The buddy system

Playing baseball a bonding experience for GJ Rockies

Grand Junction Rockies outfielders Max White, left, and David Dahl, joke around in the dugout before a recent game. The Rookie Rockies have developed a camaraderie and have embraced improving as a team.

Juan Ciriaco, top, and Julian Yan, 10, goof around with a teammate in the dugout before a recent game at Suplzio Field.

Tony Diaz made it clear from Day 1: No jerks allowed.

“We draft and sign good character players,” the Grand Junction Rockies manager said, tipping his cap to the organization’s scouting department. “Underneath that uniform there’s good kids. They have good values, good character.

“I told the guys, if you’re a jerk, you just don’t fit. I told them if you’re a jerk and you want to fit, you’d better fake it for three months.”

They’re not faking it. In a few short weeks, these guys have become good friends, maybe even lifelong friends.

The catchers are all competing for playing time. Ditto for the outfielders, infielders and the pitching staff.

But unlike some stories you might hear about how life in the minors moves quickly from the excitement of playing baseball for a living to climbing over your teammate to get ahead, that’s not the case with the Rookie Rockies.

“It’s not the same, from my personal experience of teammates who went on to professional baseball and it being real cut-throat, all about me,” shortstop Matt Wessinger said. “It doesn’t seem to be the case. We’re all up, into the game, just trying to win.”

The players formed quick bonds across the board, but also by position. The outfielders hang out together. Ditto for the catchers, infielders and pitchers.

“We’re real close, just the whole team,” said center fielder David Dahl, the Rockies’ first-round draft pick this year (No. 10 overall). “We all goof around and have fun, but we’re serious when we need to be serious. It’s been a great experience so far.”

Catcher Wilfredo Rodriguez wants to be a Major League catcher. To reach that goal, he’ll probably have to outplay guys who have quickly become his good friends.

“All the catchers here have a great relationship, and that’s good,” said the seventh-round draft pick out of the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy. “We’re competing against each other, but we’re like brothers. We try to help each other, and it’s working out. Every catcher is doing his job. I consider them my catching partners.”

The coaching staff stressed right off the bat that the Rockies are in this to improve their skills and try to move up the organizational chain, but in a team setting.

“Tony does a great job teaching us how it’s about the team,” Dahl said. “All the coaches, it’s the team first and then yourself. We’ve really come together as a team. We pick each other up. I’m having a blast, really having fun with it. I’m looking forward to later in the season and see how we end up doing.”

Wessinger, who just wrapped up his career at St. John’s University, reported to camp late, just a couple of days before the season opener. He said his new team feels a lot like the Red Storm. The players who arrived in Grand Junction first are quick to accept newcomers.

“Our team isn’t big on initiating people,” he said. “We’ve got a new guy, he deserves to be here, we’re going to accept him as one of our own.”

On the road, the players spend hours on long bus rides, like the all-night, into the afternoon trip they just took from Grand Junction to Missoula, Mont.

They’ll sleep, watch movies, play cards or video games, anything to pass the time. They’re together 24 hours a day on those road trips and far away from family. They make the best of it, though.

Right fielder Julian Yan often cooks chicken and rice, his favorite meal, for his teammates — right there in the hotel room.

“That’s what he does,” grinned Dahl, who posted photos of Yan’s makeshift kitchen on his Twitter account. “It was good. They bring the stuff, and they cook for us. I’ll take it.”

It beats another fast-food meal or going to Denny’s or a truck stop every night on the road.

Some of them will rise in the organization together, some will hang it up, others will go to another team. But they’ll always remember their first teammates.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Wessinger said. “We’re all happy to see the other ones succeed. We all know we’re going to get our fair amount of playing time, so we’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to play over him, I want him to do bad.’

“It’s more like let’s see how well everybody can do.”


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