Stay the Coors

Will the newly minted Rockies soar or end up sore-armed again this season?

Two, even though Walker has generously deferred $6 million in salary to keep his team solvent, the Hampton and Neagle deals necessitated cutting corners elsewhere. To wit: Spindly centerfielder and lead-off hitter Juan Pierre is quick as a cat, but his lack of power and below-average throwing arm are detriments at Coors Field; young catcher Ben Petrick can hit, but his mechanics behind the plate are suspect, and he lacks experience handling pitchers; second baseman Todd Walker, a castoff of the lowly Minnesota Twins, batted .290 last year, but his range is limited and his throws are weak. It comes as no surprise that the 2001 salaries of these three starters add up to a measly $1.5 million -- about what Alex Rodriguez pays his chauffeur. That means that shortstop Neifi Perez, platooning left-fielders Todd Hollandsworth and Ron Gant and gifted but underappreciated third baseman Jeff Cirillo -- a .326 hitter who looks like the most valuable product of the Rockies Revolution of 2000 -- will probably need career years if Colorado is to compete this year with the pitching-rich Los Angeles Dodgers, ever-solid, smartly managed San Francisco and an ill-tempered, hard-throwing Arizona Diamondbacks club.

The D'Backs are not the favorites, but they might be the hip pick to win the National League West, not least because aging veterans like Mark Grace, Matt Williams and Jay Bell know that the clock is ticking on their World Series dreams. Barring major injuries, they'll be tough, especially with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the rotation.

Meanwhile, commingled hope and confidence wafted northward this winter from the Rockies' training camp in Tucson. Neagle's trademark practical joking was said to be a mood-elevator. Walker's veteran leadership gave off postive vibes. Hampton's game-day ferocity is proving contagious. Helton's magnificent 2000 is a model for all to behold as the Rites of Spring unfold.

Who knows? But manager Buddy Bell was aglow Monday in the Rockies' post-game clubhouse. "We already had confidence in spring training," he said. "I just think [Hampton] adds to it. I really believe that. It's not just his energy and his talent, but his passion for the game that comes out when he's pitching. And that has an effect on the other pitchers."

And the Neagle factor? "Well, Denny's a little different," Bell said. "When he doesn't pitch, he's a fun-loving guy, but the day he pitches, he's serious, and he competes as well as Mike does. It was nice to win today and give Neags a little cushion."

It was also nice to give 48,114 bellowing, sun-splashed Rockies fans a little cushion on Opening Day. Every last one of them, however, would do well not to get too comfortable. The seats are likely to get harder.

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