Relaxed group of Grand Junction Rockies hope for another fun year

As I walked through the players’ lounge area in the Grand Junction Rockies front offices the other day after meeting with new manager Anthony Sanders, I got a hearty welcome from the three veterans back for their second season in Rookie baseball.

“Hey! How are you?” Zach Jemiola said with a grin.

Ryan Garvey smiled, said hello and asked how things were going as he reached for another handful of fries. Correlle Prime asked how the JUCO World Series went, how was the winter?

The three were relaxing, eating some lunch and watching the U.S. Open on television a couple of hours before the first day of training camp began.

They knew the routine — uniforms were hanging in their lockers, ready for their photo shoots. Media day was to follow, then back in to change into their shorts and practice jerseys.

The new guys started to filter in, a little more unsure of what to do.

As the Grand Junction media arrived, it was much the same. Handshakes and “how’ve you been?” The new guys gathered together, talking quietly and looking around.

It’s that way for a few days of Rookie ball, as the players from the draft, newly signed, join the group that’s been sweltering in the desert heat of Scottsdale, Ariz., in extended spring training.

Once they got on the field, everybody relaxed just a little bit more and did what they do best — play baseball.

That’s the name of the game in the Rookie league. Wins are a bonus, and the Rockies are trying to develop a winning culture in all of their minor league clubs.

“There’s a difference,” Prime said. “In high school you want to win, you have to win. Here, we want to get better. In the back of your mind you want to win; that’s what it’s about, winning and getting better.”

Grand Junction fans learned last year about the development of players versus winning championships. They cheered great plays, moaned errors, but were generally supportive.

“People have to understand this is development,” Sanders said. “There are things kids will do very well and there are some things we have to identify and work on.”

The Rockies want to have an encore performance in their second season in Grand Junction, and maybe take it a step or two further in the playoffs.

But first, they need to learn how to handle themselves as professional athletes, on and off the field.

Some of them will sign their first autograph, do their first interview and have their first fan club.

The kids from the Dominican Republic are learning English and adapting to living in a new country. Some of the American kids are away from home for the first time.

They’ll figure it out together, go through slumps and have banner days.

With Sanders, it all starts with fundamentals.

“We’ve got to keep them fundamentally sound, hit and run, move runners, because you never know when their opportunity is going to come at a higher level and they have to execute those things,” he said.

Fans last season quickly grasped the concept of minor league baseball, the games between innings and knowing you can’t win ‘em all.

Mostly, they want to see a good ballgame and they want to have a good time at the park watching the most social sport around.

Baseball games move slower than football or basketball, there’s more time between plays to talk not only about the game, but about anything that comes to mind.

You can sit in the stands on a warm summer night with your friends, shelling peanuts, having a beer and just relaxing.

The home team won? Great.

The home team lost? Well, there’s always tomorrow night.

Because in Rookie ball, that’s exactly what happens — from the first pitch tonight until the end of the regular season Sept. 8, the GJ Rockies have five days off.

At least four of those will be spent on a bus, traveling to or from Montana.

“They’re all right,” Jemiola said of the bus rides. “It’s good team bonding.”

But that trip to Big Sky?

“Fifteen hours to Helena or whatever that was,” Jemiola said, “that was brutal.”

It’s part of paying your dues in the minors, and the players know that going in. It doesn’t mean they won’t grumble about those long all-night road trips, but they’ll get through them.

If the young Rockies develop and keep moving up the ladder, charter flights and having clubhouse attendants lug their bags are in their future.

And their future starts now.


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