

Grand Junction manager Frank Gonzales put the players through conditioning drills, launched fly balls from a pitching machine and ran through a live batting practice in preparation for the season-opener Monday against Idaho Falls. As all this went on, fans were treated to the Colorado Rockies game against the San Francisco Giants on the outfield video board, with the radio broadcast synced up to provide play-by-play.

Gonzales said the added noise and excitement forced players to focus. The later start has helped both he and his players “move our clocks back” in preparation for evening warm-ups and night games. The team still hasn’t practiced under the lights, Gonzales said, but they will likely practice taking fly balls after dark over the weekend.

“The guys that have done this in the Dominican haven’t done this in front of fans,” Gonzales said. “That’s the thing, and I thought we performed really well today. The in-and-out, we threw some balls well from the outfield and fired it around the infield.”

The half-capacity squad is just waiting to see who will report to Grand Junction. Grand Junction Rockies President Joe Kubly said the bulk of drafted prospects will report to Suplizio Field on Sunday, with players still in contract negotiations drifting in once their signing bonuses are set. Ryan Vilade, a prep infielder selected by the Colorado Rockies with the No. 48 pick in this year’s MLB Draft, could report to Grand Junction, but that won’t be clear until he signs.

Regardless, Friday’s practice featured many new faces from the DSL, plus a handful of rehabbing and returning pitchers. The machine-aided pop-ups helped establish communication, Gonzales said, adding that the pitching machine can launch the baseball higher than it is normally hit.

“The pop-up priority drill, you really never know what you’re going to get on that,” Gonzales said. “And there was a little bit of wind tonight, so we had balls moving left to right. We were shooting them at least game height, if not higher on the last few, just to challenge them.”

Players and coaches, including new pitching coach Doug Jones, signed autographs for children after the practice. Jones had a 16-year MLB career as a reliever and was a five-time All-Star, mostly with the Cleveland Indians. He was the pitching coach for the short season Class A Boise Hawks for two seasons before joining Gonzales in Grand Junction this year.

Pitchers threw in the outfield, including Jefry Valdez, who said he was excited to be in front of fans.

“I was excited,” Valdez said through a translator. “It’s an honor to play in front of the kids and the fans.”

Dominican players face challenges beyond those of drafted players. On top of the day-to-day grind of professional baseball and the added pressure of performing in front of coaches, many are either learning English, or polishing what parts of the language they know. They’re adjusting to a new culture in a new country.

But nine times out of 10, when asked what their biggest adjustment has been, the answer is “la comida” — the food. Players — both from the DSL and the United States — piled into the elevator at Suplizio Field after the practice, excitedly hoping tacos were served upstairs.

Second baseman Shael Mendoza said it may seem like a small difference, but food is just another adjustment players have to make.

“The food, that’s the hardest part,” Mendoza said through a translator. “The rice and beans we have in the Dominican, the stuff that’s here is a just a little different, you know?”


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