Data from the US Census Bureau shows Colorado was the second-fastest growing state in terms of population in the past couple of years; abundant sunshine and a dynamic economy tend to be appealing qualities.
When it comes to the population of baseball players, however, it can be a little complicated in the Rockies. If you add the weeks of winter conditions and the typically inconsistent springtime weather, the season sometimes feels rushed, and that will directly affect player development.
But several state baseball organizations, such as the Slammers, are proving that you can still nurture talent and build a roster of college-ready players even when it feels like Mother Nature is in a terminally surly mood.
With roots reaching back into the 1990s, Slammers Baseball operates in two facilities on either end of the metro Denver area. Current ownership rests in the hands of Mark Holzemer, Billy Martin and Clint Zavaras, who bring a varied mix of professional experience to the task and have begun to drive more and more Colorado natives onto college rosters.
When it comes to making baseball work on challenging terrain, Holzemer is a natural. The Denver native played parts of six years in the Major Leagues and earned his international stripes by pitching in Venezuela, Mexico and Japan. There came a time when building the Slammers name sounded a lot more pleasurable than traveling eight time zones away to draw a paycheck, and Holzemer eagerly put all he’d learned into the venture.
“From a baseball standpoint, it’s the same in Mexico and Venezuela. They are really passionate about baseball,” Holzemer said. “Playing winter ball was an eye-opening experience, and it was great. As far as the conditions outside, it’s different. Those are impoverished countries, but it was an amazing experience.
“Everything in Japan as far as outside of baseball was first class, where they put us up and everything we did. The baseball is a little different; it almost feels like practice is more important than the games. They work hard over there. I’ve taken the different experiences, bits and pieces of them, and I’ve taken all of them and used them for what we do here and what we teach them here at Slammers.”
The organization has nearly 45 teams between the two facilities and had 35 players sign college baseball scholarships last year. With 15 going to high-end D-I programs, the pathway exists for Colorado players to march on and join a cast of past (Richard “Goose” Gossage, Roy Halladay, Tippy Martinez) and current MLB talents (Greg Bird, Mark Melancon, Marco Gonzales, Luke Hochevar, Chase Headley).
The Slammers like to shoot high, but they are very dedicated to making sure athletes have the grades and fundamental skills to make those goals even a possibility.
“Once we started doing more high school stuff, you start realizing people are putting all the emphasis on the baseball and … the percentages of making it (in baseball) past high school aren’t very good,” Holzemer said. “We’ve talked with and dealt with enough college coaches to understand that getting to a school and getting a scholarship have so much to do with your grades and what kind of student you are. We started stressing that to the kids inside our program, and I think it’s paid off. We’ve had some really good teams, and some really high GPA teams as well. Kids have worked hard on academics, and that’s helped them and their families out, for sure.
“We stress the same thing with those (younger) kids. We tell them, it won’t be long until you’re in high school, and it’s a huge commitment. If you don’t focus on it right away – it’s like your batting average. You start off and say, halfway you’re not hitting very good, and then you decide to start working … you may hit better, but you batting average doesn’t move right away. It’s the same with your GPA. If you don’t realize how important grades are until your junior year, it’s really hard to make up for some mistakes or that lack of focus.”
The roadmap worked perfectly for Maverick Handley, a graduate of Mullen High School and two-time all-Colorado first-team honoree who is a freshman catcher at Stanford. Keeping a close eye on his schoolwork while he put in the hours of field work – it’s an approach that demanded a lot and rewarded just as much.
“Before you even start high school with the Slammers, you get this reiteration especially from the guys in the older-age program, who are signed to play in college or will be, that if you really see college as a goal, you have to start right then and there with grades,” Handley said. “You can’t take any years off, and if you start off on the wrong foot, it’s hard to improve the GPA.
“If you look at a guy at the same level of talent, and one is from Colorado and one is from a warm-weather state, the guy from Colorado is a bigger risk. You’re not quite sure what you have, since he doesn’t play as many games. The kid from California, you know more what you’re going to get because of the experience they have. So a big factor at that point would be grades – if you have a 3.5, 3.7, 4.0 and you compare that to a kid who is struggling, teams know who is hard-working and knows about being on time and scheduling. It’s one of the most important factors, and it’s one reason I’m at Stanford.”
Another reason is, Handley and his coaches were able to work through the inevitable hurdles of the Colorado weather. The culture of sports is a vibrant one in the state, where communities that can be resistant to tax increases will come around and agree to build terrific facilities: Aurora Sports Park (Aurora); Sky View Sports Complex (Colorado Springs); Gerald Stazio Fields (Boulder); Diamond Valley Sports Complex (Windsor); and Pioneer Park (Commerce City) are just a few examples.
Colorado baseball programs take on some challenges with weather, but just simply write off the bad days and sign up for the next window of opportunity.
“Patience is key and critical simply because the players are young and all develop at different times and ages. We understand that the weather gets in our way at times in comparison to other states like Arizona, Texas, and California,” said Slammers general manager Jeff Jenkins. “However, I at times think this is a good thing, especially for our pitchers. They over time do not throw as much prior to college and often have a higher ceiling at the next level and ‘more bullets left in the chamber.’
“Where our hitters are at a disadvantage is with regards to seeing live pitching from more games, and fielding outside. Weather does get us there, and it takes our players longer to reveal their talents to hit and field.”
“Warm-weather states, the kids play year-round. You run the risk of getting burned out, but if you like baseball, you’ll take more ground balls and play more games,” Holzemer added. “You get better by playing. Some of those kids are ahead of us from a fielding standpoint, possibly, and have seen more pitches and might have more refined swings. Mechanically, hitting and pitching-wise, we can compete with anybody. That’s been proven by our success and the success of others here at big tournaments across the country.”
And rather than regret what he didn’t get to show as a developing player, Handley is just more intrigued by finding out what else he can do.
“Being from Colorado is a blessing. You can play other sports, and that’s a huge aspect. You can specialize, but you can lose the passion for the game,” he said. “I played other sports, but I knew baseball was what I wanted to do. I also know I’m not at my full potential, and there’s a little mystery about what I still have in the tank. It’s going to be exciting to see what I can become with (Stanford’s) resources. If you make it, you have a high ceiling.”
The Slammers are perfectly fine with hitting the road to get more pitches, swings and touches on the ball. They brought multiple teams to Atlanta for Triple Crown Sports’ U.S. Club Nationals, and Holzemer’s team won four games at the 2016 WWBA Underclass World Championships in Fort Myers. Fla. The coaches and players are fine with whatever it takes to learn, and to grow the game within themselves and within the state.
“We’ve been fortunate. My first job, I played 15 years and wouldn’t trade it for anything. You couldn’t duplicate it,” Holzemer said. “And now, I get to work with kids. I enjoy coaching and teaching. You hear all the stuff about parents, but it’s the 90-10 rule for me. Ninety percent are great, they support their kids. We’re lucky we get to do what we do. It’s the best game in the world, with all the little complexities you get to teach, and as they get older, they appreciate the nuances. That keeps us going; working with new kids and teaching the game.”