TAKING HOME HARDWARE: There’s a story behind every award
Roberto Vaz and Frank Rodriguez needed an assist in hauling all of their trophies to the bus after leading their respective teams, Northeast Texas and Howard College, to national championships in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
In 1996, Vaz took home a plaque for making the all-tournament team, a gold medal for playing on the championship team, the tri-bat Rawlings Big Stick Award, a plaque for Homa Thomas Sportsmanship Award and a sterling silver bowl as the Preston Walker Most Valuable Player.
In 1991, Rodriguez juggled the gold medal, all-tournament plaque, the MVP silver bowl and the trophy as the Robert Purkey Jr., Outstanding Pitcher.
It’s safe to say most of the players who graciously accept awards each year don’t know anything about the men whose names are on those awards. And they’re not alone.
Each of the individual awards is named in honor of a significant contributor to the success of the tournament, save one: the Robert Purkey Jr. Outstanding Pitcher award.
The player voted on by the media as the top pitcher in the tournament receives the trophy named for a former JUCO World Series pitcher, Robert Purkey Jr., who was the No. 2 pitcher for Gulf Coast Community College (Florida) in 1973. He and his teammates were spending some down time in the team’s motel pool before the tournament when Purkey suddenly collapsed. Baseball Reference’s biographical information on his father, Bob, who pitched in the majors for 13 years, included a line on Bob Purkey Jr., saying he and his teammates were having a contest to see who could hold his breath the longest under water.
He died 18 days later, and results of an autopsy showed a heart defect, known as “athlete’s sudden-death syndrome,” according to an Associated Press story.
The Commodores reached the World Series championship game, losing 5-0 to Ranger Junior College (Texas).
Purkey’s high school, Bethel Park in Pennsylvania, named the baseball field after him, and in 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the Bethel Park Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 1974, JUCO named the outstanding pitcher award for Purkey. The Florida state tournament, which doubles as the Gulf District tourney, also honors Purkey with that tournament’s outstanding pitcher award.
The biggest mystery of all, however, is what happened to The Sculptured Bat?
Essex Community College (Maryland) hoisted the unique trophy after the 1992 Junior College World Series. After that, its whereabouts are unknown.
The 5-foot-tall trophy simply vanished. It used to be a traveling trophy, with the winning team lugging it home — it came with a wooden shipping crate — and was responsible for shipping it back to Grand Junction before the next tournament.
Not only did shipping the crate get expensive, but the trophy was getting a little beat-up from cross-country travel. Plus, there was always the concern that a team might forget to send it back. At some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s (no one is really sure when), it was kept on display at Two Rivers Convention Center. On championship night, it was taken out of the case, shined up and handed to the winning team. After all the photos were taken, it was returned to Two Rivers.
Pete Jouflas, who, along with Tilman Bishop, handles trophies and awards for the JUCO World Series, said his records indicate The Sculptured Bat, provided by Louisville Slugger, was last awarded in 1992. He doesn’t have records from 1993, but said it was not on the awards program in 1994.
Here’s the really strange thing: the trophy was on the cover of The Daily Sentinel’s 1995 JUCO special section, and the photo was taken that year.
The Sculptured Bat is just that — a bat literally carved from the plank of wood that serves as its mounting. On each side are small gold plates signifying each championship team.
No one on the JUCO Committee can recall who had it last.
So if any longtime JUCO fan knows what happened to The Sculptured Bat, find Walt Bergman behind home plate, or flag down Jouflas or Bishop, who would love to see it returned — no questions asked.
JUCO World Series Awards
Homa Thomas Sportsmanship: Named for the first tournament director/Northeastern Oklahoma baseball coach, Miami, Oklahoma. A sidenote, Homa Thomas had an identical twin brother named Okla. Okla and Homa were definitely from the Sooner State. The media and tournament directors vote on the award, usually going to a coach or team that shows ultimate sportsmanship and class throughout the week. Two players, Vaz and Spartanburg Methodist’s Marty Gantt, have won the award. The award is sponsored by Townsquare Media.
Robert Purkey Jr. Outstanding Pitcher: Named for a former Gulf Coast Community College (Florida) pitcher who collapsed at a hotel swimming pool before the 1973 JUCO World Series and died 18 days later. Purkey’s father, Bob, pitched in the major leagues from 1954-66, playing for Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis. The award is sponsored by The Moose 92.3-FM.
Jay Tolman Outstanding Defensive Player: Named for former NJCAA baseball committee chair Jay Tolman after his death in 1996. Tolman convinced the NJCAA to move the tournament to Grand Junction after one year in Miami, Oklahoma. The trophy is sponsored by Grand Junction Kiwanis Club.
Bus Bergman Coach of the Tournament: Named in 2010 after the death of former Mesa College coach Bus Bergman, instrumental in getting the NJCAA national baseball tournament to Grand Junction. The Mavericks were an automatic entry in the early years, then had to qualify through the Western District. Bergman guided Mesa to three championship game appearances. The award from the NJCAA goes to the coach of the championship team.
Winning coach award: The winning coach receives a set of golf irons, courtesy of Hammond’s Golf Headquarters.
Outstanding Hitter Award: This was formerly the Marucci Elite Hitter award, but Marucci ended its sponsorship with the NJCAA before this year’s tournament. Before the Marucci award, the best hitter received the Rawlings Big Stick Award. To qualify, a player must have 15 at-bats during the tournament.
D.S. Dykstra Participation Plaques: Named for the tournament’s first chairman, the first six teams eliminated receive a plaque for qualifying. The Grand Junction Lions Club sponsors the plaques.
Team trophies: The championship team, runner-up team and the two third-place teams receive trophies courtesy of US Bank.
Player medals: Each player on the championship team receives a gold medal, sponsored by City Market, with silver medals going to players on the second-place team, sponsored by the Grand Junction Rotary Club.
All-tournament team trophies: The 15 players on the all-tournament team receive trophies from PEAK Performance Products Company and Sam’s Club.
Tournament patches: Each player and coach in the tournament receives a patch, sponsored by Gene Taylor’s Sporting Goods and Humphrey RV of Grand Junction.
Preston Walker MVP: Named for the former Daily Sentinel publisher who agreed to put up a $3,000 “Rainy Day” guarantee to NJCAA from the Friendship Festival fund to secure tournament in GJ in 1959. The sports staff of The Daily Sentinel, which sponsors the silver bowl, determines the MVP.