He's Out

For Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and a stampede of horses called the New York Yankees, this has been the most glorious of baseball seasons. Not so for the 77-85 Colorado Rockies, who in the mists of April were thought to be solid contenders. But when the ax fell, as everyone knew it would, upon the tender neck of Don Baylor, he still managed to hold his head high. After erasing a 7-0 deficit in Sunday's season finale and using a ninth-inning Neifi Perez homer to beat the Giants 9-8--a season killer for San Francisco, as it turns out--Baylor and his Rockies took a final walk around Coors Field in the slanting afternoon light. They waved to the fans. They slapped occasional high fives. They autographed inflated plastic kiddie bats, huge Vinny Castilla posters, brand-new baseballs and rumpled old programs. They signed everything short of the manager's death warrant.

That task fell to Jerry McMorris and the Monfort Brothers. The owners.
Six years' worth of coulda-beens and if-onlys had finally taken their toll. Baylor is gone, along with 440 wins and 469 losses, as the Rockies skipper. He is gone because you can't fire an entire pitching staff. He is gone because his catchers couldn't hit and some of his outfielders couldn't catch and because his club couldn't catch fire. He is gone because somebody had to go. But on Sunday, you couldn't catch him complaining.

"What else could you have possibly done this year?" one sympathetic reporter asked him.

"We could have won more games," he answered with a tight smile. "We lost a lot of close ones early in the season and never recovered."

But Bob Gebhard--the guy who should have been fired-- has made a nice little recovery, thank you. The great mind who brought you Bruce Hurst and let Andres Galarraga slip away to the Atlanta Braves has survived the McMorris-Monfort meat cutter, at least for now. While Baylor has been offered a mid-rank front office job, general manager Gebhard careers on, albeit as part of a committee now, in search of a catcher who will squat for less than a hundred million, a starting pitcher who can keep his ERA smaller than his hat size after a daunting look at Daryl Kile's 1998 numbers, and a center-fielder who can bat .300 while covering three counties of ground.

Gebhard's also looking for a new manager--a stoic who can sweat out 15-14 games while keeping some of his sanity. Who can bolt together the semblance of a pitching staff from the shelled and the shell-shocked. Who can perhaps walk on water. But don't count on seeing Jim Leyland, who was the Sage of Pittsburgh before he became the Master of Miami, on the Rockies bench. By all accounts, this studied minimalist, a star professor in the scratch single-sac-bunt, steal-third, hit-ground-ball-to-score-him school of baseball, would rather play a four-game set in a Florida hurricane than wrestle with the dead-calm, thin-air demons of Coors Field. It would take some convincing to bring him here.

Meanwhile, the question a lot of Rockies fans are asking this week is why Monday's firing wasn't a twin killing. The cops knocked off Bonnie and Clyde, didn't they? Butch and Sundance both bought the farm, right? Adam and Eve? Well, you know. But in this case--for stability's sake, we suppose--the Rockies' purge has stopped short of the front office. Bob Gebhard, a hard-trying guy who's committed some bonehead plays in his time, remains free to sign up the next Bill Swift who comes down the pike. To give him his due, he might also find the next Larry Walker. But you can't help thinking that in chopping-block terms, a doubleheader might have been better than a one-off.

While they were at it, the owners might also have axed the most annoying mascot in baseball, that purple Dinger thing, and really made a clean slate of it.

For now, let us take a moment to remember the dearly departed.
On Don Baylor's watch, a Rockies club whose first Opening Day lineup featured such titans of the game as shortstop Freddie Benavides and left-fielder Jerald Clark grew into an offensive powerhouse that could hit 200 home runs and steal 200 bases in a season. By 1995, the Rox became the first club since the 1977 Los Angeles Dodgers to boast four thirty-home-run men: Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker and Vinny Castilla. The foundation on which the Blake Street Bombers were built, first baseman Galarraga, won a National League batting crown (hitting .370) in the club's first year while belting 22 dingers. Larry Walker, the Rockies' most valuable free-agent catch, won the Most Valuable Player crown in 1997 and the N.L. batting title this year (.363).

Those individual accomplishments, Baylor said Sunday, rank high among his fondest memories. So does April 9, 1993, the date of the expansion team's home opener, when 80,227 fans crammed into creaky, doomed Mile High Stadium to watch the Rox play the Montreal Expos. Colorado's slightly built leadoff hitter, Eric Young, promptly smashed a Kent Bottenfield fastball into the left-field bleachers. That long shot would be the first of just three that Young hit all season, but it clearly set the style for major-league baseball in Denver--and perhaps presaged Don Baylor's fate.

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