First-timer coming to JUCO World Series

Your secret’s safe, Grand Junction.

I promise not to spill the beans to friends and former colleagues back in New York about the breathtaking Bookcliffs, the beauty of Colorado National Monument and the majesty of Grand Mesa. Or the spectacular biking and hiking trails at nearly every turn off nearly every road.

Or Powderhorn, a hidden gem of a ski resort. Or the cool places to camp, fish and golf. Or about Toby the horse, my wife Jenny’s new best friend, a playful 8-year-old gelding I’ve taught to knock a cap off my head with his nose.

This part we’ll keep to ourselves, for now, except for a few Facebook posts I just couldn’t resist.

As for baseball, I’m all in for going all out to spread the word about the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series — better known as JUCO around these parts, and officially titled the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Baseball World Series.

About eight months ago, when I first moved here from New York, I knew very little about this World Series, let alone what to call it. Sort of embarrassing for someone who spent more than 40 years as a sports reporter in New York for The Associated Press, writing about THE World Series and the College World Series, as well as Olympics, Super Bowls, Kentucky Derbys and college football national championship games.

Growing up, I was a Yankees fan, cheering for Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. While sitting with my dad in the stands at the Polo Grounds one day, I was lucky enough to catch a foul ball hit by pitcher Don Drysdale when the Dodgers played the Mets.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I’m about to show up for my first JUCO World Series and take part in the 60-year celebration of the tournament. Even before I set foot in Grand Junction, I had been in contact with several people about working on a book to celebrate 60 years of the JUCO World Series.

But what did I know about JUCO? Not much. At one time or another, I lived within a few miles of Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, Miami-Dade (North) and more recently Nassau Community College. All three schools, as I know now, made it out here, with NCC (as we call it on Long Island) and Miami-Dade winning national titles. NCC beat Miami-Dade in the 1966 final and Dade has two titles (1964, 1981). See what I’ve learned?

And by the way, someone needs to put this tournament on TV, as in ESPN or Fox Sports or NBCSN.

MLB.com will be live streaming the championship games, with the other tournament games streamed on 
NJCAA.tv, but the JUCO World Series is more than national TV-worthy.

During the time it took to put this book together with Patti Arnold of The Daily Sentinel, I was astonished at the names I came across, not to mention some of the remarkable feats they pulled off at Suplizio Field.

George Arias of Pima College hit two grand slams in the same game in 1992, and then was called out on strikes with the bases loaded and a chance for a third. He came back in another game and hit that third grand slam.

Kirby Puckett hit a record .688 in the four games he played for Triton College in 1982. Incredibly, three others have matched the mark; Donnie Moore, the former MLB pitcher who committed suicide in 1989 after his career ended, went 4-0 and pitched 30 innings in leading Ranger Junior College to the championship in 1973; and in 1999, John Lackey pitched two games with no decisions, but also hit two home runs and had seven RBI as the DH in helping Grayson College win it all.

Raise your hand if you knew all this.

As I interviewed the players and the coaches who have been here, and the people who put this event together, a few things became perfectly clear: everyone comes away a winner.

Since junior college teams don’t have the same following as say, as the University of Texas, it’s up to the locals to lend support to the 10 visiting teams.

I’m told they embrace the opportunity, and the players and coaches reciprocate by hanging out to sign autographs and handing out souvenirs like batting gloves to the kids.

And who knows? The next baseball star could be standing right in front of them. Bryce Harper (Southern Nevada) played here, so did Brandon Belt (San Jacinto), Curt Schilling (Yavapai), Cliff Lee (Meridian), Eric Gagne (Seminole), Rick Langford (Manatee), Kal Daniels (Middle Georgia) and Kurt Bevacqua (Miami-Dade).

Former MLB pitcher Craig McMurtry is a good example of what goes on in the world of junior colleges. He pitched in the JUCO World Series for McLennan (Texas) in 1980, and he’s taken the team he’s been coaching, Temple (Texas), to the series twice, in 2006 and 2010.

“I come from a town of about 500,” he told me recently, “and the crowds for games would be 100-150 — on a big day. All of a sudden you’re there playing in front of several thousand people and the atmosphere is an unbelievable, exciting change.”

Former player Adam Thomas, who led Grayson County College (Texas) to a championship, recalled his playing days.

“I never played in front of a crowd of more than 100 people,” he said. “So going from that to a stadium filled with 10,000-plus people we felt like we were playing in a big league stadium. … The buzz of the crowd before the game and the nervous energy that it created inside of me, the roar of the crowd after hitting a home run in the championship game, the seemingly endless autographs given out after the game. These are all things that I had never experienced before and helped shape my future as a ball player.”

With that, I’m ready. JUCO fever has hit. I can’t wait for the first pitch.

Richard Rosenblatt has been a sports writer for The Associated Press for nearly 30 years, and recently moved from New York to Grand Junction. He is the co-author of “JUCO’s Journey: Celebrating 60 Years of the NJCAA World Series.”


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