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Breaking Up Rox

That rumble of discontentment down in the Rockies clubhouse can now be heard in the cheap (and not so cheap) seats up above. Last Tuesday, for instance, midway through the club's disheartening and premature fiftieth loss of the year (to the Dodgers, 6-5), you could, for the first time, hear overheated Rockies fans calling for manager Don Baylor's head, center-fielder Quinton McCracken's demotion and--I'm not making this up--the immediate neutering of third baseman Vinny Castilla.

"Sumbitch can't hit no more," one disgruntled fan in the third-base boxes explained. "Tell you what. Here's what. Cut his balls off."

Hard times often call for drastic measures, but emasculating one of your everyday starters probably won't do the trick. Neither will signing Cubs journeyman Frank Castillo, a pitcher of modest gifts whom the club seems to be hailing as the second coming of Christy Mathewson. By the way, that's Castillo with an "O," just in case the guy with the surgical instruments is confused.

More rumblings? At Tuesday's game, contested in 96-degree heat, McCracken badly misjudged a catchable fly ball for the second time in three days ("Forget Colorado Springs!" one worthy yelled. "Goddamn New Haven!") And when the vendors stopped pouring beer in the seventh inning of this scorching afternoon, thirsty ball fans threatened a revolt in front of at least one vending stand. "Team can't play, I can't get a Coors!" one man reasoned. Hard to argue with him.

Aside from a couple of cold ones, what the struggling Rox could really use about now--as of Monday, they'd lost sixteen of their last eighteen games and slipped into last place in the National League West--is a couple of decent starting pitchers. Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux would do, but since those fellows don't ski, it's unlikely they'll be calling a real estate broker in Cherry Hills anytime soon. Damn the luck.

Back in the real world of Coors Field, which is to say a world of 6.80 earned-run averages and final scores you can tote up only on Abacus Day out at the park, general manager Bob Gebhard should probably bite the bullet and do the tough thing--trade Dante Bichette and a minor-leaguer for Yankees lefty Kenny Rogers.

These days Gebhard is increasingly regarded in the carpeted confines of the clubhouse as some kind of death-camp commandant because his penchant for publicly ripping underachievers has grown into Steinbrennerian rant. Saint Dante, meanwhile, remains one of the most popular Rockies, thanks to his .300-plus batting average (on a sore knee, no less), his sleepy-eyed photogeneity and the fact that Rockies fans now have a right to at least bush-league nostalgia for the exploits of their team. Bichette was an original Rockie, of course, and Number Ten's flowering from mediocre Milwaukee bench-warmer into consistent Colorado slugger and part-time haircut rebel is one of the heartwarming tales of the franchise's five-year history. Like it or not, fans here are still learning to act major-league, and things like Bichette's success have helped them along. When you cheer, you might as well cheer the real thing.

Tactfully, most people choose to ignore Bichette's Jackie Gleason-esque escapades in left field: Maybe local monuments are meant to stand perfectly still on their pedestals.

However, the facts of the matter are these. Bichette is almost 34 years old (born four days before the Kennedy assassination!). He's hit only thirteen home runs this year. And those aging wheels of his are no match for the vast pastures of Coors Field. The fragile Ellis Burks is an equally talented hitter and a far better outfielder. So (here's a news flash) is the exemplary Larry Walker, who's still hitting in the neighborhood of .400 and likely remains the Rox's only attraction through the remainder of this dismal season. If the modest Walker can become the first hitter since Ted Williams to hit .400, all other Rockies failings will be forgotten for a while.

So, then. Mr. Bichette. The time has come to love him and leave him, with all of our best wishes. The Yankees are interested (their price has gone up with the recent injury to another Rockies pitcher, Kevin Ritz), and Bichette would be going to a team that won the 1996 World Series, putting championship rings on the fingers of two ex-teammates, Charlie Hayes and Dante's old pal Joe Girardi. Despite injuries to Bernie Williams, Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry and, now, lumbering designated hitter Cecil Fielder (out with a bad thumb), the Yanks appear ready to make another pennant drive against the Baltimore Orioles.

How could the most devoted Dante-lover deny their man a late-career shot at glory? The Rockies aren't going to win any flags this year, and the vision of Bichette striking the crucial blow against Atlanta or Florida in the Fall Classic would fill the hearts of Rockies fans with pride: There he is, one of our own, a cherished relic from out of (sounds strange to say it) our past.

Meanwhile, the Rox would be getting, in Rogers, the kind of proven commodity they need right now--on the mound and inside the heads of their inexperienced young starters. The crafty southpaw is just 4-4 with a 5.90 ERA this season, but he won twelve games for the Yankees in 1996, and the year before that the 32-year-old went 17-7 with a 3.38 ERA for the Texas Rangers, 16-10 and 11-8 in previous seasons. Baseball people are still astonished that Texas squandered his talents in the first four years of his career by using him in relief.

Is The Gambler's arm sound? It appears to be. Look at it this way: It's as sound as Bichette's knee.

Let's hope that Gebhard goes ahead and trades Bichette for some authentic pitching. The remaining Blake Street Bombers will still produce plenty of power, and Rockies fans will get over this particular episode of postpartum depression a lot sooner than they might imagine. Don't worry: The baby boys will grow up. Someday, they'll even make us proud. In the World Series.

In the meantime, leave Vinny Castilla's balls and strikes alone, okay?

Let us give thanks, just for a moment, that the most heroic figure these days in the beclouded sport of boxing is a Reno, Nevada, district judge named Mills Lane. As you know by now, Hizzoner doubles as a fight referee. In the space of just two weeks, it was his unhappy duty to disqualify Mike Tyson in his ear-chomping bout with Evander Holyfield for the WBC heavyweight championship and to disqualify Henry Akinwande for excessive holding and failure to fight in his WBA title fight with Lennox Lewis.

How unusual was this quiniela? In the last 105 years, there have been just two other heavyweight title disqualifications. (Tell us about those by the count of ten and we'll send you a speed bag and your very own pair of ten-ounce gloves.)

Boxing has become a sewer, so the sordid melodrama of these "fights" comes as no surprise. Still, Mills Lane's decisions are paying an unexpected and welcome dividend. To wit: Don King has been knocked off his throne.

The ex-Cleveland numbers runner, killer and pitchman who has held boxing hostage since he started gouging the purses of Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes suddenly finds himself fresh out of fighters--and thus scams. His top earner, Tyson, has had his license to box revoked for at least a year and $3 million of his $30 million purse confiscated. His whole foolish career now appears in jeopardy.

Akinwande was King's No. 2 pug; now he, too, has had his purse held up and faces sanctions from the ever-vigilant Nevada State Athletic Commission. King's third most lucrative heavyweight? Why, none other than the illustrious Oliver McCall, who in his fight with Lennox Lewis burst into tears, the apparent victim of a nervous breakdown.

That leaves the depleted King stable with just one big horse, heavyweight Francois Botha, and he has the same chance of winning a title against any decent opponent as the Denver Nuggets have of creaming Chicago for the NBA championship.

To the delight of many onlookers, Don King fell down a short flight of stairs while trying to leave the ring after the July 12 Akinwande debacle and has remained uncharacteristically silent and absent ever since. If we're lucky, King's little stumble will prove to be more than symbolic. Don't you wish Mills Lane, one of boxing's few heroes, had counted him out right there on the steps?

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