Former players take on different role at CMWS

Two former Connie Mack players lead teams to the world series

Steve Garrison

FARMINGTON — Some of the players who step onto the field at Ricketts Park this week could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the sight of more than 6,000 fans cheering in bleachers adorned with red, white and blue bunting.

Farmington natives Griffin Phelps, left, and Damion Lovato talk on Tuesday at Ricketts Park in Farmington during the Connie Mack World Series. Both took part in the event as players and are now coaching teams in the tournament.

For many of them, playing in the Connie Mack World Series is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the culmination of years of hard work on the diamond. But for coaches Damion Lovato and Griffin Phelps, it's a homecoming.

Both men are former Farmington players who now serve as coaches for teams participating in the CMWS. Griffin Phelps is the head coach of Chicago's Top Tier club, and Lovato is an assistant coach for Strike Zone.

Both men said their experience as players at the CMWS has helped in coaching.

"It's hard as a kid," Lovato said. "You live in Farmington. You dream of playing at Ricketts. It's so surreal. So many people are there."

Phelps said he remembered the crowd "hootin' and hollerin'," adding, "It's one of the most exciting times."

Phelps, 31, was born in Houston, but moved to Farmington in the sixth grade. He graduated from Farmington High School in 2003 and played in the CMWS with the Sky Sox in 2002.  Phelps went on to play in the College World Series for the University of Arizona Wildcats.

Damion Lovato, left, and Griffin Phelps share stories on Tuesday during a break in the action at the Connie Mack World Series at Ricketts Park in Farmington.

In 2012, he moved to Chicago at the behest of a former coach.

"It won't make you rich, but you'll have a job in baseball," Phelps said he was told.

He said for a while, he worked whatever odd jobs he could find to help make ends meet.

"There were a lot of long nights and early mornings," he said. "You go out and try to make a life for yourself."

Phelps said he started at Top Tier as a head coach for one of the organization's 17U teams. In 2014, he was named high school director of the organization, and he now serves as head coach of the 16U Americans team.

Phelps said returning to the CMWS as a coach is a different experience than it was taking part as a player. Walking onto the field, he said he feels more like an outsider than a local.

"Doing it a for a couple years, you don't get caught up in the scene," he said. "You remain calm. You tell kids to enjoy it as much as they can and embrace it. Play the game they want to play. Not too many kids get to play in front of 5,000 people."

Lovato, 24, graduated from Piedra Vista High School in 2010 and played in the CMWS that same year. He played a year at Kansas State University, then transferred to Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in sports rehabilitation and medicine.

Strike Zone assistant coach Damion Lovato, right, laughs with base runner Andrew Yazzie on Tuesday during Game 16 of the Connie Mack World Series at Ricketts Park in Farmington. Strike Zone, the host team, had one of the best runs in years for a New Mexico team when it won two games in the tournament. The 2016 CMWS ended in a tie on Friday night as the East Cobb Yankees and Dallas Tigers were crowned co-champions. The tie in the Game 23 final was the first in the 52-year history of the series.

Lovato said he returned to Farmington during the summer months beginning in 2012 to help coach at Strike Zone, and he was named an assistant coach after graduating from college.

"I always wanted to give back and help the kids in Farmington achieve their dreams," he said.

"Coaching is a different perspective," Lovato said. "You have to find a way to help your team play its best when it comes to game time."

He said achieving success at the CMWS is about vision.

"Visualize the moment," he said. "Visualize being in the scenario. You have to go to the mound or play defense and say, 'I'm the best player out there.'"

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.