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75th Anniversary Features





  A `GRAND' PLACE FOR NJCAA BASEBALL

March 14, 2013



by Michael Teague, NJCAA Asst. Media Relations Director

NOTE: As part of the ongoing celebration of its 75th Anniversary, the national headquarters of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) will release nine insightful articles during the 2012-13 academic year that will make up the NJCAA 75th Anniversary Feature Series. Below is the seventh in the series, which can also be found in the March issue of NJCAA Review.

Since 1959, the NJCAA Division I Baseball World Series has been synonymous with the community of Grand Junction, Colo. For over half a century, the most populated city on Colorado’s Western Slope has been a staple of the NJCAA and America’s marquee landmark for junior college baseball.

SMALL BALL

The idea for a national junior college baseball championship originated in 1949 when the NJCAA was beginning to find its legs again following World War II. Financial and location problems quickly  extinguished tentative plans for a tournament but it wasn’t long before the growing desire for a championship brought the issue back to the forefront.

By the spring of 1955, NJCAA President Reed K. Swenson determined that a study was needed to determine the interest and viability of a national baseball tournament. Swenson formed a special investigative committee and chose his brother-in-law, Jay Tolman from Mesa Junior College in Grand Junction, to chair the commission. Tolman’s son, Tex, recalls his childhood being surrounded by the preliminary talks of a junior college baseball championship.

“In 1955, I remember my father started talking about championship baseball,” Tex Tolman said. “(Swenson) and my father used to talk about it all the time on fishing trips.”

In 1957, Tolman presented the results of his study which clearly indicated that the NJCAA membership desired a championship for America’s pastime. Approximately one-half of the NJCAA’s 230 member institutions participated in intercollegiate baseball and a majority of those programs supported the idea of a championship tournament.

Despite the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the concept, the NJCAA was unable to identify a sponsor or host that could adequately finance and support such an event. At the NJCAA Annual Meeting in March of 1958, the organization’s membership awarded the 1958 tournament to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College on a one-year trial basis.

A lack of financial support quickly indicated that the tournament would not be able to provide the necessary funds to attract teams from all regions of the country. The first NJCAA baseball tournament in 1958 therefore was labeled as an invitational and featured eight junior colleges from Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Constant, heavy rains put a damper on the 1958 invitational and, in turn, attendance was low. Cameron State College (Okla.) won the two-day, single-elimination tournament and became the first baseball champions of the NJCAA.

THE LINEUP
Tolman was in attendance at the 1958 tournament. As a NJCAA regional director and a member of the baseball committee, Tolman saw the potential that the tournament had with the proper financial support and returned home with a vision. That vision soon came to reality in what the Grand Junction community fondly refers to as “JUCO”.

Before Tolman’s trip to Oklahoma, the city of Grand Junction had already showcased its passion for junior college baseball in the 1958 NJCAA West Region Championship. The tournament at Lincoln Park Stadium was touted as a huge success and brought in a $200 profit. Mesa head baseball coach Walter “Bus” Bergman saw the writing on the wall and predicted that the tournament’s success could have the NJCAA looking west for a future host.

“If we can show them Grand Junction will support a tournament of the regional caliber in a big way,” Bergman said in an interview with the Grand Junction Sentinel, “then we’ve got a good chance at getting the national (tournament) here in the future.”

With the foundation laid, Tolman returned from Oklahoma knowing that he had some allies to support his quest for a NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction. The first step in his journey was to garner the backing of the community.

Tolman brought together some of the most influential dignitaries and dedicated baseball-minds in the River City for an informal meeting at Mesa Drug Store on Main Street. Local leaders included businessman Don Sparn, Dr. Hurst Otto, Chamber of Commerce director Dale Hollingsworth and D.S. Dykstra, chairman of the chamber’s education and athletic committee. For their baseball expertise, Tolman called on Bergman and Sam Suplizio, a former outfielder in the New York Yankees farm system.

“They were wondering whether or not they could generate money,” Tex Tolman said. “This was a small town back then so they wanted to make sure that the town fathers would back it.”

THE FIRST PITCH

Once Tolman had earned the support of the Grand Junction leadership, a proposal was formulated to take to the NJCAA. Tolman estimated that they would need to raise $6,000 for the participating team’s travel, housing and meals. Grand Junction Sentinel publisher Preston Walker stepped up to the plate and agreed to have his Grand Junction Festival Company underwrite $3,000 for the tournament.

In addition to Walker’s contribution, the Coca-Cola Company agreed to annually provide funds to further offset the expenses of participating colleges. For the 1959 tournament, Coca-Cola committed $1,500 that helped solidify Grand Junction’s bid. In the fall of 1958, Tolman and Dykstra travelled to meet with NJCAA executives in Hutchinson, Kan., to submit their proposal. With finances secured and a detailed blueprint in place, the NJCAA officially accepted Grand Junction’s bid on October 28, 1958.

Tolman and Dykstra returned to Grand Junction with smiles of success. It wouldn’t take long for the news to spread and the community quickly began to overflow with excitement and anticipation for the upcoming spring.

OPENING DAY

The 1959 NJCAA Baseball World Series was the first junior college baseball tournament that truly embodied the term “national championship”. Eight teams from across the map participated in the four-day, double-elimination tournament. Paris Junior College (Texas) took the crown after defeating Northeastern Oklahoma A&M 14-4 in the championship game.

Despite cold weather and more rain, the tournament was praised as a huge success. The $3,622.17 in expenses were offset and a profit of $137.53 was secured through ticket sales, gate receipts and programs. The tournament even caught the attention of Major League Baseball as seven big league scouts were part of the 4,700 people in attendance.

“That junior college intercollegiate baseball competition on the national level is here to stay there is no question,” Jay Tolman said in May 1960, “and it also appears quite possible that Grand Junction, Colorado may become the site of the annual NJCAA baseball championship playoffs.”

Tolman’s projection rang true when the NJCAA’s regional directors unanimously agreed that the 1960 tournament return to Grand Junction. This announcement led to the addition of several new sponsors for the second annual NJCAA Baseball World Series. The MacGregor Company agreed to furnish baseballs for the tournament, while the Hanna Manufacturing Company of Athens, Ga., provided a trophy baseball bat to each member of the NJCAA Baseball All-America team and one to the national championship team.

Sizeable crowds again braved cold and rainy weather to see the 1960 tournament. Successful operations led to Dykstra accurately predicting the NJCAA’s five-year contract offer in June of 1961. With the  extension, the city of Grand Junction began to cement itself as the home of the NJCAA World Series.

STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE

Following the 1960 World Series, it became evident that more funds would be needed to sustain the tournament’s growth in years to come. Dykstra’s report to the NJCAA identified a lack of financial resources as an obstacle preventing Grand Junction from securing the nation’s best teams.

“This committee is concerned about the many schools who could not afford the trip even though they may have been the best team in their region” Dykstra said in the report. “It was finally agreed that the NJCAA would find other outlets to subsidize this travel expense.”

On June 23, 1960, Swenson sent a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Ford Frick requesting financial assistance to support the growth of baseball in the NJCAA. Frick’s response indicated that his office could not authorize such a contribution but that he would relay the request to the officials of the sixteen major league clubs.

Frick stayed true to his word and in January of 1962 it was reported that Major League Baseball would contribute $5,000 to defray transportation expenses for that year’s tournament.

“That was important because a lot of times there wasn’t enough money for all the teams to travel,” Tex Tolman said. “A lot of the junior colleges were from small towns so they needed to be reimbursed as much as possible.”

The donation became an annual one that exists to this day. Major League Baseball now contributes $40,000 each year towards travel expenses for teams participating in the NJCAA’s Division I, II and III baseball championships.

“The contribution by Major League Baseball goes a long way to assuring that our baseball championships feature the best teams from around the country,” said NJCAA executive director Mary Ellen Leicht. “It’s not a huge amount of money but it is important for the 28 teams participating in the various World Series events.”

SWINGING FOR THE FENCES

For the next five decades, the NJCAA World Series experienced tremendous growth. Having reached an attendance of 8,000 in the 1960s, the 70s saw that number quickly propel to over 40,000 fans. Attendance surpassed 80,000 in the 80s and eventually reached the 100,000-mark in the 90s.

The formation of the Grand Junction Park Improvement Advisory Board in 1960 marked the city’s dedication to providing the NJCAA with some of the best facilities available. In that decade, the aging bleachers behind home plate were replaced and the trees in foul territory down the first base line were removed. New ticket offices, lights and press boxes were added in the 70s along with metal bleachers down the third base line.

In 1989, a 7-foot bronze statue of “Casey at the Bat” was installed in honor of the legendary poem that embodied America’s pastime. A year later, the stadium was named Sam Suplizio Field in honor of the tournament’s first director and the proclaimed “Mr. Baseball” of Grand Junction.

“What Sam did for us is get us more on the national level,” said current tournament director Jamie Hamilton. “He was visionary enough to bring in good, young leadership to make sure this tournament went to the next level which we think it has.”

New backstops and dugouts were installed in the 1990s, followed by the addition of new electronic  scoreboards, outfield bleachers, press boxes, a new sound system and improved bathrooms. After nearly $2 million in renovations, the once tattered field that former NJCAA Executive Director George Killian once described as a “cow pasture” became an extravagant park that was worthy of the city’s beloved event.

THE GRAND SLAM

Although drastic improvements were made between 1960 and 2010, an unprecedented 25-year contract from the NJCAA in 2010 stimulated investments to an entirely different level.

“Although it was a big decision, it was a relatively easy one for the NJCAA to make given our history with Grand Junction,” Leicht said. “There was no reason to believe that committing to a 25-year contract extension would prove anything but beneficial to NJCAA baseball and given the success of the 2012 championship in the newly renovated stadium, we were proven correct. I think it’s important to remember that in addition to the NJCAA committing to Grand Junction, the city has shown their long range commitment to NJCAA baseball.”

FIELD OF DREAMS

With the event guaranteed to remain in Grand Junction until 2035, Lincoln Park began an $8.3 million renovation project in June 2011 that was funded by the city, Mesa County School District 51, the Grand Junction Baseball Committee and various grants.

New bleachers and the addition of a mezzanine level pushed the stadium’s capacity to over 12,000. A  stateof-the-art, two-story press box was also constructed to provide press members with an expansive view of Suplizio Field and adjacent Ralph Stocker Stadium which is the home of Colorado Mesa University football.

“It involved a great collaborative effort,” Hamilton said. “It’s unique in the fact that the facility handles football and baseball for four high schools, Colorado Mesa University, the JUCO tournament and now 38 games with the minor league affiliate Grand Junction Rockies. We knew we needed to have better amenities that would take us to the next level. We needed to have better facilities, lighting and signage.”

Suplizio Field has started accumulating accolades due to its 21st-century renovations. The park was named 2009 “Field of the Year” by the Colorado Sports Turf Managers Association. The 2012 NJCAA Division I Baseball World Series even received a nomination for Best Collegiate Sports Event Series by SportsTravel magazine.

EXTRA INNINGS

Taking a look at today’s NJCAA Division I Baseball World Series, it’s hard to comprehend how much the tournament has grown since 1959. In 1985, Hamilton – a former baseball player at Colorado Mesa – began working fulltime for Suplizio at Home Loan & Investment Co. and joined Bergman as the tournament’s co-director. Ever since, Hamilton’s tireless efforts have amplified the scale and publicity of the World Series.

“I don’t think the renovated part of the stadium would be there without Jamie,” Tex Tolman said. “He’s an unusual person in the fact that he combines his love of baseball with being a good businessman. One of the best things he has been able to do is find new ways to bring in money while maintaining the community aspect of the tournament.”

Despite all of the improvements and renovations of the last 54 years, Hamilton and other organizers are still exploring new ways to elevate the event to an even higher standard.

“The next thing that we really have to look at is improving the playing facilities,” Hamilton said. “If that involves adding field turf or synthetic turf, then that’s something we want to take a look at. Knowing that we have that 25-year commitment, we can go out and raise more capital to get it done.”


FOR LOVE OF THE GAME

No matter what changes the World Series undergoes, it will still be the classic event that the people of Grand Junction hold dear to their hearts. The tournament truly has woven itself into the fabric of both the city and the NJCAA.

“A number of our fans told us that they never want to lose the integrity of what this tournament means to the city,” Hamilton said. “Every one of the people that have gone to this tournament feels like they own a piece of it.”

“The relationship between the NJCAA and Grand Junction has always been one of mutual respect,” said Leicht. “I think both parties understand and embrace the benefits provided by the World Series. NJCAA student-athletes and fans are treated to a once in a lifetime experience. In return, Grand Junction is treated to a week of fantastic baseball not to mention the economic impact the tournament has on the city’s businesses.”

A PERFECT GAME

When it comes down to it, Grand Junction’s World Series is about more than the NJCAA baseball national championship. This treasured tradition is defined by community, family and the lasting memories of the thousands of people who have sat in the bleachers of Suplizio Field to see players and teams from all corners of the map.

“I have so many good friends that I either met as coaches or players throughout the nation,” Tex Tolman said. “I can’t go anywhere in the country that I don’t want to meet up with somebody. Kids grew up watching the tournament here and now attend as adults. My daughter met her husband at JUCO. It became a community thing that everyone got involved with and it is special for us. It’s the one thing that everyone looks forward to every year.”

Ten more teams will descend upon Grand Junction this May to play in the 56th NJCAA Division I Baseball World Series. Thousands of fans will once again fill the storied stands to enjoy the game they love and add to the cherished memories that make the tournament so special.

NOTABLE MLB PLAYERS THAT PLAYED IN GRAND JUNCTION SINCE 1982
YEAR PLAYER COLLEGE
2010 Bryce Harper College of Southern Nevada
2006 Derek Holland Wallace State-Hanceville, Ala.
2005 Andy Dirks Hutchinson CC, Kan.
2003 Andy LaRoche Grayson College, Texas
2002 Brandon McCarthy Lamar CC, Colo.
2002 Matt Pagnozzi Central Arizona College
2000 Brandon Lyon Dixie State College of Utah
2000 Adam LaRoche Seminole State College, Okla.
1999 John Lackey Grayson College, Texas
1998 Cliff Lee Meridian CC, Miss.
1997 Travis Hafner Cowley County CC, Kan.
1997 Mike Gonzalez San Jacinto-North, Texas
1995 Eric Gagne Seminole State College, Okla.
1994 Jose Rosado Galveston College, Texas
1994 Lance Carter State College of Florida
1993 Keith Foulke Galveston College, Texas
1992 Ryan Franklin Seminole State College, Okla.
1991 Mark Grudzielanek Trinidad State JC, Colo.
1991 Matt Lawton Mississippi Gulf Coast CC
1991 Jason Dickson Northeastern Oklahoma A&M
1991 Steve Kline Allegany College of Maryland
1991 Paul Lo Duca Glendale CC, Ariz.
1991 Ron Mahay South Suburban College, Ill.
1988 Rheal Cormier CC of Rhode Island
1988 Chad Curtis Cochise College, Ariz.
1986 Curt Schilling Yavapai College, Ariz.
1982 Kirby Puckett Triton College, Ill. 







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