To find the best baseball story in Colorado, head west on Interstate 70. Pass the ski resorts and aspen trees. Pass the grape vineyards and the red-capped mesas of the Western Slope and hang a right at the corner of North Avenue and 12th Street – the home of the Junior College World Series. It was here, during the city’s first tournament at the now-renamed Suplizio Field, where Walter Bergman Jr. pulled a cap low over his forehead one night in 1959, stood on the steps of the dugout and proclaimed himself the most important kid in town. The Mesa Junior College batboy was 7 years old.
“Those are memories that last forever,” said Bergman, now 55, whose father was a longtime baseball coach at Mesa, now Mesa State College. “This game is special in so many ways.
“You walk out there, and you feel it. You really can’t explain what this means to us, because words can’t describe it.”
And he might have a point. How can you adequately explain the importance of an event that brings together thousands of people to watch two teams from two-year colleges play baseball? And that’s just the 9 a.m. game.
Come later in the day, for the noon game, or the 3 p.m. game or the 7:30 p.m. game.
Watch the elementary-school children play catch on the dirt and grass field behind the park, the ball arching high toward the sun. See love-struck teenagers holding hands on the benches below the metal bleachers. Listen to fathers teach sons about the importance of the suicide squeeze, the hit-and-run and the double play.
For one week out of the year, baseball is woven into the fabric of this city. And the city is sewn into the game.
Walk the concourse, spend some time in the stands. The stories are as much about families and friends as they are about the game.
Forty-five years ago, Garth Walker took his son, Bob, to the tournament for the first time.
Over time, they kept coming: through Bob’s high school and college years, through his jobs and an eventual move to Washington, D.C.
During those games, they talked about money and relationships. About life and death.
Both now are retired, both home at the park.
“I love baseball,” 87-year-old Garth said.
“I love being here with my dad,” 62-year-old Bob said.
A few feet away, 79-year-old Richard Broadhead has watched virtually every junior college game from the same seat. Third row, just to the catcher’s left.
“Best in the place,” he said of his ballpark perch. “And no one’s ever taking it from me.”
The Juco World Series this week is celebrating its 50th tournament – the 49th year in Grand Junction. The city’s first tournament generated less than $50 in revenue and was won by a 10-player team from Paris, Texas, that loaded into two cars and drove all night to play its first game.
But how things have changed.
The all-volunteer event is estimated to top $3 million in revenue this year, and total attendance figures could surpass 120,000.
Funds from the game will go back to Suplizio Field – more than 5,000 seats and a new scoreboard have been added over the years – and to Little League, high school and college programs in the city.
With nearly two dozen games and 10 teams in one week, the series pays for baseball throughout the city for an entire year.
Even the baseballs used during the games – top-of-the line Rawlings models – are saved so children will have quality balls for their seasons.
“This tournament helped put us on the map,” says Dave Mantlo, who runs the city’s Little League program, which takes a weeklong break during the World Series games. “Once spring starts to come around, everyone starts talking about Juco baseball.”
Behind home plate, Jamie Hamilton, chairman of the National Junior College Baseball World Series organizing committee, leaned against the chain fence, surveyed the familiar faces in the stands and said he “couldn’t imagine a better place anywhere on Earth.”
Ask him about his moments with this game – the time New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wrote a $25,000 check after a tournament banquet 17 years ago; when he convinced a television network this year to broadcast the series’ championship game; when players from two teams took a break from practices to play baseball with disabled children, the 20-year-old men whooping it up as they scooped up their little teammates and ran to first base.
The field is thick with memories.
They are moments the players are unlikely to forget, too. They have come from Georgia and Texas and New Mexico and Iowa and all parts in between.
Some saw their first bighorn sheep or their first snowflakes on the ride through the Rocky Mountains.
The Chipola College team played a movie during its bus ride from Denver International Airport last week after arriving from Florida.
“Our faces were glued to the windows,” 20-year-old infielder Paul Gatchell said. “I’ve never been on a drive that beautiful.”
And it only got better.
A few days later, before throwing a warm-up pitch in the last inning of an eventual 11-5 win, Chipola reliever Kevin McCoy stood behind the mound and took a deep breath.
Back home, the stands had 50 people in them – at most. Out here, 5,000 people were staring back at him.
“I had to calm down a bit,” the 22-year-old said. “I didn’t want to throw the ball to the backstop.”
He didn’t. He struck out the last batter he faced.
“I’m going to be an old man one of these days, and I’m going to tell my kids and grandkids about my week in Grand Junction,” McCoy said. “There’s no way I could forget this.”
Staff researcher Barbara Hudson contributed to this report.
Staff writer Robert Sanchez can be reached at 303-954-1282 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
JUCO WORLD SERIES
Grand times in Grand Junction
Staff writer Robert Sanchez provides facts and figures about the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction. This year’s tournament began May 26 and wraps up with the championship game Saturday. Complete tournament results on Page 9D.
Teams playing this year: Chipola College (Fla.), Cowley County (Kan.) Community College, Delgado Community College (La.), Iowa Western Community College, New Mexico Junior College, San Jacinto College-North (Texas), Shelton State Community College (Ala.), Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College, Western Nevada Community College, Young Harris (Ga.) College.
Notable Junior College World Series alumni:
Travis Hafner, Cowley County (Kan.) Community College: One of the young bashers in major-league baseball, the Cleveland Indians’ star designated hitter was the MVP of the Juco series in 1997.
Adam LaRoche, Seminole (Okla.) Junior College: The Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman hit 32 home runs for Atlanta last season and once starred for his Juco team as a pitcher and infielder. In 2000, LaRoche won the tournament MVP award.
Donnie Moore, Ranger (Texas) College: A former California Angels pitcher better known for giving up a game-tying home run in the 1986 American League Championship Series. Moore had one of the most memorable Juco tournaments in the event’s 50-year history. In 1973, Moore won four games, a record that still stands.
Kirby Puckett, Triton College (Ill.): Before he was mashing balls in the major-league World Series for the Minnesota Twins, this Hall of Fame outfielder was leading his Triton team in Grand Junction. His .688 batting average (minimum 15 at-bats) in 1982 is tied for the Juco World Series record.
Curt Schilling, Yavapai College (Ariz.): The Boston Red Sox’s flamethrowing ace has two major-league World Series rings and a third-place finish in Grand Junction. During the series in 1986, the future pitching star recorded one save.
Juco officials this week will announce a 10-year extension to play the World Series in Grand Junction.
As part of a three-year agreement, the series championship game(s) will be shown on tape-delay on CSTV. The game will be broadcast within 72 hours of the last pitch Saturday and will be shown three or four times in June.
The first Juco World Series was played in Miami, Okla., in 1958 and was won by Cameron College (Okla.). Paris (Texas) Junior College won the 1959 series, the first in Grand Junction.
San Jacinto College-North (Texas) has played in 16 world series tournaments since 1984 (including this year), winning five championships.
Past five winners:
2006 – Walters State Community College (Tenn.)
2005 – New Mexico Junior College
2004 – Dixie State College (Utah)
2003 – Community College of Southern Nevada
2002 – Central Arizona College
source: The Denver Post
Update* We had a reader ask for a link to the results from this years Junior College World Series. Here you go jucogj.org
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