Rocky Mountain News

HomeColorado Rockies

Rockies' pursuit began here

Ryan Turner's the answer to a trivia question - and the start of something big

Published October 22, 2007 at midnight

It was like stepping into a boy's daydream.

Walking off a plane at Stapleton International Airport 16 years ago, Ryan Turner saw a group of reporters and fans clustered in the concourse waiting, apparently, for a celebrity to surface.

Curious, Turner glanced over his shoulder, looking for a famous face.

Then it hit home: He was the star.

Turner, acquired a few days earlier during major league baseball's 1991 winter meetings, was the Original Rockie, the poster boy for an expansion franchise that wouldn't field a big-league team until 1993.

"I had no idea I'd be that well- received. I never saw it coming," said Turner, now 38. "It blew me away.

"There was so much energy and enthusiasm. I think they were so excited to get a team and finally, people could put a player next to the name 'Colorado Rockies.' "

More than 400 players have worn Rockies uniforms since the first game 14 years ago, including the 25 who'll step onto the field Wednesday for Game 1 of the 2007 World Series.

Some were All-Stars, others hardly played, but all of them followed Turner, a novelty act as much as a big-league prospect.

In the headlines

For a few fleeting months, he was headline news in a city that deifies jock stars - popping up on talk shows and newscasts, signing autographs at the Cinderella City shopping center, modeling the Rockies' first uniform, and autographing baseballs for every member of the organization, from office staff to general manager Bob Gebhard.

Gebhard made the handsome, scholarly Stanford graduate the face of the franchise before the arrival of heavy hitters such as Andres Galarraga.

"We had zero players in the organization. Somebody had to be No. 1. So we picked Ryan Turner," Gebhard said. "We'd done our research on him, and we liked him as a possible young player. And he was a real nice kid."

Once Turner started playing, he was a typical minor league journeyman, solid but lacking breakthrough talent. After a disappointing start with the Double-A New Haven Ravens in his third season with the Rockies organization, he retired in June 1994, attended Harvard Business School and now works in finance for Lighthouse Capital in the San Francisco Bay area.

But he still has a trunk full of memories - and memorabilia, including his Rockies uniform, bats, caps and baseball cards bearing his image from a peculiar time.

"I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Rockies, because they gave me a chance in professional ball," he said. "It was like a dream. Fans were so supportive, so enthusiastic. There was a lot of energy that first month or two. Then the Rockies started filling out their roster, and I became just another player in the organization.

"But it was my claim to fame. My 15 minutes. My son is 18 months old. If he grows up to be a baseball fan, he'll probably get a kick out of the fact that his dad was the first Rockie."

Four 'originals'

Actually, Turner was one of four players who joined the club though a special closed-bid process at the 1991 winter meetings. The others - all were right-handed pitchers - joined the club the same day. But on the way back to his hotel in Miami, Gebhard decided to designate Turner as the first Rockie for reasons that trumped baseball.

"He was a very impressive kid," he said.

At Gunderson High in San Jose, Calif., Turner was named homecoming king, best-looking boy and top scholar-athlete. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in economics and a 3.7 grade-point average, school officials asked his permission to nominate him for a Rhodes Scholar. He wanted to play baseball instead.

"Obviously, you want to make it to the major league level. That's everybody's goal," he said.

But no pro team drafted Turner, and he wound up on an independent team in Bend, Ore., which is how he became available to the Rockies in a special draft of unsigned minor league players.

On Dec. 11, 1991, Turner was in Burbank, Calif., for a callback interview with Disney Corp. when a secretary approached.

"Call your mother, it's urgent."

"I have a trivia question for you," his mother, Connie, said when he reached her.

"Who is the Colorado Rockies' first player?"

"I have no idea," he said.

"Ryan, it's you."

After returning to San Jose, two Denver talk shows were on the line, and a Denver news station was setting up a live interview.

"Right then and there I kind of figured out what was going on," he said.

Turner was destined to become a historical oddity, like Hobie Landrith, the first player signed by the New York Mets when the National League expanded in 1962.

In the spotlight in Denver

But the carnival was only starting.

Arriving in Denver for a ski vacation he had arranged weeks earlier, Turner walked into a swarm of cameras, lights and reporters.

"I didn't know he was coming to Denver. I'm watching on TV, and there he is at the airport," Gebhard said.

"So we brought him down and introduced him to all the employees, and he signed some balls for us."

In the Stapleton concourse, a stockbroker produced a baseball for Turner to sign. Before long, the Rockies produced a poster and baseball cards trumpeting Turner.

"I still have a copy of the poster. It's nice, because it makes me look a lot more muscular than I am," he said. "When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards, so it was kind of nice to have your face on those.

"I haven't tried my uniform on in years. It's probably like the story of the old wedding dress - it might be a little snug in spots."

By the time Turner finally stepped on a field, he was one of the most publicized Single A players in the nation, but his days as a poster boy were slipping into past tense.

In 1992, at Single A Visalia, Turner hit .266 in 118 games, with seven home runs and 62 RBI, a promising start for the 6-foot-4, 200-pound outfielder. In '93, at Single A Central Valley, he hit in the middle of the lineup and showed an ability to drive the ball, finishing with a .294 average in 112 games, with 13 homers and 67 RBI.

But when Turner arrived for spring training in 1994, bound for the Double A Ravens, his dream seemed more quixotic than pragmatic.

Good, but no Griffey

"I had to be realistic. I was a good player but certainly wasn't a Ken Griffey Jr. kind of player," he said.

"When it really hit me was in spring training before my season in Double A. I was working out with Triple A, too, and I kind of looked around, and there were a lot of players who had seven to nine years in the minors and five or so in Triple A.

"It just struck me I wasn't much better than them, and they weren't much better me. I foresaw my career tapping out in the minor leagues and not being an impact player in the major leagues, and that's everyone's goal. Coming out of spring training, I was a little disillusioned and I wasn't performing well in Double A."

Turner retired on June 15, 1994, with a .195 average, 38 games into the season, eager to start a career in finance and weary of life in the bushes.

"It's a really, really long and hard road," he said. "If you're a journeyman you're playing the game, but it's not much of a life."

Thirteen years later, his role as the Original Rockie occasionally comes up in conversations. "People are intrigued; it's a novelty," he said.

But something stronger and fresher than nostalgia is at work these days for Turner.

"It was an exciting time back then," he said. "But it's an exciting time again. What they're doing is extraordinary. Just amazing. I'll certainly be rooting for them."

Ryan Turner's minor league statistics

Year Team Level G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS

1991* Bend Low A 65 241 37 76 16 1 3 43 .315 .413 .427 .840

1992 Visalia High A 118 413 70 110 22 6 7 62 .266 .344 .400 .743

1993 Central Valley High A 112 422 64 124 23 1 13 67 .294 .384 .445 .833

1994 New Haven AA 38 123 13 24 5 0 2 10 .195 .261 .285 .546

Total 333 1,199 184 334 66 8 25 182 .279 .365 .410 .775

*Played for independent league Bend Bucks before signing with Rockies.

or 303-954-2596

Back to Top

Search »