GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo. – By the time Perfect Game officials had decided to pursue a mutual interest in staging their first showcase event in Colorado, they were already working with the Centennial State’s undisputed king of high school baseball.
And with the help of legendary Cherry Creek High School head coach Marc Johnson, the Perfect Game Rocky Mountain Showcase burst to life Saturday morning at the school's Tom McCollum Field.
Johnson was on hand bright and early Saturday, helping with the inaugural event's set-up while dragging and watering the infield dirt. This was taking place just a few hours before the Cherry Creek Bruins were to continue play in the Colorado Class 5A state tournament, with a possible championship game appearance scheduled for mid-afternoon.
"We're a mountain-area team, but these kids take baseball very seriously," Johnson said Saturday from wind-whipped McCullom Field. "We play all over - we've been to Phoenix, we've been to California, we've been to Dallas - and we'll play everybody and anybody that wants to play us."
In its previous three games before Saturday's play, Cherry Creek won twice in the bottom of the seventh and once in the bottom of the eighth. Those three wins set up the highly anticipated elimination game with arch-rival Regis Jesuit. The winner faced upstart Legend in the championship game.
Cherry Creek and Regis Jesuit - which is just down the road from CCHS and is coached by former big-leaguer Walt Weiss - met in last year's 5A state championship game, won by Regis.
"The hotbed of high school baseball (in Colorado) is this area," Johnson said. "Grandview, Regis and us are three of the best teams in Colorado."
Johnson is a card-carrying legend in the Colorado high school sports community. He entered his 40th season in 2012, he’s coached Cherry Creek baseball teams to seven state championships, including five straight from 1995-99. He also led Bruins’ teams to five state runner-up finishes, the most recent just last season (2011). Twenty-six league championships are also on his resume.
He owned an overall record of 631-147 (.881 percent) through his first 39 seasons (the 2012 Bruins were 22-3 before Saturday's play) . In 1997 alone he was named the National High School Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association, the National American Amateur Congress Baseball Coach of the Year and the head coach of the American Amateur Baseball Congress National All-Star Team.
He’s coached in the USA Junior Olympics three times and in 2000 was named the “National Coach of the Decade of the ‘90s” by Baseball America.
Johnson was also the boys’ soccer coach at Cherry Creek for 25 years and won five state championships; last year he was inducted into the Colorado High School Activities Association Hall of Fame. Johnson has also worked as a professional scout for 30 years and is currently employed by the Colorado Rockies.
Through his many years at the helm at Cherry Creek he has coached hundreds of talented players, including current major-leaguers Brad Lidge, Darnell McDonald, Josh Bard, Luke Hochever and David Aardsma (a Perfect Game alum and a first round pick of the San Francisco Giants in 2003).
"Baseball is just a really big deal at this school," he said. "It wasn't when I got here but we built the field, we built the program and the school has built up around us. It's a big deal on our campus and you wouldn't understand that so much being a mountain school like we are, but we have been very fortunate over the years. We just seem to get kids that want to play and they want to come here.
"Baseball in Colorado has gotten just a ton better than what it was when I started," he continued. "It's fun, the competition level is good, there's good pitching in this state and there always is; Roy Halladay is a Colorado kid."
Johnson said he had talked with PG Vice President Andy Ford several times over the past few years about getting a Perfect Game event in the Rocky Mountain area. Prospects from Colorado and other Front Range areas faced high travel costs trying to get to events in the south, southeast and southwest and needed something closer to home.
“We’re targeting the Colorado kids and the inter-mountain region,” PG National Showcase Director Jim Arp said when the event was added to the schedule several months ago. “There’s an area out there that we haven’t reached … and we thought it would be best if we tried to reach those kids – there are good players out there and everything on our schedule seems to be around Colorado.”
Everything at Tom McCollum Field is first-rate and was built by or purchased through donations from former players, families and other supporters. That includes the large scoreboard in left field, the two red-brick dugouts and the blue artificial turf behind home plate. The facility hasn't cost the school district a dime.
"Everything is done by the baseball community," Johnson said.
The first day's participation numbers were hurt by the state championship finals in classes 5A, 4A and 3A all being played at nearby ballparks on Saturday. Many of the prospects on those state finalists teams are expected to be out here on Sunday, including close to a half-dozen high end guys from Cherry Creek.
"After this first year, I think we will get much larger," Johnson said. "When people find out what it is and how big it is - we just haven't had one here before. I asked Andy (Ford) and told him we'd really like to host one here at Cherry Creek. I told him I thought it would be something that would be really good for the inter-mountain region; like any business, I believe your first year is always the toughest because the word's got to get out."
Johnson said he is also driven by his desire to take a team of Colorado prospects to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in late October.
"I told (PG) 'I will bring Colorado's best players,'" he said. "They're not going to embarrass themselves if you get the best players ... and I'll jump at the opportunity to take a team there if I get it."
Johnson said he was "absolutely sold on" the showcase concept, mostly due to the number of college coaches who attend but also because of the video work done by Skillshow and BaseballWebTV.com.
"It's not only just a place to go to, but it's a place to be exposed," he said. "I tell my players as a coach, my job is not to get you scholarships or a professional deal, my job is to expose you; you're job is do those other things."
That exposure will be further enhanced as the Rocky Mountain Showcase continues to grow. Johnson, 67, isn't in any hurry to walk away from what he has built at a campus that overlooks Cherry Creek State Park and Cherry Creek Reservoir.
"I'll stay with it until I know it's time to go," he said. "I enjoy it very much and the kids seem to still respond to me, and I love the game of baseball and I'm very passionate about it. So I feel like I'm going to do it until ... oh, I'll know. I'll know when it's time."