By Michael Roberts
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Why should anyone feel sorry for the Colorado Rockies? The eleven-year-old club has been blessed with support that, at its peak, was the envy of Major League Baseball, giving the squad's brain trust the means to assemble a championship-caliber crew the newfangled way: by buying one. But despite a hefty payroll, the Rockies have earned an invitation to the playoffs just once, back in 1995. Most other seasons, a June swoon led to a July slide, August disgust and a September not worth remembering.
Against the backdrop of another putrid campaign, the Rockies recently took out their frustration on the Denver Post scribes charged with covering the debacle, apparently believing that the reporters hadn't already suffered enough. For a span of a day and a half or so, manager Clint Hurdle, under orders from above, refused to meet the press if anyone from the Post was present, and sources at the paper say other coaches adopted a similar philosophy. A conversation between Post sports editor Kevin Dale and Rockies president Keli McGregor eventually broke the impasse, but not before an item about this childishness turned up in the September 20 Rocky Mountain News.
The bad publicity didn't stop there. On September 21, the Post ran an article about the disagreement's resolution and followed up with a September 23 editorial whose headline neatly encapsulated the paper's take on the controversy: "Win, Don't Whine."
It's doubtful the Rockies were thrilled by the Post's advice, but details are difficult to come by. Team spokesman Jay Alves, whose comments appeared in the Rocky and Post articles about the short-lived ban, didn't find time to return five (count 'em, five) phone messages left by yours truly during the Rockies' final home-stand of 2003. Then again, Alves's track record for stepping up to the plate is spotty. Three years ago, he led the charge against syndicated yakker Jim Rome and AM-950/The Fan personalities Sandy Clough and Mike Evans, who'd upset the Rockies for fairly minor reasons. After replying briefly to Westword's initial inquiry about these situations, though, Alves dodged subsequent calls. In the published piece, Clough described Alves as "a lightweight" and "a phony" and dubbed the Rockies "the most arrogant organization in this city" ("When on Rome..." July 20, 2000).
Be that as it may, the Post's recent squabble with the Rockies demonstrates the hazards that news organizations face when attempting to present no-holds-barred sports coverage. Post managing editor Gary Clark argues that sports reporting is essentially the same as any other sort of news-gathering. "There's no different set of rules," he says. "Sports is more fun for our readers, but when it comes to the practice of journalism, the same rules apply." Yet professional sports is a particularly challenging field to cover, since it's populated by highly paid, highly pampered individuals surrounded by folks whose sole job is to keep them sheltered and happy -- and if the press shatters this groovy vibe, retribution can be swift. The most potent weapon wielded by athletes and teams is the restriction of access, and while most pro leagues have regulations against getting even in this manner, it still happens. No wonder sports editor Dale says, "It's the job of a beat writer to build relationships and then rebuild them after they've been damaged. It's a continuing cycle."
The Post's latest reconstruction project was prompted by the September 18 Mark Kiszla column "$1 Seats? Must Be Front Row," which used a bargain-basement ticket deal to illustrate how the Rockies have turned once-eager backers into no-shows. The text found right-fielder/salary-cap drag Larry Walker commiserating with consumers no longer willing to shell out for a mediocre product. "That's tough when you come out and want to watch the home team win and we are not winning," he conceded. "I have always said the prices are outrageous from the minute you park your car." Later, he declared, "I take the fans' side. If I am a baseball fan, it would be tough to come out here."
This attitude may have endeared Walker to readers, but it seems to have irritated Rockies management. According to Post sportswriter Mike Klis, who penned his paper's report about the matter, team officials met with Walker on September 19. At that time, Walker informed beleaguered Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd that while the quotes in the Kiszla column were accurate, they were delivered to another Post reporter, Troy Renck, who wrote a separate item about the slumping slugger that also ran on September 18. Moreover, Walker insisted he would not have made the remarks had he known they'd wind up in a column by Kiszla.
The Post account differs somewhat from the one by veteran baseball chronicler Tracy Ringolsby that appeared in the Rocky. Walker told Ringolsby that his observations were made about baseball as a whole, not just the Rockies, and came from a conversation held "several days earlier" -- claims with which Klis's version quarrels. Additionally, Ringolsby's summary hints at other Post sins that, if they were committed, might make the Rockies' actions seem slightly more rational. "Rockies players and officials also say quotes were either taken out of context or, in some instances, were from conversations a year ago but were portrayed as having been said recently," he wrote. Unfortunately, Alves hasn't made himself available to elaborate. As for Ringolsby, who's had his own moments with the Rockies (former general manager Bob Gebhard wouldn't give him the time of day), he prefers to let his article speak for itself.