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The Basement Tapes

CURSE OF THE CAT: Andres Galarraga remains on the shelf this season due to a cancerous growth in his back. But letting him get away to Atlanta may still represent the breaking point for a Colorado club that made nice progress in its first three years, culminating in a 1995 playoff series with the Braves--who turned out to be the eventual World Series winners. Some of the Big Cat's value may have been hard to pin down--the counsel he gave to young Latin players, his easy humor, his veteran leadership in the clubhouse. But he was the one essential member of the Blake Street Bombers quartet that terrorized opposing pitchers at home and on the road. Galarraga's replacement, young Todd Helton, promises to be a superb player (if the constant losing doesn't undo him), and he finished a close second last year (to Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood) in National League Rookie of the Year voting. But Galarraga's absence--and players will say this privately--is a void that has not been filled: part reality, part mystique and ever tangible. Those painted "14's" that players on many teams are wearing on their caps this season honor an extraordinary player whose effects here went way beyond the numbers.

CAN'T CATCH A BREAK: Notice who caught Yankee pitcher David Cone's perfect game two weeks ago? None other than Joe Girardi, the former Rockies backstop who represents the other crucial loss from the club's 1995 team. A smart veteran who could handle pitchers with fragile psyches, Girardi has been an unsung but invaluable addition to a team that won 125 games and the Series last year and got everyone in baseball speculating that these may have been the best Yankees ever. It's evident now that Girardi was even more valuable to the Rockies. Of the mediocrities who replaced him, Kirt Manwaring remains a good defensive catcher who can't hit, Jeff Reed (now a Chicago Cub) was a journeyman with little power, and the current starter, 27-year-old Henry Blanco, played in San Bernardino and Albuquerque last year. At season's beginning, he was a Rockies "non-roster invitee." Blanco has five homers and 24 RBI this year--and is clearly no Joe Girardi.

MIDDLE MUDDLE: After failing to sign a top-of-the-line center-fielder like Bernie Williams, the Rockies are still going with ex-Giant Hamilton, who has just four home runs and 24 RBI in 323 at-bats. At least Ellis Burks and his wounded knee are in San Francisco. But there's more trouble in the Rockies' middle infield. Shortstop Neifi Perez, who tried to fill big shoes when Weiss left, is a decent glove man who's hitting almost .300 with flashes of power. But the slender 175-pounder has no resemblance to the current model for big-league shortstops, personified by Boston's Nomar Garciaparra and Seattle's Alex Rodriguez--a big guy who can flash leather, throw hard and hit home runs. This is the kind of player perfectly suited to Coors Field, but he isn't on the job. Meanwhile, second base has been a real mess. In 1998, newly acquired Mike Lansing disappointed with a .276 batting average, a spiky attitude and less power than advertised. He's lost most of this year to injury, giving management ever deeper pause about the departure of Eric Young.

THE CIGARETTE-SMOKING MAN: Is it too early to say that first-year manager Jim Leyland, who worked low-scoring, small-market miracles in Pittsburgh and led the expansion Florida Marlins to a world championship in 1997, may be the wrong man for the job here in Colorado? Probably. The team's mysterious hitting woes are not his fault, and the shell-shocked pitching staff is what it's always been. But the payroll here is still $60 million, $15 million more than San Francisco's. The team has not produced, and the old baseball saw that says a superior manager adds ten wins to a team's record has not come to pass. There's no use shouting for Leyland's severed head--not yet, anyway. But doesn't Don Baylor's 1995 performance--a trip to the playoffs, using smoke and mirrors and pitchers just off the psychiatrist's couch--begin to look better and better as the sorrowful seasons slide by? Two, three more years like this and we'll start thinking this is Montreal.

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