Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part series on Colorado baseball icons. The first two profiled Scott Bullock and Jenny Cavnar.
Perhaps the most telling at-bat of Chris Hanks’ career — and one that came on the very field where he’d later make Colorado Mesa a Division II powerhouse — was an intentional walk.
It was the 1988 Junior College World Series at Sam Suplizio Field, and Hanks was the College of Southern Idaho’s star slugger. He strode to the plate with two outs in the last inning of the semifinal, his team down 8-7 and the tying run on base.
But rather than face Hanks, the eventual tournament MVP, the opposition elected to give the much-feared All-American a free pass. They’d rather put the winning run on base than deal with Hanks, whose eventual evolution from talented player to iconic coach was foreseen by his manager.
“It wasn’t just the tournament that he carried us — he put us on his back and carried us for most of the year, and he was on everyone in the country’s radar,” said Jim Walker, former longtime head coach at CSI. “He had big hit after big hit. … Looking back on that when he took the job at CMU, I knew he was not just going to build something — he was going to make it a program that was one of the best.”
That last collegiate at-bat epitomized the unfulfilled nature of Hanks’ playing days. Just like how he didn’t get a chance to hit his team into the national championship game, Hanks also didn’t get the opportunity to dictate his professional career due to injury.
The day after CSI finished third at the World Series, Hanks turned down a scholarship from Oklahoma State and signed with Boston, which had drafted him in the 28th round the year before. But a shoulder injury originally suffered as a high school football player never fully healed at CSI or during his four seasons in the minors. The injury forced the career catcher to take up first base at CSI, and his career topped out in Class-A Advanced.
Well before his last hurrah as a player, which came at the Tigers’ minor league spring training in 1992, Hanks — barely able to lift his right arm to feed himself — had already decided on his next step.
“When I was at spring training with Detroit, every night I’d go into the minor league clubhouse and take the practice plans off of every bulletin board for every level and I built a notebook,” Hanks said. “I knew I wanted to coach from the time I played under ‘Skip’ (Walker), who galvanized my desire, but the end of my career really led me into it.”
After hanging up his cleats that spring, Hanks finished his college degree at Colorado Mesa and began as an assistant coach there in baseball and football in the fall of 1992. Five years later, he took over as head coach in baseball, the beginning of the program’s transformation into the preeminent college team in Colorado.
In 21 seasons as the Mavericks’ head coach, Hanks is 898-360 (.714) with 17 regional titles, four Division II World Series appearances and national runner-up finishes in 2014 and 2019. Colorado Mesa’s dominated the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference during that time, winning 15 titles overall and the last eight in a row, while also becoming the winningest Division II team of the past decade.
“He built a machine,” said former Mavericks outfielder Austin Kaiser, the 2014 Division II national player of the year. “He’s able to show not just the western region, but the rest of the nation, that good baseball can be played in Colorado.”
That “machine” is rooted in a team-first approach which, on the surface, might seem difficult to attain for a program that benefits from prominent transfers such as World Series champion pitcher Sergio Romo (Division II North Alabama) and, more recently, Rockies minor league pitcher Reagan Todd (Division I Arizona State).
With talent coming in from near and far, Hanks said his teams are “trying to make two plus two equal five all the time.”
“He has good knowledge of the game, but it’s his synergistic approach to baseball that has set him apart,” explained Bill Hanks, Chris’ dad, a longtime coach and former CSU football player. “They out-team other programs, and all these years, I’m always asked how they developed the culture in the program. It developed over time, but it’s because a level of expectation of winning and consistency has been established there.”
Jeff Rodgers, Colorado Mesa’s pitching coach since 1993, added that “everyone is accountable” in a program that’s produced 21 draft picks under Hanks.
“Our expectation here is to win a national championship, and that expectation is only realistic if the No. 1 guy is willing to put in the work like the No. 35 guy on the roster,” Rodgers said. “Players see if that doesn’t happen, but Chris makes sure everyone is treated the same.”
Staff continuity has also been key. With Rodgers as the mainstay, Colorado Mesa’s staff hasn’t changed the past 12 seasons.
The other pillars of Hanks’ success are the large talent pool the program’s reputation has allowed it to draw from and its scholarship endowment, which began in 1999.
“We’ve been building that endowment ever since then to create a perpetual fund to help provide scholarships in a sport where D-II schools are only allowed nine maximum scholarships,” Hanks said. “When I took over we had 3.5, and now we’re up to eight. … The school currently provides about six scholarships for us each year and we fundraise about two.”
The Colorado Mesa dynasty isn’t likely to crumble anytime soon.
Before the 2020 season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Mavericks were 14-4, ranked No. 4 in the country and eager to get back to the national title game after losing 3-1 to Tampa in the 2019 affair. With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to all players because of the cancelled season, Colorado Mesa is assured to be remain loaded for 2021, too.
Meanwhile Hanks, 51, said he still has plenty of coaching left in him. He’s had opportunities to leave Colorado Mesa, including interviewing for a job in the Mountain West Conference a few years back. But it’s going to take a lot to lure the Carbondale native and former Roaring Fork High School two-sport star away from his baseball kingdom in Grand Junction.
“There’s a good chance I’ll never leave here,” Hanks said. “I would if it was the right opportunity, but as the years go on, that opportunity has to be better and better. There’s a lot of work that’s been put in here, and this is my home. Finding a school, a (school) president and a community that supports the game of baseball like they do here would be tough.”