Batter Up in River City
Ten teams arrive in Grand Junction the weekend before Memorial Day but only one can celebrate, like when Yavapai (Arizona) College claimed its fourth national championship in 2016.
What do Kirby Puckett, Curt Schilling, and Bryce Harper all have in common?
Long before the first two carved out legendary careers in Major League Baseball—and the 26-year-old Harper is perhaps just now entering his prime after signing a long-term deal with the Philadelphia Phillies this off-season—the trio first found themselves under the lights at Sam Suplizio Field in Grand Junction, which has been home to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I World Series since 1959.
You can call it JUCO for short.
The JUCO World Series is a baseball lover’s paradise. After all, where can you catch as many as 19 games over an eight-day period for $76? It’s a veritable field of dreams, minus the corn and Shoeless Joe Jackson, with the top 10 teams in the junior college ranks slugging it out in a double-elimination format to see who carries off the trophy.
This year’s event runs May 25–June 1 and starts its seventh decade on the Western Slope after first earning a bid to host the tournament on a trial basis. In 1958, tournament organizers sought a new home after a rain-soaked first Series in Miami, OK, translated into nearly no spectators—or profit.
That’s not a problem in Grand Junction these days, but it didn’t come together by mere happenstance. Over the years, the community has supported scores of stadium improvements and upgrades. A decade ago, plans were put in place for an $8.3 million renovation plan of the complex, known as the “Tower Project,” and a large video board was installed prior to the 2017 event.
In 2010, the NJCAA awarded Grand Junction an unprecedented 25-year contract to continue as the event’s host city.
“It’s a community-owned event, and everyone is empowered to make sure they create the best memories for everyone who comes out here,” tournament director Jamie Hamilton says. “There’s such a rich tradition with this tournament. We have more than 80 volunteers, and they all do it for the right reasons.”
Back in the day, the tournament gave local junior college Mesa State (known today as Colorado Mesa University) an automatic bid to help spur local attendance. Now, it simply doesn’t matter who arrives in Grand Junction for the festival. The many fans—a one-day high mark of 33,181 was set in 2014—simply “adopt” a team for which to cheer. Plus, it’s been 17 years since a Colorado junior college (Lamar) made the JUCO World Series.
“We want to show, as a community, how welcoming we are and how much we love baseball and baseball players,” says Diane Schwenke, the CEO and president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. “If you’re a community college team from Alabama playing here, you’re going to have your own cheering section, and they’re going to make you feel at home.”
Although the end goal is a national championship, the week isn’t only about the action between the lines.
The event actually starts two days before the first pitch with a wildly popular youth clinic and annual challenger game for special-needs kids. The next night is highlighted by the annual banquet, at which the 10 teams are introduced, and big-time keynote speakers, ranging from former World Series–winning manager Tony LaRussa and Rockies legend Dante Bichette—a former junior college player himself—to the late George Steinbrenner of New York Yankees lore, just to name a few, offer their wisdom.
And don’t forget about the fireworks show following action on Memorial Day.
Despite turning 60 last year, many had little knowledge of the event and its rich heritage—something that has been recently remedied. As the event wrapped up in 2018, The New York Times ran a feature on the JUCO World Series on its front page titled “A Baseball Binge With Small-Town Charm.” And, yes, there’s a book (see sidebar, p. 49).
If you love baseball or love someone who does, perhaps this is the year to head west for Memorial Day weekend. You might not see the next Bryce Harper, but you may catch a glimpse of someone who will suit up for the Rocky Mountain Vibes, Colorado Springs’ new rookie-league franchise that starts play at Security Service Field on June 19.
Six Decades Wrapped into 152 Pages
Over lunch prior to the 2016 JUCO World Series—the 58th in Grand Junction—tournament director Jamie Hamilton had a question for Patti Arnold, a longtime sports writer at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel: “You want to write a book?”
That book was to be unveiled in time for the 60th anniversary celebration in 2018. And after 18 months of work in addition to her full-time job, Arnold—with lots of help from photographers, graphic artists, and volunteers and plenty of cooperation from the score of interviewees she spoke with—the book JUCO’s
Journey was created.
“The biggest part was trying to figure out what the book was going to be,” Arnold says. “We had a book outlining its history, so we wanted this to be about stories from fans, players, and coaches. It was JUCO’s journey and how we got here.”