By Richard Rosenblatt, The Associated Press
GRAND JUNCTION — The games are played at Sam Suplizio Field, a dandy of a baseball diamond with a magnificent view from behind home plate of the Grand Mesa — the country’s largest flattop mountain.
The NJCAA’s Division I Junior College Baseball World Series is on after being canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 10-team, double-elimination tournament opens May 29 and runs through June 4, or June 5 if necessary.
Opening day features a quadruple-header, beginning at 9 a.m. local time, with the final game set for 7:30 p.m.
For those not in the junior college loop, walking onto the field named for a 1950s New York Yankees’ top prospect is a dream realized for any player aspiring to compete for a championship no matter the level of competition.
It’s a bit of hike to get to Grand Junction. About four hours west of Denver and 4 ½ hours southeast of Salt Lake City, it’s a place where roads marked as 25 ½ and F ¾ make perfect sense. But it’s been the host of the JUCO World Series — the condensed version —- since 1959. Recently, the contract between the NJCAA and the city was extended through 2045.
“It was a difficult year for everyone because of COVID, and it will be a little different this year,” longtime JUCO World Series tournament chairman Jamie Hamilton said. “The bottom line is our family reunion is back.”
It will be different. The stadium seats about 7,000 but can hold close to 10,000. Following the COVID-19 guidelines set by the Grand Junction Health Department, masks are optional, social distancing is required and attendance is limited to 3,000.
Most of the field will be determined by the end of the weekend, and for the first time the NJCAA will seed teams rather than using a regional rotation system.
District playoffs were played in places such as Ozark, Alabama; Salina, Kansas; Wilburton, Oklahoma; and Florence, South Carolina. The district names range from the Appalachian to the Plains.
Through Friday, teams earning trips to Grand Junction include San Jacinto College (Texas), Florence-Darlington (S.C.), Miami-Dade (Florida), Shelton State (Alabama) and Walters State (Tennessee).
The rest of the field was filled Saturday, with Indian Hills CC (Iowa), Cowley College (Kansas), Crowder College (Missouri); McLennan CC (Texas); and 2019 defending champion Central Arizona winning district titles.
Some consider San Jac the Yankees of junior college. The school has been in the tournament so often it has its own cheering — and booing — sections. It also has also produced dozens of major leaguers, including Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The Gators (48-13, No. 4 in the NJCAA baseball poll) will be making their record-extending 24th appearance in the series, with five national championships but none since 1990. Coach Tom Arrington, in his 21st season, has a team in the tournament for the 11th time with no titles but six losses in the final game.
“There’s no doubt the buzz is back to get to Grand Junction and play for a championship,’’ said Arrington, who recently picked up career win No. 900 and is a member of the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. “It’s been such a difficult road with COVID and the issues going on with our country.
“But the Grand Junction community has created such a great atmosphere for our kids to play — and you don’t realize it until you get to such a special venue like this one.”
Christopher Parker, president and CEO of the National Junior College Athletic Association, is among those happy to have the tournament in motion again.
“This is all about us doing everything we can to keep everyone safe and still have a great atmosphere,” he said.
Most players are awed by the size of the field and the number of fans, many of them youngsters hoping for autographs. The dimensions are a major league-like 365 feet in left field, 400 in center and 330 in right.
“Many days at our home games, there’s more scouts than spectators,’’ Arrington said. “To see so many fans in a stadium, our players know it’s for real. It builds excitement. These kids worked hard to get here and want to play well.”
Oddly, the tournament is not televised. The only way to watch is through live streaming at the NJCAA website — for a fee. For now.
“We’ve had multiple conversations with national broadcast companies about getting the national championship game on TV,’’ Parker said. “I would simply say we’re having good conversations.”
Hamilton, who has guided this tournament for more than 35 years, was unsettled when the 2020 Memorial Day weekend began with no baseball.
“On the first morning, I usually wake up at 5 and I’m on the field by 6 but after eating breakfast and then reading I said, ’What am I supposed to do now?” he said. “It got to the point where my wife said, ‘Do you want to play golf or something?’”
The stage is set for the show to go on.
“The bells and whistles that we’ve had for years probably won’t be there,’’ Hamilton said, “but we’re going to show what western Colorado people do and give them a chance to play for the championship they couldn’t last year.”
JUCO Notes: There are about 180 junior colleges in Division I of the NJCAA, and dozens of top major league players got their careers rolling by playing in the JUCO World Series. Among them: Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (Triton College, River Grove, Illinois); Brandon Belt (San Jacinto); Bryce Harper (Southern Nevada); pitchers Eric Gagne (Seminole JC, Oklahoma); Cliff Lee (Meridian JC, Mississippi); and John Lackey (Grayson County College, Denison, Texas). … Sam Suplizio was a rising star in the Yankees organization in the late 1950s before fracturing his throwing arm while sliding into second in a 1956 minor league game. He eventually settled in Grand Junction and was instrumental in bringing an MLB team to Colorado in 1993. He served for decades as tournament chairman of the JUCO World Series. He died in 2006 at 74.