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State pride runs deep in Rockies Rookie-ball team

Rich Allen Avatar
September 10, 2018

GRAND JUNCTION – The state of Colorado doesn’t have the deepest roots in baseball lore. While New York and California have churned out talent for decades, the Centennial State is still much more prominently known for its 300 days of sunshine and affinity for football, the outdoors, and craft beer.

But there have been some standouts from the union’s 38th addition, with minor league franchises dotting its history, to MLB talents like Hall of Famer Goose Gossage and soon-to-be Roy Halladay. Yet, Chase Headley’s 130 home runs is the most for a Colorado-born big leaguer, a decidedly mediocre mark for a place whose altitude makes it synonymous with the longball.

That tide is turning, though, and has been ever since the Rockies gave Colorado an MLB identity. Of the state’s 93 natives to play in the league, 23 debuted after 2000. Today, ace-apparent homegrown talent Kyle Freeland is leading the charge of bringing Coloradans to the forefront of the big-league stage, and David Bote’s overnight sensationalism gives locals a nice anecdote to be proud of.

But an institution needs a strong foundation. Very few Colorado natives reach professional baseball, fewer still MLB. It starts from the ground up: not with the Rockies based in Denver, but the ones up I-70 in Grand Junction, a community that loves their baseball perhaps more than any other in the state.

This year, the Rookie-ball Rockies are manifesting the growth of the sport in Colorado, starting at the top with first-year manager Jake Opitz, a native of Englewood and graduate of Heritage High School in Littleton. Opitz told the GJ Sentinel I that his new position is a “dream job.” But beyond him, four players had ties to Colorado before turning professional, presumably the most the level has had since the team’s inception in 2012.

Among them is Reagan Todd, a standout at Grand Junction’s Colorado Mesa University this past season before being selected in the 32nd round of the First-Year Player Draft on June 6. After growing up in Centennial, Todd spent his first two collegiate seasons at Arizona State University before returning to Colorado to anchor the rotation of the most prolific program in the state.

When he made his pro debut on June 19, it was on the same mound he helped the hometown Mavericks clinch the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Tournament title and a trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs.

“When you grow up in Colorado, you want to be a Rockie,” Opitz said of Todd. “So, he said for him, it’s basically a dream job also. To be a Rockie, and to get him here to pitch in his home stadium, basically, it was a pretty special night for him. I think he was a little nervous, but he showed some good things and some stuff to work on also.”

Todd pitched in 12 games in Junction before earning a promotion to Low-A Boise on Aug. 16. In Rookie, he posted a high ERA of 7.20, but the local would be the first to tell you it isn’t because of the altitude.

For regular BSN Denver readers, his quotes about pitching in his home state should sound familiar.

“Yeah, there is a little difference pitching in Colorado, your numbers might be a little inflated,” Todd said. “But at the same time, you’re pitching against the same opponents in the exact same conditions. The only thing is we’re actually used to it more than our opponents, so when people use that excuse I just kind of tell them to suck it up, because you’re opponent is doing the exact same thing you are.”

Todd was joined by another Reagan in the Rockies rotation, second-year Rookie-baller Reagan Biechler, who was born in Colorado Springs and lived there through high school. He pitched four years at Division I Wichita State and was selected by the Rockies in the 31st round of the 2017 draft. Biechler, pitching to a 2.55 ERA, earned a promotion to Boise on the same day as Todd.

But Todd has a much more direct connection to another new teammate: Zach Hall.

“I’m pretty sure he hit a home run off me,” Todd said.

Hall isn’t a Colorado native, but he is quickly becoming the pride of Colorado Springs baseball, being the first player drafted out of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, which established its baseball program before the 2017 season.

Coming to UCCS from a community college in California, he credits his development into a professional-caliber player to the staff of head coach Dave Hajek, who coached in the Rockies organization for more than a decade and played for then-Rockies affiliate Colorado Springs Sky Sox in 1999.

Hajek turned Hall into a conference first-teamer and a powerful, left-handed bat in the outfield that produced 20 home runs in his final collegiate season. On March 10, one of those blasts came off Todd in the duo’s future home park, Suplizio Field. Hall also tagged Todd for a double in that game, which would chase him from the contest after the next hitter. But Hall remembers the dinger more clearly.

“It was a fastball just out over the plate,” Hall recalled through chuckles. “Reagan’s a cool guy. He’s a good guy and a good teammate. We joke around, but we’re all in the same place now.”

The power that introduced Hall to Todd in college has translated in pro ball, even if the rest of his game that made him an All-American hasn’t followed yet. Hall clipped .321/.412/.679 through his first nine pro games, but has fallen to .201/.266/.468 since. His eight home runs and natural power have made him a passable player, even if he’s hovering near the Mendoza line.

But it’s the fourth Coloradan that has shined the brightest so far. Niko Decolati only lived in Boulder for the first six months of his life, but the sixth-round pick is still endeared to the state.

“There’s a lot of sentimental value,” Decolati said. “My mom’s side of the family lives in Boulder and my dad’s side lives in Denver, so we pretty much made annual trips out here. I went to my first Rockies game when I was like five years old, and that was an awesome experience.”

Decolati recounted that first game to Anne Rogers for MLB.com, which is definitely worth the read. That was one of the first steps in molding him into a professional baseball player, the next of which included chasing Bryce Harper foul balls at College of Southern Nevada and playing on a travel ball team coached by Kris Bryant’s father. Now, he’s just a highway from the place where it started. And he’s contributing well.

Earning Pioneer League All-Star honors, Decolati is forcing his way onto the radar of many. Slugging over .500 and swiping 15 stolen bases so far, he’s putting tools on display that should impress. The recently-turned-21-year-old also has the versatility that the Rockies franchise has begun to preach, slotting in at all three outfield positions after playing primarily third base and shortstop in his college career.

While Decolati might be the most promising of the group in terms of prospective future, just the fact that there’s a group at all is significant. Look at the four: Decolati, the native who came back, Biechler and Todd, the arms that found success at altitude and made careers out of it, and Hall, the inherited son who left California to get his baseball break. An institution is healthy when it produces in such variety whether it be at the collegiate or high school level, or even drums up interest in youth.

“Baseball’s the same game I’ve played since I was five years old. But, it’s just kind of a different environment in professional ball, especially playing for the Rockies, because I’ve been a fan my entire life,” Todd said.

As ingrained as the Denver Broncos are in Colorado culture, they’ve had so much longer to grab a foothold. Now, after 25 years of admittedly lackluster results, baseball has struggled to catch up. But, as the kids of the 2007 World Series berth come of age and start to find their way into professional baseball, maybe the sport has a place in Colorado after all. Todd was among a record-high four players drafted out of Mesa this year, a huge step for the premier program in the state.

As the Rockies continue to find ways to compete and the game grows overall in the region, like UCCS’s shiny-new program, maybe the sport can start to make a dent.

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