Sam Suplizio was an icon in business, sports world
By Phil Sandoval, Free Press Staff Writer (an article from the January 12, 2017 Grand Junction Free Press Front Page Article)
A wrist injury denied Sam Suplizio his dream of playing center field in Yankee Stadium.
But he was still a major leaguer to the city of Grand Junction. “Sam loved this place out here,” said former New York Yankees great Bobby Richardson, a teammate of Suplizio’s in the 1950s.
Richardson spoke at Friday’s burial Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
“In 1957, Sam was supposed to take over in center field and Mickey Mantle was to move to right because of a bone disease he had in his legs,” Richardson told the filled auditorium of well-wishers.
“Then he broke his wrist and couldn’t throw a ball 10 feet,” he continued. That injury forced Suplizio into coaching– along with opening the door to a greater legacy.
Suplizio will best be remembered for his work as a committee member, tournament chairman, then chairman emeritus of the Junior College World Series– better known to Grand Junctionites as JUCO.
In 1958, Suplizio, along with a small group of baseball enthusiast, convinced National Junior College Athletic Association officials to move the event from Oklahoma to Lincoln Park.
Five decades later, JUCO, now played at the renamed Suplizio Field, has grown to national stature. Having JUCO has resulted in the construction of new ball fields, improvements of others, plus youth clinics from the competing teams and players.
Although he shunned credit, Suplizio played a key role in the tournament’s rise to prominence. Those accomplishments are a lifetime unto itself.
For Suplizio, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“His passion was to teach and guide young players,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Stenson, who opened Mass Thursday. “Sam was an icon in the world of business and sports. And no matter what kind of pitch he was given in life– a fastball or slider– Sam was ready.”
After the injury in the early 1960s, Suplizio managed and continued to play for the Grand Junction Eagles and the Alaska Goldpanners. In 1963, with the Goldpanners, Suplizio hit .500 at that year’s National Baseball Congress Tournament and earned the Most Valuable Player award.
Later, his talent for instruction earned him outfield coaching jobs for the California Angles, Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners.
“I was lucky to have Sam as a coach back in 1981,” Hall of Famer Paul Molitor of Suplizio during his eulogy.
“That year, the Brewers switched me from the infield to the outfield. He talked with me for hours about jumps and getting reads on the ball. It was tough. But Sam always left me with a positive attitude about myself.”
Suplizio’s instruction successfully turned Molitor, then a second baseman, into a starting outfielder for Milwaukee for the next 10 years. He also had stints with the Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins as part of a 21-year major league career, where Molitor’s career stats earned him election to the Hall of Fame in 2004.
When it came time for the ceremony at Cooperstown, Suplizio was in the crowd, amid a throng of Brewers fans clad in No. 4 jerseys– Molitor’s uniform number.
“When you get to the Hall of Fame, you reflect on the people you meet along the way,” Molitor said. “Sam was one of those people. He was there that day. I told him that I loved him.”
So did Grand Junction.