Call to Arms
Only a devoted masochist -- a guy with a thing for hairshirts and moonlight strolls in Fallujah -- would envy Bob Apodaca. As pitching coach for the Colorado Rockies, Apodaca is asked to piece together some kind of credibility in a ballpark where earned runs, home runs and pitcher anxiety all run higher than a sprinter on crack. Twelve years after slipping soundlessly into the National League, the Rockies remain as baffled as ever by the mysteries of pitching at 5,280 feet, and Apodaca's shell-shocked 2004 staff has a 36-51 midseason record and a bloated 5.83 ERA to prove it. The Rox can humidify their balls. They can experiment with an old-school, four-man rotation. For all we know, they might send Barry Bonds to the plate with a broomstick. Doesn't matter. Nothing seems to work in a place Yale professor Robert K. Adair, baseball's designated physicist, calls "a pitcher's purgatory, if not quite hell."
But wait. Cruise down I-25 to Colorado Springs and you find hope. It is slender, fragile hope, but hope nonetheless. It comes in the form of a genial, plain-speaking 52-year-old named Bob McClure, who holds a job that, at first glance, looks even more futile than Bob Apodaca's. McClure is pitching coach for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, the Rockies' Triple-A farm team, which means that he gets all the vain young dreamers and raw talents before they get torched at homer-happy Coors Field. He also gets all the sore arms and damaged psyches who've already been to the big-league wars and turned up on the casualty list. It is Bob McClure who must turn inexperience into certainty, chaos into beauty, the cruel laws of physics into advantage.
Don't let this get around, but he's doing one helluva good job. At 6,351 feet, no less.
Little matter that as of last week, opposing batters in the venerable Pacific Coast League were hitting a hefty .304 at cozy Sky Sox Stadium, where fly balls jump out of the park even more happily than at Coors. The 47-42 Sky Sox, managed by former major leaguer Marv Foley, are batting an even gaudier .317, and their pitching staff -- a typical high-minor-league mixture of peach fuzz and grizzle -- is holding its own in a league where the scoring is typically astronomical. Last Thursday, for instance, a 26-year-old starter/reliever named Chris Gissell won his seventh game of the season for the Sox (against no losses) with a 10-1 victory over the visiting Oklahoma Red Hawks, who own first place in the PCL's Eastern Division. Gissell scattered six hits over seven innings, while his teammates hit back-to-back-to-back home runs for the second night in a row.
What all 2,449 fans in the park could see was the way the young right-hander changed speeds on his fastball and used an elusive sinker to frustrate opposing batters. In other words, he embodied the gospel according to Bob McClure.
"I think the sinker is the best pitch in baseball," McClure says, "and the changeup is second -- unless you're a 95- or 97-mile-an hour power pitcher with control. Those guys are hard to come by these days, and expensive." Known as one of the best in baseball and often called a "guru" by the pitching-needy Rockies organization, "Mac" McClure is in his third year on the job in Colorado Springs, following three years with the Rockies Single-A club in Salem, Virginia. What he's doing with the Sky Sox staff -- what he's starting to do, anyway -- is instilling big-league confidence in his young charges, urging them to face reality (translation: You'd better dominate at this level before daydreaming about the next one.) and teaching them the pitches that sustained him in a nineteen-year, 1,158-inning major league career, including a full decade with the Milwaukee Brewers as a starter and reliever.
Two hours before a recent Thursday night game, he was out in the bullpen, showing 24-year-old Alex Herrera how to grip and release a sinker. "He's never really thrown one," McClure said later. "We were just fooling around, seeing what he comes up with."
McClure is thicker and grayer now than when he pitched for Harvey Kuenn's colorful Brew Crew teams of the early '80s. But he still sports a luxurious, disco-era mustache, and his paternal patience is counterbalanced by the ferocity he absorbed from his two mentors -- Milwaukee catcher Ted Simmons and fellow pitcher Mike Caldwell, who taught him the sinker and change. Believe it. That fire still flashes to the surface every time one of his young pitchers dogs it in a bullpen session or lets his attention drift in a meeting.
Otherwise, McClure tailors his work to fit circumstance. "This is a matter of perceiving where you are," he says. "What we try to get across to our young pitchers is that their earned-run averages don't matter. Pitching in this ballpark, which along with Albuquerque is the toughest place to pitch in the minor leagues, and at Coors Field, is about winning. It's all about learning to survive at altitude. Once they grasp that, they're on their way to becoming big-league pitchers. It takes maturity, and it takes the right attitude. Most of the guys have good stuff. The difference is how their minds work."
McClure is credited with major renovations in hot-and-cold starter Denny Stark, bringing injured phenom Chon-hui Tsao back into the picture and restoring the confidence of Aaron Cook, who's now back with the parent club. He is also getting top prospect Jeff Francis from Tulsa.
In his own long career, McClure experienced baseball's agonies and ecstasies in profusion -- sometimes within days of each other. When the Brewers made their only World Series appearance, in 1982, top reliever Rollie Fingers was injured, and it fell to McClure to fill the bill against St. Louis. He saved two of Milwaukee's three wins, but he also gave up what turned out to be the winning hit in the decisive seventh game. The man who struck it, it turns out, was an old friend from his hometown of Pacifica, Califiornia. A guy with whom he'd played Little League, Babe Ruth and high school baseball -- Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez.
"That's another thing young pitchers have to learn," McClure says. "The ups and downs of the game. The emotional things. Innings are important for young guys, because they teach you how to handle adversity and become consistent. But because pitchers are being pushed faster into the major leagues these days, they're not accumulating as many innings. Because of economics, that's just the way the game is now. So a lot of guys you get [from the low minors] never see the downside until they get here. Then it's hard to acclimate."
At the moment, there are two pitchers on the Sky Sox staff who have seen it all -- ups and downs, highs and lows. They may be the ones who best understand Bob McClure's value to an organization that faces pitching problems unlike any others in baseball. Rockies reliever Turk Wendell, the spirited 37-year-old big-league veteran famous for wearing elk-tooth necklaces and gleefully firing the rosin bag into the turf, is on a thirty-day rehab stint in the Springs with a stiff shoulder. "Two minutes into my first bullpen session down here," Wendell says, "he kind of tweaked my mechanics and pretty much figured out what I was doing wrong. He's one of the best...he's been through the wars; he pitched for a long time. So I pay attention."
Thirty-one-year-old Brian Tollberg, a former San Diego Padres righthander who underwent the dreaded "Tommy John surgery" on his elbow two years ago, has made only eight major league starts since then, but he's hoping for a return to the Bigs. "It's been kind of trying," he said the other night in the Sky Sox's cramped clubhouse, an ill-lighted place with a couple of dingy couches squatting beneath a lone TV set. "It's tough pitching in the altitude here and trying to work on some things mechanically that contributed to my getting hurt in the first place. But McClure is one of the top two pitching coaches I've ever had. He's good from the mental aspect and with mechanics, and he runs his staff the way it's supposed to be run. No question. He's one of the biggest influences I've had in professional ball. He's been a real help."
Now, if he can just help throw a major changeup at Coors Field.