The back fields: where dreams are reality

March 6, 2009 | 6:47 pm | 5  

They are collectively known as the back fields, a reference with entirely appropriate farming overtones.

Behind Hi Corbett Field, where the Rockies play and practice, are five full diamonds where the minor leaguers work out and play their exhibition games. There is also a half field used mostly for catchers drills. Small sets of bleachers can be found at the full fields, four of which fan out from a central point like spokes on a wheel. There’s a wide-open-spaces feel like a city park, totally different from Hi Corbett.

The back fields have chainlink fences in the outfield rather than walls plastered with advertising and are a refuge from anything commercial. I remember walking out there one year very late in spring training. It was a long time ago, no later than 1996 and maybe a year or two earlier. That much I’m sure of because center fielder Terry Jones was then the fastest player in the minor league system and Clint Hurdle was the roving hitting instructor.

Encountering Hurdle on my stroll to the back fields, I told him it was always refreshing to saunter out there. I assured him — and he already knew this — I enjoyed covering the major leaguers and spending most of my time in their camp. But I said a visit to the back fields was welcome, different and even invigorating.
Hurdle listened to me feel around the edges, smiled and in his typical cut-to-the-chase fashion said, “There’s dreams here.”

The ultimate dream, of course, is about getting to the big leagues. It will go unrealized for the vast majority of players putting in hours on the back fields. For someone like veteran infielder Mark Bellhorn, 34, who recently signed a minor league contract with the Rockies and last year played at the Double-A level in the Dodgers’ organization, the dream is a sweet reality. Not only has Bellhorn played in 731 games in the majors over 10 seasons; he was a contributor on the 2004 Red Sox, who ended the championship drought for that franchise that lasted 86 years and won a World Series.

But that’s an eon ago on the baseball calendar. Bellhorn hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2007 and hasn’t put in much time there since 2006. The opportunity players on the back fields anxiously await is one that is fading for a player like Bellhorn. It won’t be shocking if he fails to break camp with Triple-A Colorado Springs.

That end-is-near sense will be experienced in coming weeks by players on the back fields who never approached Bellhorn’s heights. Careers can and do fizzle out at all levels, not that any minor leaguer is anticipating that at the start of spring training.

Minor league pitchers and catchers hold their first workout Saturday. Position players report March 13, take physicals the following day and the first full-squad workout for minor leaguers will be March 15. There will be about 140 players on the back fields, with more coming as cuts are made in big league camp.

If the ultimate dream is to reach the big leagues, the various levels represent mileposts on that journey or obstacles in some instances. There are players drafted in 2005 who have yet to convincingly show that the tools that got them signed can translate into daily skills on the field that can contribute to a winning team. That will be the task, beginning this spring, for the likes of pitcher Chaz Roe and outfielder Daniel Carte, who both played at Double-A Tulsa last year, or outfielder Cole Garner, who was a high school teammate of Ian Stewart‘s and was drafted in 2003 like Stewart, but in part because of injuries, has yet to play at Double-A.

Players will trickle down to the back fields after savoring big league camp for the first time. Those heady few weeks will make their dreams about reaching their ultimate destination less abstract for infielders Eric Young Jr. and Chris Nelson and pitchers Shane Lindsay and Samuel Deduno as they get ready for the regular season on the back fields.

Some minor leaguers who spent 2008 with a short-season club will be trying to advance to a full-season team in upcoming weeks on the back fields, making that important step on one of the lower rungs of the ladder. And, as a happy by-product, escape the tedium of the extended spring training program in Tucson that runs through early June when the heat can be hellish. Dreams have to start somewhere.

Dozens and dozens of Rockies minor leaguers are about to embark on spring training. They’ll go through hitting, fielding and pitching drills and concentrate on the varied tasks the game demands that make it so layered, subtle and rich. Warm weather and blue skies will be backdrops for the days ahead on the back fields, along with many, many dreams.

5 Comments »

  • Austin Reed | March 6, 2009 | 7:59 pm

    These are fantastic feature pieces, and they serve to make me sad that the Rocky ever went under. People like you keep alive journalism as an art, not to say cover one of my favorite teams with grace and style. Keep it up!

  • Mark | March 6, 2009 | 10:15 pm

    Didn’t know what I’d do without you guys. So relieved you found a home! I’ve already saved the RSS feed and will be checking in daily. Thanks for all your continued efforts to keep us all posted on the Rockies. You’re the best!

  • Marc | March 6, 2009 | 10:38 pm

    Fantastic piece Jack
    Echo the other thoughts … we are thrilled to read you guys

  • Gerald Mitchell | March 7, 2009 | 4:05 am

    Great piece. Your vivid description helped me visualize the scene from 3000 miles away. Thanks much.

    With Corey Wimberly traded, who is actually the fastest player in the Rockies Organization now?

  • JACK BLOOMFIELD | March 7, 2009 | 9:31 am

    I WAS IN THE GAME FIFTY YEARS AND THEY DO NOT GET ANY BETTER THAN JACK AND TRACEY. JACKS ARTICLE ON THE BACK FIELDS AND DREAMS WERE VERY GOOD.
    I HAD EXPERIENCED THAT MY WHOLE CAREER AND KNEW THE FEELING.