Joe hits 1st MLB HR on special anniversary

In return from Triple-A, Rox rookie homers exactly 1 year after cancer-free diagnosis

July 21st, 2021

DENVER -- Rockies rookie Connor Joe sure knows how to celebrate an anniversary.

Last July 20 -- exactly five months after doctors gave him a testicular cancer diagnosis -- Joe was declared cancer-free. Call Tuesday night a storybook new beginning.

Joe, summoned from Triple-A Albuquerque the previous night on his third recall to the Rockies, socked his first Major League home run -- a 441-foot blast to center field -- in the fifth inning of Colorado’s 6-4 loss to Seattle at Coors Field.

“I wasn’t thinking about it at that moment, but obviously, getting a lot of congratulations, it was a special day,” Joe said. “I couldn’t write it up any better.”

Joe’s homer off Mariners starter Marco Gonzales -- who pitched at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colo., and is the son of Double-A Hartford pitching coach Frank Gonzales -- gave the Rockies a short-lived 2-0 lead. Joe savored the moment later, but not in real time. He sprinted until he was rounding second.

“I know the ball flies here, but it’s a big park,” Joe said. “I’ve hit other balls that I thought had a chance, so I wasn’t sure.”

A half-inning after Joe's home run, All-Star right-hander Germán Márquez gave up four runs in his sixth and final inning. C.J. Cron’s two-run homer in the eighth trimmed the Mariners’ lead to 6-4, but the Rockies couldn’t overcome the deficit.

However, Joe, who started in left field and can also play both infield corners, kept celebrating, hitting a double in the seventh as part of a 2-for-5 night. He also had an outfield assist, nabbing Mitch Haniger trying to leg out a double in the sixth.

The ball from Joe’s first hit went to his mother, Mee-Sun. The ball from his first RBI went to his father, Peter. The homer ball goes to his wife, Kylie. Joe's entire support staff, including his grandparents, were preparing Monday night to make the trip to Denver, and it was Kylie who put it all together for Joe's return and anniversary.

“She reminded me: ‘Did you know you were coming back to Denver at that point?’” Joe said. “At that point, I didn’t.”

The cancer battle behind him, Joe, a former top Draft pick of the Pirates who has searched for position and opportunity, turns 29 on Aug. 16 and is trying to stick in the Majors. The last time he was up, he started only two of his final 15 games before being sent down. In 20 Triple-A games beginning on June 26, Joe batted .358 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs.

Joe, a right-handed hitter whose current chance came because utility man Chris Owings went on the 10-day injured list with a left thumb injury, joined left-handed-hitting outfielder Sam Hilliard, who was called up Friday when Yonathan Daza was placed on the COVID-19 IL. Joe and Hilliard are trying to warrant consistent opportunities.

No telling how the opportunity could come. With the Rockies in fourth place in the National League West, the roster could drastically change. Cron, for example, may draw interest from other clubs, which could lead to chances for Joe and Joshua Fuentes at the infield corners. Any amount of dealing could mean roster spots and playing time for Joe and/or Hilliard.

“[Joe's] been swinging the bat really well down in the Minor Leagues,” said bench coach Mike Redmond, acting as manager with Bud Black out due to COVID-19 contact-tracing protocols. "He’s come up here and continued to stay on. That’s the beauty of this game -- guys get opportunities, and they take advantage.”

As disappointing as it was to be sent down, Joe threw his efforts into sharpening his approach into one that could work whether he is playing regularly or sporadically.

“I feel I’m in a great spot,” Joe said. “I went back down, got a ton of at-bats and saw pitching every day, which is huge for me. I was able to get in a groove, find my swing and find an approach that’s right for me.”

Joe talked about struggling to find the words, but he did quite fine in his postgame Zoom conference.

But wait until he takes pen to paper.

“I'm going to have to write in my journal, so I can remember forever,” Joe said. “I can't really explain all the emotions that went through my head. So I’ll go back and revisit it.

“I'm really happy. I'm really grateful. I wish we could have gotten the win. But a lot of things came to a culmination.”