ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — North Star Elementary School was a vision of purple Thursday morning.
From T-shirts to face paint to hairdos, the bright color was everywhere in honor of two special visitors to the Northeast Heights campus.
One was major league baseball player Jordan Pacheco, an Albuquerque native who will soon report to spring training with the Colorado Rockies. Pacheco sported a Rockies uniform top – white trimmed with silver, black and purple.
Guest No. 2 was Dinger, the Rockies mascot, a purple dinosaur decked out in full uniform.
Both were immensely popular with North Star students, but Pacheco didn’t mind being upstaged by his costumed co-star.
“I’m just here to back up Dinger,” he said.
Modesty aside, the 27-year-old Pacheco was Thursday’s main attraction. He addressed a school assembly as part of the Rockies’ “Make an Impact” program, delivering an entertaining message on the importance of making positive choices.
But the former La Cueva High and University of New Mexico star knows he won’t get marquee treatment when spring training begins. Pacheco’s top priority is simply to earn a spot on the Rockies’ Opening Day roster, whether it’s as a backup catcher, utility infielder or something in between.
“In a perfect world I’d love to play a lot more than last year,” Pacheco said, “but I can’t control that. What I can do is show up at spring training ready to work and prepared for anything. That’s what I plan to do.”
Ups and downs
A flexible mindset seems appropriate for Pacheco, who is coming off a roller-coaster 2013 season. After hitting .309 in 2012 – his first full season in the majors – Pacheco endured a difficult sophomore campaign.
Sporadic playing time at various positions left Pacheco struggling under first-year manager Walt Weiss. Pacheco was hitting .229 on July 30 when the Rockies optioned him to Triple-A Colorado Springs.
“Obviously I was upset about it,” Pacheco said of his demotion. “But at the same time I went down knowing what I had to do, the things I needed to refocus on.”
Pacheco’s primary objective at Colorado Springs was to refresh his skills at catcher. An infielder and pitcher during his prep and college careers, Pacheco was shifted to catcher in his second pro season and played the position almost exclusively as he climbed the Rockies’ minor league ladder.
But when Pacheco was called up to the majors in 2011, playing time was more readily available at other positions. Through the final month of 2011 and all of 2012 Pacheco started six games behind the plate, 134 at other positions.
Only after his three-week stint at Colorado Springs last season did Pacheco get a chance to catch regularly at the big league level. He performed well defensively and hit .270 after returning to the Rockies.
Pacheco, who admittedly was lukewarm about moving to catcher when the Rockies organization first suggested it, is now excited to play the position again. He recently spent a month playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and believes he’ll be ready to go when Colorado’s pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 15 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“I got to catch 20 or so games at the end of last year,” Pacheco said, “so I got on the same page with a lot of the pitchers. I think I’ve caught enough to be comfortable with it again.”
Wilin Rosario is expected to be the Rockies’ primary catcher but the team did not sign a veteran backup, opening the door for Pacheco.
“I’ve got an opportunity,” he said. “It’s up to me to make it count.”
Feeling at home
Though baseball has taken him all over the Western Hemisphere in recent years, Pacheco remains most comfortable in Albuquerque. He’s spent most of the past six weeks in town, relaxing, spending time with family and friends and occasionally dropping in at UNM’s baseball facilities.
After Thursday morning’s assembly, Pacheco signed autographs for a long line of North Star students, chatting up each one along the way.
“Can you sign my hand, too?” one youngster inquired as Pacheco signed the brim of his baseball cap.
“Your hand?” Pacheco asked with a mock frown. “Come on, man, your teacher will get mad at me. Can’t do that.”
North Star Principal Stephanie Fascitelli and other staffers were more than happy to make space for Pacheco’s autograph line in the school’s office area.
“This is Jordan’s third assembly with us, and he’s been great every time,” Fascitelli said. “The kids know he’s from this area and they’re proud. They see a La Cueva grad playing for the Colorado Rockies and think: ‘Maybe I have a shot.’ ”
Pacheco attended nearby Double Eagle Elementary but enjoys visiting with youngsters all over his hometown. After leaving North Star on Thursday, Pacheco joined up with former La Cueva and UNM teammate Scott Gracey to visit children at UNM Hospital. (Gracey played for Triple-A Buffalo in the Toronto Blue Jays system last season.)
“We really look forward to spending time with kids,” Pacheco said. “They’ll ask some random question that brings you back to reality. I’m glad they want to talk to me.”
Fascitelli said the appreciation goes both ways, as demonstrated by Thursday’s explosion of purple at North Star.
“We put out an email asking people to wear purple (Thursday),” Fascitelli said, “and we got a great response. But a lot of kids here already have Rockies jerseys. They’re probably the most popular team at this school – for obvious reasons.”