GRAND JUNCTION — There weren’t a whole lot of options to play baseball when Chris Hanks was growing up in Carbondale. Needless to say, he’s happy at least one more option came up for him at just the right time.
“Had it not been for that group of people, I wouldn’t have gotten to play high school baseball,” Hanks said.
The group Hanks referred to was the group that lobbied for a high school baseball team to start up at Roaring Fork High School. It did in time for the 1983 spring season, which turned out to be Hanks’ freshman year.
That turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Hanks and a lot of baseball players since then. That’s because the 46-year-old Hanks is in his 16th season as the baseball coach at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, where he is now the program’s winningest coach and, on Sunday, will lead the Mavericks to their second NCAA Division II World Series appearance in the past five years.
Getting to play baseball at Roaring Fork turned out the be the beginning of a lot of things for Hanks. It opened the door to him playing college baseball at the College of Southern Idaho, where he led the nation in home runs and was voted the Most Valuable Player of the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction. It paved the way for him to be scouted, and signed, by the same professional baseball scout who discovered players like Johnny Bench, Roger Clemens and Ellis Burks.
And in the long run, it paved the way to a coaching career at Mesa that, over the past decade, has been the most successful in school history.
“I was a coach, and I can really appreciate a great deal what he’s done,” said Bill Hanks, Chris’ father and a member of the group that brought baseball to RFHS. “He is so much better than I ever was, and the way that he’s able to teach and inspire players is quite remarkable.”
PLANTING THE SEEDS
Before Chris Hanks got a chance to play baseball, there were limited opportunities to play high school baseball in the area. Rifle High School, at the time, was the only school in the area with a prep baseball program, making it a long trek from Carbondale or Glenwood to play baseball.
That’s when a parental group, which included people like Bill Hanks, Paul Nieslanik, Mike Huck and Leroy Jones, lobbied to school district Superintendent Nick Massaro to form a high school baseball team at RFHS. Massaro went for it, and Ron Patch Field — the baseball field located just south of Roaring Fork High School’s football field — was built.
Hanks, who was a standout running back in football and catcher in baseball, starred in both sports. He was the starting running back for the Rams in 1985 — the year they won the Class 2A state championship — and was an all-state catcher during his junior and senior seasons for the baseball team.
“We were recruiting him more as an athlete than anything,” said Glenwood Springs High football coach Rocky Whitworth, who was a member of the coaching staff at Colorado State University who recruited Hanks heavily to attend CSU. “He had a number of qualities. Not only was he a good athlete, but a good citizen and a great student who was competitive with a strong work ethic.”
MOVING ON UP
Colorado State wasn’t the only entity looking at him, though. Hanks began playing American Legion baseball in the summer for Gene Taylor’s Legion A team in Grand Junction. Taylor gave a nudge to Danny Doyle, a scout with the Boston Red Sox who annually came to Grand Junction to scout players at JUCO.
Doyle saw Hanks play, and the Red Sox drafted him following his graduation from Roaring Fork in 1986. Hanks, however, opted to play at Southern Idaho, where he hit 26 home runs to lead the nation and, in 1988, was named the JUCO tournament MVP.
The Red Sox drafted him a third time in 1988 — they did a second time after his freshman year — and he got a $20,000 signing bonus for a minor-league deal with Boston after he’d strongly considered playing his junior and senior years at Oklahoma State for then-Cowboys coach Tom Holliday, the father of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday.
Hanks played for the Single-A Elmira Pioneers of the New York-Penn League, and he hit .286 in 61 games with the Carolina League-based Lynchburg Red Sox in 1990. During Spring Training in Winter Haven, Fla., he’d do soft-toss drills with Pro Baseball Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.
“I remember once, people were yelling over and saying, ‘Ted! Ted! How ’bout an autograph?’” Hanks said, smiling. “He’d get up and say, ‘Hold on a second, Chris,’ before he’d go and sign some autographs.
“And then, he wouldn’t come back!” Hanks said. “I’d be left standing there!”
CHRIS HANKS’ BAD BREAK
A bad labrum in Hanks’ right arm during his professional career limited his playing time in the field, forcing him to DH or play first base when he was in the lineup. To fix the problem, he went to Los Angeles to have surgery done on his arm by Frank Jobe, the doctor who invented Tommy John Surgery and who died on March 6. The surgery performed on Hanks was called a capsular shift, which was intended to tighten up the shoulder girdle and give baseball players like Hanks a chance to continue their careers.
It was later discovered, however, that post-surgery effects included a restrictive range of throwing motion that couldn’t be recovered. That, combined with a lack of resources professional baseball teams gave to staffing team trainers during that time, made the range of motion in his arm deteriorate even more.
He finally called it quits during Spring Training with the Detroit Tigers, driving back home to Colorado after hitting a double in his final professional baseball plate appearance. He finished his bachelors degree at Mesa in 1993 and, not long afterward, then-Mesa Athletic Director Jim Paranto offered him a job as an assistant baseball and football coach, which he accepted.
BUILDING ON A FOUNDATION
Hanks had been an assistant coach under former Mavericks coach Joe Giarratano. In the fall of 1998, Giarratano was hired to take over as the baseball coach at Air Force, and Hanks was immediately promoted into the head-coaching slot.
He had a pretty solid foundation to work with when he took over the program, but he took it to the next level with the tips and tidbits he picked up as an assistant coach at Mesa and during his short stint in the Detroit Tigers’ organization. He incorporated all of those into the coaching philosophy he has now, which emphasizes teaching while addressing potential problems before they become an issue.
“Coaching is a battle of wills, and it’s a battle that that the coach cannot lose,” Hanks said. “There has to be a standard, and players have to be held to that standard. You’ve got to make your word gold, and, if you do all of those things, you earn their trust. You’ve got to tell these kids what they need to hear, even if it’s brutal honesty.”
That, along with what Hanks credits as an outstanding core of longtime assistants that include Jeff Rodgers, Steve Woytek and Phil McCowan, has helped Hanks compile a career record of 644-292 headed into the Division II World Series, which begins on Sunday in Cary, N.C. The Mavericks also won their 10th Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title under Hanks this year. Among the notable recent alumni who played under Hanks is Sergio Romo, the closer for the San Francisco Giants.
And none of this likely would have happened, Hanks admitted, if that high school baseball team at Roaring Fork High school wouldn’t have started up in 1983.
“You know, I got a chance to coach college football for five years,” Hanks said. “And when we’re out here in fall ball taking grounders and listening to music, I hear those pads popping across the field and I’m like, ‘Gosh, this is a heck of the lot more fun!’”