For Whom the Bell Toils

The new Rockies manager may not be perfect, but neither are the Rockies.

Buddy Bell had been in town all of five minutes when he started talking in riddles. "The situation here can be as perfect as a situation can be," Bell explained at the October 20 press conference where he was installed as the Colorado Rockies' new manager. "I understand that no situation can be perfect."

Hegel couldn't have said it better. Or Stengel, for that matter. Among the current crop of idealist philosophers, David Gus "Buddy" Bell, age 48, may have no peer. He believed in relative perfection three years ago in Detroit, when his Tigers finished dead last in their division with a 53-109 record. He believed it in 1998 when, with Detroit foundering again at 52-85, he marched into the general manager's office and demanded to know if he'd be retained as the team's skipper the following season. The semi-perfect answer to his question came the next day: He was fired.

As a big-league manager, Bell lost 60 percent of his games in three seasons with the Tigers (184-277). That kind of success, it appears, is exactly what new Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd and the club's baffled owners were looking for in their less-than-exhaustive talent search for a manager to replace Jim Leyland. The estimable Leyland, you will recall, spent just one year in the Colorado dugout before the unholy spectacle of 11-9 losses and horrible fielding plays and pitchers' shredded egos drove him first to a bed with rumpled sheets in his office at Coors Field and then into early retirement. The cigarette-smoking strategist who loved to say "fuck" in interviews said "fuck you" to the Rockies with two years still left on his contract and wisely slipped off into real life.

Neither Leyland's failure at high-altitude managing nor the psychological depths to which the Rockies' constant misfortunes drove him has fazed Buddy Bell. Like the captain of the Titanic or Napoleon at Waterloo, he wanted this job. Despite talking in riddles. "First of all," he told the press that day, "I'd like to judge this Coors Field on my own. I have to see it to believe it. Because I'm having a hard time believing it."

Believe it, Bud. As Leyland quickly discovered and the late-lamented Don Baylor quickly discovered before him, Coors Field produces no momentary aberrations in the fluid dynamics of struck objects. Coors Field is constant hell. Coors Field is the Bermuda Triangle where pitchers' careers swirl down into the deep. Coors Field is Kosovo on a bad day, pelted by mortar and artillery barrages. Coors Field is the place where baseball managers go to lose their minds.

Meanwhile, don't let it compromise your belief in perfection, Mr. Bell, but the Rockies' starting rotation in the year 2000 is likely to be even less talented than the one that in 1999 won 49 games and lost 64 while compiling a bloated 6.19 earned run average -- the highest on the planet, ever. Supposed top starter Darryl Kile makes $8 million a year, but he went a dismal 8-13 this year and walked only seven fewer batters than he struck out; he'll likely be gone this winter. Youngsters John Thomson and Jamey Wright, tabbed as key members of the staff at the beginning of 1999, both spent months trying to put their arms back together at AAA Colorado Springs, but when they returned to the big club, the effort didn't show. Back with the Rockies, Thomson finished the year 1-10 with a grotesque 8.04 ERA.

Brass tacks: No free-agent ace with a brain under his cap will now be willing to sign with the Rockies -- not even if Jerry McMorris holds the man hostage or buys him a Caribbean island. That means the starter's burden will once more fall to Pedro Astacio, a Los Angeles Dodger castoff who managed to win a club-record-tying seventeen games for the sinking Rox in 1999, and to the chunky lefty Brian Bohanon, who represents one of former GM Bob Gebhard's only good moves of recent seasons. A dependable journeyman, Bohanon is also something of a bargain: He'll make only $2 million in 2000.

Do we really want to revisit the Rockies' bullpen woes? Probably not. Suffice it to say, Mr. Bell, that there's no Mariano Rivera in that bunch of goofballers out there behind the center-field fence, no John Rocker, no Armando Benitez. The names Dave Veres, Jerry DiPoto and Curtis Leskanic (is this the year he's finally traded away?) don't exactly set the hearts of Rockies fans aflutter, but that's no surprise. It's opposing hitters who love to see them coming into the game. The addition of 33-year-old Stan Belinda certainly won't scare anyone.

Buddy Bell, third-generation big-league ballplayer and brass-bound optimist, is said to have a sense of humor. Managing at Coors Field, he'll need it. My favorite Bell story grows out of a spring-training game some years ago in Florida, when the then-Gold Glove third baseman was suffering through an uncharacteristically tough day in the field. After Bell committed his second or third error of the afternoon, the memorably witty umpire Ron Luciano started kidding him -- at which point Bell flipped Luciano his fielder's glove and said, "Here. You play third. I'll umpire." And that's just what they did -- for an inning. Luciano even tried to nail a runner at second base, and although his throw was high and late, fellow ump Joe Brinkman called the man out. Chuckles all around.

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