Now that they have a manager, the Grand Junction Rockies can really get to work.
Jimmy “JJ” Johnson, who played in Houston’s minor league system in the 1970s and was the Colorado Rockies minor-league hitting coordinator from 2002-2012, will manage the new independent team this summer.
Johnson, who now lives in the Phoenix area, coached and managed in the Houston organization after retiring from baseball, working his way up to being a manager at the Triple-A level.
He coached in a Texas collegiate league last summer that was put together when the minor league season was canceled.
“I put the team together in about seven days and had a ball,” said Johnson, 74. “It was so refreshing. They were happy to be there and get coached by an old (guy) like me. It was fun, and I said, ‘You know what? I still want to do this.’ I like golf, but I love baseball.”
He also coached in the Los Angeles Dodgers system before working with the Rockies’ young hitters for 10 years, and was the hitting coach for Team China in the World Baseball Classic.
“He’s got an extensive background and we’re extremely happy to have him,” GJ Rockies President Mick Ritter said. “With his background with the Colorado Rockies, it was a good fit for the ownership and a good fit for us.”
Johnson’s first order of business will be to hire a coaching staff and start scouting for players. Some Pioneer League teams have announced a handful of player signings — former Grand Junction standout Owen Taylor, a first baseman with the GJ Rockies in 2019, has signed with the Ogden Raptors — and the Rockies are keeping an eye on minor league spring training. With 40 fewer minor league teams this year, hundreds of players at spring training now will be looking for teams toward the end of the month. The Minor League Baseball season begins May 4.
Ritter is hoping to organize a tryout in Phoenix before heading to Grand Junction, then see who’s available not only from those who get released this spring, but more who aren’t drafted in July.
“Fortunately there are a lot of players still out there,” Ritter said. “The spring training cut process has not happened, and when that happens there will be even more players. That’s what a lot of teams in the league, including us, are doing. When that happens there are going to be some dang good ballplayers released that don’t have a spot to play.”
The GJ Rockies will invite players to Grand Junction the week before the May 22 season opener for a training camp. The new Pioneer League team can invite as many players as it wants to its “spring training,” but must be down to a roster of 22-25 players by opening day.
As for Johnson’s style of play, he plans to play baseball the way the game was intended, with the emphasis on line drives, not launch angles.
“I’m going to bunt this year, I’m going to steal if I’ve got a guy who can steal,” he said. “I want to play the game like it used to be played. ... I want to hit line drives, stay up the middle, and home runs will come on hanging curveballs.”