The Rockies celebrated the biggest comeback of the year Tuesday night. They celebrated despite losing a good game 6-4 to a solid Seattle team. They celebrated despite having four players, their manager, and a coach isolated from the team due to Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 protocols. They celebrated without fireworks or fanfare. Heck, they would have celebrated without a game.
They celebrated something bigger than all that, something bigger than baseball, but something all that much better with baseball icing the cake.
“This is a day I'll remember forever — it was that special,” Connor Joe told the Daily Planet moments after Trevor Story struck out for the final out in a ninth inning comeback that wasn’t meant to be. “Being one-year cancer free. To be called back up to the big leagues, getting a start, hitting my first [career] home run. Yeah, that's one I'm going to have to write in my journal.”
Connor Joe was an instant hit with Colorado fans when he was first called up to the Majors in May. The first thing most noticed was his first Rockies hit in his first start for Colorado, and the .310 average (9-for-29) in his first 10 games in purple pinstripes.
But for those watching closely, the thing that stood out first was his ever-present smile. Joe waited over two years between his first big league hit in April 2019 and his second this May. Between those hits, he lost a season to cancer, and he’s never been shy about sharing the joy of a journey to reclaim his health and establish his career.
Joe had been three weeks back in Triple-A Albuquerque when he got the call-up Monday evening. He was setting Triple-A on fire, hitting .327 (16-for-49) with four doubles, four homers, and 13 RBIs in 15 games at first base, in the outfield, and as designated hitter. He'd been languishing on the big-league bench with too few at bats for a rookie hitter trying to get his groove going.
Since being sent down to the Minors on June 25, Joe was so focused on his craft, he’d forgotten the approaching one-year anniversary of being free of the testicular cancer that cancelled his 2020 season. It was only when he called his wife, Kylie, after Monday’s Isotopes game to tell her he was going back to the Show that he began thinking about the milestone.
“My wife reminded me of it last night,” Joe said after his first game back. “It's been an incredible journey I've been on, and I’m extremely grateful. I've done a lot in the year since I've been cancer-free, so it's been amazing. My support group is awesome. I couldn't have done it without them.”
You always remember your first
Hitting your first big league homer is highlight enough, and it doesn’t require any added attraction to make the moment any sweeter. It’s something most every Major Leaguer fantasized about as a kid — along with all those kids who never got closer to the Majors than when they were fast asleep and deep in the dream state.
“As a kid growing up, you always dream about hitting homers in the big leagues,” Joe admitted, his signature smile spreading Cheshire-wide. “I didn't really know what to expect from it. I was really happy. It came in a good spot, too.”
The homer broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning, putting the Rockies up 2-0 in what felt like enough of a lead with the pitch-perfect All-Star, German Marquez, on the mound. After connecting with a first-pitch fastball from Colorado native Marco Gonzales, Joe ran the bases in a virtual sprint, barely slowing down to enjoy the moment.
“It's big park,” Joe explained. “I wasn't sure it was a homer, but I knew I hit it well. So I was trying to get the extra base if it wasn't going to be a homer. Once I saw it go over the fence, the emotions came out. It was tough to slow down. I wish I’d soaked it in a little bit longer.”
In his next at-bat, Joe smashed a double down the left-field line, making him 2-for-5 on the night with a couple RBIs and a souvenir baseball for Kylie — fished out from among the centerfield pine grove and the fired-up fountains where his first big league homer landed, 441 feet from home plate.
“We were all fired up for Connor,” said bench coach Mike Redmond, who is managing the team while Bud Black is out on COVID-19 protocol. “He’s been swinging the bat really well down in the Minor Leagues, and he’s come up here and continued to stay hot. That’s the beauty of this game. Guys get opportunities and they take advantage of them. To see him go out there and get his first homer, which he crushed, that was fun to watch. It was a huge lift for us.”
Frosting the cake
Hitting the home run was exhilarating — for Joe and his teammates, and for the fans he’s already ignited in Colorado with his catalytic energy, fans who revel in his play and chant his name when he’s at the plate, sparked by his love of the game and his presence in the moment.
But on Tuesday his teammates were congratulating Joe before they even suited up. He was back in the majors, cause enough for celebration, and he was back from cancer, the anniversary serving as a capstone moment on a journey they’d taken with Joe since he first signed with the Rockies last November.
“It was kind of a parlay, honestly,” Joe told the Planet as one personal pre-game victory bankrolled another. “I think the bigger congratulations is definitely being cancer-free. Coming back to the big leagues is frosting on the cake.”
His demotion on June 25 was not unanticipated. Joe had success with the Rockies in his two previous call-ups, and quickly established himself as a player to watch and enjoy. It was his second shot at the big leagues, after playing eight games in the majors for the Giants in 2019 — the sum total of his career stats before this season was contained in his 1-for-15 stretch that saw his big-league journey end for the year that April — with further doubt raised about the rest of his career in March of 2020 when he was diagnosed with cancer.
Joe had a torrid start with the Rockies earlier this season, reaching base safely in nine straight games before cooling down when injured starters returned to the roster and Joe was relegated to a bench role. He was hitting .241 (13-for-54) with the parent club when the Rockies sent him down to get regular playing time.
“Being told I was optioned down was tough.” Joe admitted. “But I took a step back and looked at the bigger picture. I took the positives out of the situation, went back, did some work, got after it, got some at bats. I'm happy with where I'm at right now.”
He made the return trip look like a cake walk. His hot-hitting 15-game stretch in the Minors gave him the at-bats he wasn’t getting as a bench player in the big leagues. But getting that groove going good enough to play in the Majors was all about the work.
“This game is never easy,” Joe asserted to the Planet. “I focused a lot on approach, I focused a lot on my swing, I worked with Pedro Lopez down there, the hitting coach, and I found a recipe that worked for me, and I ran with it and had success, which was great.
“I was able to get in a groove and find my swing. Find an attack plane that works for me. I’m just blessed to have that transfer over to the big leagues tonight."
If just being back was the frosting, then the home run must have been the cherry on top of the biggest comeback of the Rockies’ season.
“I can't really explain all the emotions that went through my head,” Joe summed up. “I have to decompress and go back and revisit it, but I'm really happy. I'm really grateful. I wish we could have got the win, but a lot of things came to a culmination tonight. I couldn't write it up any better.”