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Diamond in the Rough

After a dozen years, your Colorado Rockies still face a rocky road. Play bawl!

As we know, there’s no crying in baseball. No crying when the first six batters all smash ropes off you and by the bottom of the second, your earned-run average looks like the dinner tab at Morton’s. No crying when the left-field bleachers are so sparsely populated you can hear the beer man cracking open Coors Lights. No crying when your team is so bad that third place starts to look good and the roster is changing faster than left-side rubber at the Daytona 500.

No crying. But if any ballclub in the major leagues has an excuse to break down in a full-tilt flood of tears, it’s your Colorado Rockies. Plagued for a dozen years now by front-office confusion, on-field ineptitude and the cruelty of physics, they’ve posted losing records in six of the past seven seasons while finishing no higher than fourth in the five-team National League West. They’ve torn up previously sane and able pitchers with serial-killer efficiency, wasted tens of millions of dollars, and become the laughingstock of the National League — at least among baseball fans who still give the Rox any thought at all.

“Denver is a very strange place to play baseball,” muses a San Francisco Giants executive. “What is going on there?”

This year could be even worse. After dropping 94 games in 2004 — just one loss short of the club record set in the inaugural 1993 season — Rockies manager Clint Hurdle is likely to put a starting eight on the field for the April 4 opener that features three fresh-faced rookies, two marginal second-year men who are already nearing age thirty, a $12 million center-fielder whose wounded knee could give out any minute, and a journeyman fly-ball hitter whose previous clubs — the Giants and the Minnesota Twins — saw fit to plant him on the bench. Dustan Mohr. How long before he’s dubbed “Less”?

Hankie still in your pocket? Consider this. They’re always terrible, but for seven years, the Rockies could at least count on two top-of-the-line sluggers in the lineup: perennial All-Star Larry Walker, and the best first baseman in the game, Todd Helton, who has the highest career batting average (.339) and slugging percentage (.616) of any active player. This year, the Rox have only Helton to carry them (Walker’s a St. Louis Cardinal), and for the first time, management is openly worried about scoring runs in the most power-friendly baseball venue this side of the BALCO warehouse.

If something goes wrong with Helton’s tricky back, forget about gimpy-kneed Preston Wilson picking up the slack. Forget about parallels to the comic blundering of the ’62 Mets. Because the Rockies could find themselves in Cleveland Spiders territory. In 1899, the Spiders won twenty games, lost 134 and finished 84 games out of first place in the then-twelve-team National League. In the season closer, the worst team in big-league history recruited a clerk from a cigar stand to pitch for it against the Cincinnati Reds. He lost 19-3. Come winter, the Spiders were drummed out of the league. Monfort brothers, take note.

“We have a lot of questions going into 2005,” Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd allows. “More than most teams.”

Well, yes. Question 1: Which crackpot theory on how to win at altitude is in vogue on Blake Street this year? Question 2: How much more patience must Rockies fans display before going completely nuts and fire-bombing the home dugout? Question 3: Which is more hazardous — pitching at Coors Field or dining al fresco in Fallujah?

What follows is a selective (and subjective) chronicle of how and why things have gone wrong with a franchise once thought to be one of the best hopes in baseball — and the most financially sound operation of all the so-called mid-market teams. Let us not forget: To err is human; to hand Mike Hampton 121 million bucks is criminal.

 

E-1: 5,280 Feet = Paradise Lost

When members of the National League expansion committee approved a franchise for Denver in 1991, they probably didn’t know much about the weird history of minor-league ball in this town — and they certainly didn’t consult Dr. Robert K. Adair about drag coefficients and the Navier-Stokes equation, which governs fluid dynamics. Maybe they should have. Beginning in 1886, assorted bush-league teams have played here — the Denvers, the Rough Riders, the Colts, the Teddy Bears — but it wasn’t until detailed baseball statistics came into favor in the 1950s that two undeniable trends became apparent. Games played in Denver produced unusually high scores, and the place was uniformly brutal on pitchers. Fact: Since 1955, the only twenty-game winner for a Denver minor-league team was Jim Ollom, a 6’4”, 210-pound right-hander who did it for the old Denver Bears in 1966, then promptly flopped as a reliever for the Minnesota Twins. The only Rockie to win as many as seventeen games in a season was fan favorite Pedro Astacio, who managed that in 1999.

Meanwhile, hitters wear themselves out circling the bases. When the Rockies played their first-ever home game on April 9, 1993, against the Montreal Expos, the first Rockies batter, second baseman Eric Young, smashed the ball over the left-field fence at Mile High Stadium. Later in the same inning, Charlie Hayes lofted a three-run homer to center field. Before a delirious, major-league-record crowd of 80,227, the Rockies went on to win 11-4. They beat the Expos again the next day, 9-5. In two games, the teams combined for 29 runs on 47 hits, committed nine errors and left 25 men on base.

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