A Really Rocky Start

This may be Cowtown, but that wasn't Moooo! the Coors Field multitudes started yelling at the top of the third inning Monday afternoon. An eminently catchable fly ball had just dropped for a hit between outgoing shortstop Juan Uribe and incoming left-fielder Todd Hollandsworth, scoring Houston's Craig Biggio, and 50,392 fans were suddenly fed up. With 155 2/3 games left to play, they'd had it with losing, and the boos and catcalls poured down on the field like sleet.

"Will this awful season never end?" a press-box wiseguy wailed.

To be sure, Opening Day at Coors Field -- the 2002 edition -- had the look, feel and smell of Rockies campaigns past. The afternoon came up as chill and cloudy as the team's World Series prospects. Again, the club's acid-dropping exterior decorator had draped the ballyard with bad-dream bunting -- not the red, white and blue ruffles dictated by tradition, but green, white and purple stuff that made the whole place look like a clunky old TV screen with screwed-up color control. When the game was over (Astros 8, Rockies 4), Colorado found itself deposited in the all-too-familiar National League West cellar, with a 2-5 record, 4 1/2 games back. Afterward, in the Rockies' funereal clubhouse, the loudest thing going was the guy banging dirt off the players' cleats. NL batting champion Larry Walker sat silently before his locker, nose studiously buried in business mail. Slugger Todd Helton, in the grip of a mysterious April slump (3 for 24), admitted he had been "baffled" by Houston starter Roy Oswalt. "My body's doing things I don't understand right now," Helton said. His voice was quiet, his brown eyes full of hurt.

Hollandsworth judged that the Rockies, just back from a 2-4 opening road trip to St. Louis and Los Angeles, were "tight" and "pressing" to get the job done. "It's a collective thing," he opined. "We just have to relax, and we'll play better. There's no panic."

Not yet. But any baseball team that gets exactly one sniff of the playoffs in nine years tends to be on edge. When a club that has finished dead last in two of the past three seasons has to cut payroll by more than twenty million bucks, there are worries. A team that changes personalities more often than Laurence Olivier may have trouble finding itself. A ballclub that eats up pitchers like a fat man assaulting the buffet table has to be concerned when its multi-millionaire ace -- lefty Mike Hampton -- opens the season with a pair of ugly road losses and an earned-run average that looks like a football score. Not to worry. The only thing Hampton has to do at Coors Field Friday to earn a "W" is beat world-champion Arizona's Curt Schilling, who's won his first two games (striking out seventeen Milwaukee Brewers in the second one) and limited his ERA to, let's see here, zero-point-zero-zero.

Maybe the Diamondbacks will come down with bubonic plague. Or big Randy Johnson (2-0, 0.56 ERA) will quit baseball to join a monastery. Otherwise, the Rockies appear to be in for a tough time. They get seven full servings of snarling Diamondback and three more meetings with the Dodgers (who swept them in Los Angeles) in the next two weeks, then more rough stuff with Philadelphia and surprising Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the division-leading San Francisco Giants have declined to lose any games thus far, while home-run king Barry Bonds continues to make Mark McGwire look like a banjo hitter. The Giants come calling in May, and when June rolls around, Colorado gets to play inter-league series against Boston, Cleveland, the New York Yankees and Seattle.

Sad to say, the Rox may not wait until mid-season this year to vanish from the radar.

What to do? At the home opener Monday, the team press notes touted a pitching prospect for one of the club's Single A affiliates, the Asheville Tourists, who had just thrown six perfect innings against South Georgia. His name is Justin Hampson and, as early-season despair sets in, you have to wonder if the big club shouldn't bring him up right now. They'd only have to change one letter on the back of the uniform for him to replace Hampton, who started strong but finished the last half of the season 5-11 and has taken up exactly where he left off -- despite a $9.5 million salary this year.

On Monday, Rockies manager Buddy Bell blamed the team's slow start in part on "some pretty good pitching" by the opposition. Like all veteran baseball men, Bell takes the long view even when the short one will do, and in the post-game autopsy, he patiently explained that the veterans on his club understand full well that there are 155 games left to play, that baseball's six-month grind is full of surprises, and that, while frustrating, the team's grim start wasn't the end of the world.

Little matter that Houston's Biggio had, for the first time in his career, just hit for "the cycle" (a single, double, triple and home run in the same game) against Colorado, or that Bell's second starter, ex-Brave and ex-Yankee Denny Neagle, had just given up six runs in six innings (including three homers), or that poor Helton, ordinarily one of the game's finest hitters, had for seven games looked like Ray Charles at the plate.

"Helt's the least of our concerns right now," Bell said.

Maybe so. The guy Bell sees in the mirror every morning could turn out to be a bigger concern -- at least in the eyes of his employers. The 2002 season is barely a week old, and already the Detroit Tigers, winless in six games, have fired their manager, Phil "Scrap Iron" Garner, and their general manager. The brain trusts in poorly playing Baltimore and Texas could be next on the guillotine, but the talking seamheads on ESPN's Baseball Tonight wasted no time Monday speculating about Bell's cloudy future at 5,280 feet. Eventually, Helton will hit. But if this stuff keeps up, the Rockies' embattled owners could very well say: "Hey, Buddy, take a walk."

"Will this awful season never end?"

Hey, things could be worse. This could be Montreal, where the unloved Expos are playing their 34th, and probably last, futile season in a milieu where the Molson vendors outnumber the spectators. (On the other hand, Montreal is a respectable 4-3). This could be Texas, where human-affairs specialist John Rocker and juvenile delinquent Carl Everett have been added to a team with a $26 million shortstop and ten-dollar pitching.

Worse yet, this could be July, when outside events may threaten to put the Rockies out of their misery before they do it themselves. To wit: When baseball commissioner Bud Selig -- still Bud Lite to friend and foe -- announced before Opening Day that, even without a new collective-bargaining agreement, the owners would not lock out the players this year, he didn't eliminate labor strife from the baseball season. He did something more insidious: He shifted the burden from the owners to the players. There will be no lockout this year, but there may well be another strike. And if current baseball rumors deserve any credence, that strike could be called just before the All-Star Game on July 9. Why then? The big mid-season show is scheduled for Miller Field in Milwaukee, where Selig's Brewers play. The players' union has come to detest the Commish, and fouling off the All-Star Game in his hometown would give them special satisfaction, as it hurts all the owners.

As for the fans, still smarting from 1994's ruinous strike and cancellation of the World Series, they won't take kindly to another work stoppage, regardless of its source.

Those possible horrors lurk around the bend. For now, Hampty Dampty is trying to put himself back together again at Coors Field, and Todd Helton is struggling to regain his beautiful and powerful batting stroke. Will it take a three-for-four day, or a couple of homers? "I don't know," Helton answered Monday. "But it would be nice to find out." The Rockies' talented but uncertain youngsters in the middle of the diamond -- catcher Ben Petrick, shortstop Juan Uribe, second baseman Jose Ortiz and centerfielder Juan Pierre (current average as leadoff man: .148) -- must fight off the jitters. In the end, second starter Neagle said it best on Monday. The team has to relax, play its game, find its rhythm, he said. "The wins are going to come," he said. "Unfortunately, things just aren't clicking for us all around the board. We're coming out flat, and we need to kick it in gear."

As he said that, you couldn't help noticing the World Series ring Neagle won with the 2000 New York Yankees. A massive block of gem-encrusted gold, glinting in the light, it looked bigger than most Manhattan apartments and, amid the quiet of the losing Rockies' clubhouse, even more unattainable.


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