The ties to the Colorado Rockies ended, but the Grand Junction Rockies returned to Suplizio Field in 2021 after a year’s hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rebranded as an “MLB Partner League,” the Pioneer League clubs went from affiliated Minor League Baseball teams to independent status. No longer do players with the “big club” in Denver make appearances in Grand Junction on rehabilitation assignments, and the players wearing the GJ Rockies uniforms aren’t drafted by Colorado, or any other MLB team, for that matter.
They’re players who have been released by pro clubs or who just finished their final season in college and signed on hoping to catch the eye of pro scouts before the MLB Amateur Draft, which was moved from early June to July.
All but one of the eight Pioneer League teams returned to the field last summer — the Orem Owlz pulled up stakes in Utah and moved to Windsor, but because the team’s new field wasn’t complete, didn’t play in 2021. The Northern Colorado Owlz plan to play in 2022, and the league is adding a 10th team, Flathead Valley, which will play in Kalispell, Montana, this summer.
The Boise Hawks, who were a short-season Class A team in the Northwest League, joined the Pioneer League when MLB scuttled the short-season A and Rookie leagues in favor of “complex teams,” with the draft picks and some second-year players spending the summer at training camps in Arizona and Florida.
On the field, casual fans didn’t notice many changes for the Rockies — the team still has in-between innings contests, and the club retained the name and uniforms. Across the league, overall pitching talent was down, and games could push 3 1/2-4 hours. The announced attendance (tickets sold) at GJ Rockies games was comparable to past years, although actual crowds seemed smaller than when the team was affiliated with Colorado.
The league made headlines when it announced that instead of extra innings, tie games would be decided by a “knock-out” contest. Designed to save pitching, each team selects one hitter, who faces five pitches, usually thrown by a coach, as in batting practice. The player who hits the most home runs in those five swings wins.
The gimmick proved to be popular with both fans and players, with wild celebrations after clinching home runs.
The Rockies had a solid season, going 52-43, but fell short of the playoffs.
The 2022 season begins May 25 at Ogden, with the first home game June 7.