Across our great nation Memorial Day weekend is celebrated with various traditions. In Grand Junction, Colorado this time of year means just one thing: JUCO.
For the last 52 years the Junior College World Series of baseball has been played at Suplizio Field in the largest city between Denver and Salt Lake City. It is not just a sporting event, but a social occasion rivaling Mardi Gras.
Each year, ten junior college baseball regional winners flood into Junction with their entourages, hoping to win enough games to stay the entire week and play in the Championship Game.
The experience forges a special bond between visiting players and the entire community. Local service clubs host the teams and give them a taste of hospitality, Colorado style. Players generally range from 17 to 25 years of age. It is not unusual for players from southern teams to see snow for the first time up on the Grand Mesa.
The valley embraces the visitors who pump an estimated $500K to $1 million into the local economy. Youngsters attend a youth clinic featuring instructors from JUCO teams. A chosen few kids win the honor of preparing the 25 dozen baseballs used in the tournament with rubbing mud and shagging balls.
On Memorial Day Monday a spectacular fireworks display crowns the evening and honors Veterans after the last game of the day. The stadium holds 11,000 people and is bursting at the seams during the fireworks and championship games. Fans arrive hours before these games to tape blankets onto the benches and reserve places for an entire clan.
Under the bleachers kids and teens conduct the real business of the event, congregating with friends. When my girls were still at home, I used to wonder why we bought tickets for them since they never used their seats.
Spectators have to be prepared for all types of Western Colorado seasonal weather. One day you might need rain gear or even a blanket to stay warm. The next may call for a good hat, lots of sunscreen and a spray bottle to cool off. Personal fans are a big seller on those blistering desert days.
The Alpine Bank Junior College World Series abounds with traditions of its own. All of us locals have preferred places to sit, similar to regular church members, and you will find us there year in and year out. I prefer seats with a back, high above third base. These seats are in the sun, so daytime games can be challenging.
Then there are traditional foods like Frito Pie made from Fritos drowned in chili sprinkled with grated cheddar cheese. No toxic nacho cheese allowed on an authentic Frito Pie. Brats, hamburgers, funnel cakes and other fried treats can also stuff an empty belly.
I have decided the person who came up with the idea of a tournament bracket was a genius. During JUCO week, teams live and die by the bracket in this double elimination tournament. For non-sport types that means a team is out of the competition after two losses. As teams are eliminated the players give away souvenirs to clambering kids. The rugrats walk away with bats, balls, jerseys, gloves, cleats and hats from departing teams.
For those of us who live here, picking a team to follow for JUCO each year can be a lot like choosing a race horse at the track. Some teams are here again and again, becoming crowd favorites. San Jacinto College-North, affectionately known as San Jac, has been to JUCO 21 times, made it to the title game 11 times and won the crown five times. Twenty years have elapsed, however, since San Jac won the coveted title. I root for the Gators from the Houston area whenever they come to town.
The tournament stretches from Saturday before Memorial Day to Friday or Saturday after the holiday, depending on how the winnowing process shakes out. Each year I buy a tournament pass for the astoundingly low price of $25 and try to go to at least one game a day. On really hot days, I'll only go to early morning or evening contests. Afternoon games can be brutally hot and are only for diehard fans.
For the first time you can follow every JUCO game on your computer, no matter where you live. Panhandle Sports Broadcasting is offering free live streaming video of all of the games. So grab something suicidal to eat and join in the annual spectacle that is JUCO. Play ball!