VANDERBEEK: Colorado organization puts big emphasis on players' moral quality

bvanderbeek@modbee.comSeptember 2, 2013 

Modesto Nuts second baseman Taylor Featherston throws the ball during a play at the Nuts game against the Inland Empire 66ers Thursday evening (08-29-13) at John Thurman Field.

ELIAS FUNEZ — The Modesto Bee Buy Photo

— The first time I heard about how the Colorado Rockies draft baseball players by weighing character and ability in equal parts, I laughed. Flat-out didn't believe it.

Here, nine seasons later, I know it to be gospel and can say without hesitation that it's true.

There are several layers of weeding the Rockies perform before players reach the High-A level, but the players Colorado have sent to Modesto have almost without exception been of outstanding moral character.

That hasn't always been a complete positive. While reducing the chances the manager will get a 4 a.m. call from the county jail it doesn't necessarily translate into wins or even player development.

There have been rosters Colorado has sent to Modesto filled with talented players who were choirboys — afraid to do anything but tread lightly in the clubhouse for fear of upsetting a teammate.

None of these teams did well, especially in pressure situations, because being afraid to lead is the first cousin of being afraid to fail.

What those teams lacked was a core of at least three players with the confidence to occasionally get in the face of a teammate, just to make sure that everyone is riding the same train for the 140-game marathon.

You know those three indispensable fearless players I mentioned? This year's Nuts team might have 10 of them — pitchers and hitters alike — which is the reason they bounced back from a poor start to win the second half, carrying momentum into the California League playoffs that open Wednesday night in Visalia.

"The players on this team hold each other very accountable," said second baseman Taylor Featherston. "We'll all say to each other 'Hey, you can't be doing that,' or seeing something in each other's swings, and that's what makes great teams.

"If you have full confidence in your own ability and trust in the team concept, then when a teammate comes to me with something they think is wrong in what I'm doing, well, that's when a team grows."

In his 27 years in the Houston organization, Nuts manager Fred Nelson heard about the Rockies' reputation of drafting for character. This year, he's seen it.

"Even as an outsider you could see the tremendous quality of kids they drafted from a personal standpoint," Nelson said. "It's a priority with them, yet they still get the guys who are still competitive.

"They're not soft. They're not too nice. And these guys have done everything I've asked and they're great with the fans, yet when they get on the field their focus narrows to the task at hand."

And that task itself is single-minded. Just win.

Only one regular player (Brian Humphries) sniffed .300 this season. The team set a league record for striking out while ranking ninth in batting average and in runs scored. But those are important details only if they kept the team from winning, which might have been the case in the first half.

"They hold each other accountable instead of being split in their focus, and I'm not sure about how much they did that early on this season," Nelson said. "There's certainly more of that now than when I first took over."

If you're looking for a turning point in the 2013 season, well, it came late. On Aug. 11, Featherston was put in the leadoff spot in the order. The team was 23-23 in the second half and on the outside of the playoff picture.

Over the next 19 games, a streak that took the team through Saturday's division-clinching victory, the Nuts went 16-3. Featherston hit .417 in those 19 games, scoring 22 runs and driving-in 14. One of the three losses came when Featherston got his lone day off during the run.

"I think it just worked out that I started seeing the ball well at the same time the move was made," Featherston said. "We kind of ran with it.

"I'm not the reason why we've won during this time because there are a lot more elements at play. It's one of those things where you don't ask about it, you just roll with it, and baseball is weird like that."

But what's not weird about baseball is how it mirrors how you also win in life. Initial success breeds confidence, which fuels greater success, out of which leaders emerge.

If those leaders have enough character not to let winning go to their heads, the rest of the team is more willing to come along for the ride.

"In the minor leagues you hear about selfish players who think at the end of the day it's all about them," Featherston said. "But I'm a firm believer that when you win it means you're doing more things right and that in turn gives everybody the opportunity to drive runners in, to hit the sac fly, to score more runs.

"When you win, it means the pitchers are pitching better and the defense is better and it's a full circle that always comes back around."

Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek


GAME 1: Nuts at Visalia, Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.

GAME 2: Visalia at Nuts, Thursday, 7:05 p.m.

GAME 3: Visalia at Nuts, Friday, 7:05 p.m., if necessary

TICKETS: Reserved-seat tickets available at the Nuts' ticket office or by calling (209) 572-4487. Vouchers redeemable for free general admission available at Boyett Cruisers locations in Modesto, Salida and Riverbank.

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