Anything to play one more season.
That’s the life of players in independent baseball, going wherever there’s a chance to lace up their cleats.
For the new Grand Junction Rockies, the first year in independent baseball doesn’t mean a roster of draft picks — it’s a roster of guys trying to show they have what it takes to make it onto an affiliated roster.
Dondrei Hubbard was oh, so close to that last year. He had played in Melbourne, Australia, the Czech Republic, then went back to Perth, Australia, for two more years, then back to the Czech Republic, before finally returning to the U.S. to play independent baseball in California. He landed a spot on another independent club in the Frontier League, the Lake Erie Crushers, in Avon, Ohio, in 2018.
“Then I got picked up by the Padres,” the Grand Junction left fielder said Wednesday after the Rockies won their long-awaited home opener 5-4 over Idaho Falls. “Then COVID hit and I didn’t even get an opportunity to play, so I got released and now I’ve got another opportunity to play.”
At 26 years old, he’s one of the older players on the roster – three players are 27 — but he’s not ready to stop playing.
“That’s all we want to do,” Hubbard said. “Just keep playing, keep playing. Don’t hang it up.”
Hubbard’s two-out double sparked the Rockies’ four-run fourth inning. After Vinny Esposito reached on an error, Jonathan Pino singled to left to get Hubbard home. After a single by Jake Anderson, who was just signed out of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and made his season debut, Conner Uselton and Austin Eder followed to put GJ up 4-2.
After Idaho Falls picked up one run in the sixth, Hubbard walked and scored a big run in the eighth, which proved to be the game winner, on a base hit by Pino. Idaho Falls made it a one-run game in the ninth, but Robbie Baker got a comebacker to the mound with a runner on second to end it and earn his first save.
Starter Skyler Sylvester, who’s also 26, gave the fans something unique for a GJ Rockies game — a starter who went deep into the game. The right-hander from Salt Lake City threw seven innings, allowing three runs on seven hits. He struck out seven and, also unlike the Rookie Advanced League, didn’t walk a batter in the game that took only 2 hours, 39 minutes.
In fact, none of the three Rockies pitchers walked a batter.
“It took a little adjustment on the mound, it took me an inning and they got a run across but I wasn’t worried about it,” said Sylvester, who got his first real look at Suplizio Field on Wednesday. “That first fly ball out there kind of made my heart sink a little bit, because I didn’t know where it was going. I’m kind of happy it didn’t leave the yard today, but I kept the ball down and got a lot of ground balls tonight.”
Sylvester, too, is well-traveled, playing in Australia and in Tucson of the Pecos League, another independent league.
“This is the highest level of play I’ve had,” he said. “This is the best I’ve seen and I hope to keep climbing. It’s a great opportunity for me, especially to get paid to play.”
Grand Junction manager JJ Johnson, like his players, is happy the first two weeks of the season are over, two long weeks of hotels and bus rides. They’ve gotten to know one another well, although he’s still tweaking the lineup, but a brisk, low-scoring game — despite each team making three errors — was what he wanted to see, especially since his club had only been on the field at Suplizio for about two hours before the home opener.
“It’s learning who we can trust in the bullpen and where they should pitch and in what order,” Johnson said. “Everything just kind of went according to Hoyle.”