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Diamond in the Rough

Anthony Camera

As we know, theres 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 Mortons. 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, its your Colorado Rockies. Plagued for a dozen years now by front-office confusion, on-field ineptitude and the cruelty of physics, theyve posted losing records in six of the past seven seasons while finishing no higher than fourth in the five-team National League West. Theyve 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 hes dubbed Less?

Hankie still in your pocket? Consider this. Theyre 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 (Walkers 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 Heltons 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 ODowd 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 didnt know much about the weird history of minor-league ball in this town and they certainly didnt 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 wasnt 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 64, 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.

Its been thus ever since. Not quite baseball; something more akin to pinball. In 1995, the Rockies demolished the major-league record for home-field scoring: Their 658 runs averaged out to more than eight per game. At the same time, shell-shocked Rockies pitchers set stratospheric new standards for futility. Until last year, no Rockie had ever achieved an ERA (the number of earned runs per nine innings pitched) under 4.00: Multi-pitch artist Armando Reynoso put together a 4.00 while going 12-11 in the clubs first season.

When Coors Field, one of the loveliest new parks in the majors, opened in 1995, some people theorized that the scoring binge might be over. Youre not going to have all those cheap home runs at Coors, then-general manager Bob Gebhard declared. Really? Mount St. Helens might not erupt, either. In 1996, the Rockies set a record for home runs at home (149) and runs batted in (909). The only guy who didnt blast fifteen or sixteen round-trippers was the inexplicably ugly team mascot, an inert lump of purple ruffles called Dinger, who looks like he was designed by a committee of slow-witted third-graders.

If the beer-drenched fans in the cheap seats still couldnt figure out the sensational dynamics of Rockies baseball, the aforementioned Dr. Adair knew exactly what was happening. In a book called The Physics of Baseball, the eminent Yale University scientist explained that, at 5,280 feet, fastballs are slightly faster, but curveballs break 25 percent less than they do at sea level, and a batted ball that travels 400 feet in, say, Yankee Stadium goes 430 feet in Denver. Pioneering Rockies hurlers like Kevin Ritz and David Nied probably never heard of the Navier-Stokes equation, but they sure as hell saw it in action. In 1993, visiting sluggers couldnt wait to get to the park. When the San Diego Padres came to call that year, league batting champion Tony Gwynn shook his head and told a reporter: Never seen anything like it. Like hitting golf balls on the moon.

Hitters paradise was quickly exposed as pitchers hell, an insoluble corruption of the Grand Old Game, and everybody knew it. If the major-league powers-that-be were once contemplating expansion to baseball-crazed Mexico City (population: 17 million; altitude: 7,800 feet), its a good bet that notion has fallen back to earth with a thud.

E-2: The Big Bop Theory

In the early years of Rockiedom, GM Gebhard and field manager Don Baylor didnt need an egghead from Yale to tell them how to survive at altitude. When a big Venezuelan first baseman named Andres Galarraga, whose career was clearly in decline and thus made him available to the Rockies in the 1992 expansion draft, won the 1993 league batting title with a startling .370 average (and 22 home runs), they quickly got the idea that power hitting would work in Denver. When a strong-armed outfielder named Dante Bichette, late of the Milwaukee Brewers, set new career highs by hitting .310, smashing 21 homers and knocking in 89 runs for the 93 Rox, suspicion became dogma. By 1995, the Rockies identity was firmly established: The Blake Street Bombers Galarraga, Bichette, right-fielder Walker and third baseman Vinny Castilla all became thirty-home-run men. The score of a Rockies game was far more likely to be 11-9 than 3-2, and for the first time, Colorado struck real fear into opponents especially at home in their roomy new ballpark, with its cavernous center field and treacherous power alleys. Outfielder Ellis Burks wasnt a Bomber per se, but hed slam some dingers for you, too.

Little did anyone know that this would represent the peak of Rockies achievement. When they slipped past San Francisco 10-9 to win the National League Wild Card, the throngs that had supported the club for three years (4.5 million of them in 1993, 3.4 million in 1995) believed it was the dawn of an amazing dominance in the NL West. Even Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox believed it. During a long afternoon of rain during the Braves-Rockies playoff series, Cox sat in the visitors dugout at Coors Field talking with a pair of reporters. Donny has done a great job here, Cox said of Baylor. And very quickly. With this kind of power lineup, and this ballpark, I think the Rockies will be good for years. Tell you this: Im personally very wary of them right now. Well have to be at our best to get past them.

History proved otherwise. In 1995, the Atlanta Braves went on to win their only world championship; the Rockies, who took just one game from Cox and company, have never returned to the playoffs. Their last winning season was 2000, when they went 82-80 and finished fourth in their division. The cold truth about baseball at Coors Field had begun to emerge: The place didnt just ruin pitchers; it took its toll on hitters, too. Whenever the team went on road trips, even the best batters, like Walker and Castilla, had trouble adjusting to the new atmospherics in L.A. or New York. Off-speed pitches bit noticeably harder; minutely slower fastballs wrecked the Rockies timing. As Helton, the finest hitter of them all, recently explained the phenomenon, It doesnt take much. A fraction of difference in speed or movement can throw you off. Thats what baseball is about.

Walkers wearing Cardinals red now. Bichette and Burks have retired. Castillas found new life as a Washington National, and Galarraga Denvers beloved Big Cat finds himself in twilight, a survivor of two bouts with cancer and, at age 43, struggling to make the roster as a backup first baseman/pinch hitter for the New York Mets.

On sunlit Blake Street, their myth is all that remains of the Bombers.

 

E-3: Veteran Pitcher Propositions

From the beginning, the Rockies tried to balance their voracious hunger for power with something like survivalist pitching. The 1993 opening-day starter, David Nied, never developed into the stalwart many thought he would be, and some of the teams odd early acquisitions fading veterans like Greg Harris and Bruce Hurst quietly faded into oblivion.

The first real signs of trouble, major-league trouble, arose in that pivotal year of 1995, when Gebhard signed two high-profile pitching stars: former Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen and San Francisco ace Bill Swift. The theory was to combine lots of punch with a couple of big-name pitchers who could win big games and inspire the youngsters.

Instead, Saberhagen and Swift embodied the first wave of doom in an organization that had been flying high on novelty and modest early success. When these two arms failed, some of it was due to the physical and mental stress of pitching at altitude the Coors Field Effect and some of it was just rotten baseball luck. But the numbers speak for themselves. Almost $50 million worth of investment yielded sixteen wins and eleven losses in three years. In 1995, Saberhagen was 2-1 with a grotesque 6.28 ERA before slumping off to the disabled list. Swifty went 14-10 in 35 starts over three seasons. By the end of 1997, you could occasionally see him, sore-armed relic that he was, soft-tossing on the outfield grass before home games. A decent American Legion outfielder, age sixteen, could probably have knocked him all over the park.

Since their inception twelve years ago, the Rockies have employed 176 pitchers. Only thirteen of them have winning records.

 

E-4: Jim Leyland, Extraterrestrial

The strangest, most wrongheaded season in Rockies history at least in hindsight has to be 1999, when Jim Leyland took over from Don Baylor (six years: 440-469) as Rockies manager. He was a brilliant thinker whod shaped the powerful Pittsburgh Pirates teams of the early 90s young Pirate Barry Bonds was then a swift, slender star in the making and won a World Series as skipper of the Rockies expansion mates, the Florida Marlins, in 1997. Leyland looked like just the man to put Colorados fortunes right through a canny mixture of Coors Field power-hitting (Bichette, Castilla, Helton and Walker) and Leylandesque small ball the timely stolen base, the crucial single, the sacrifice bunt beautifully executed. Not only that, but Leyland was said to be a master at handling pitchers.

The season opened strangely, with a game against the San Diego Padres in Monterrey, Mexico, after which several players on both teams fell ill, and continued on through a plague of injuries and mishaps. Astacio had his record 17-11 season, and Larry Walker won the league batting title with an astonishing .379 average. But the staffs supposed new ace, Darryl Kyle, fell prey to the Coors Field demons and finished 8-13 with a 6.61 ERA. Meanwhile, friction arose between Leyland and Gebhard that eventually took its toll on both of them. The manager who was arguably the best baseball mind ever to wear purple pinstripes began sleeping in his disheveled office at the ballpark, occasionally venturing out at night to a nearby piano bar that featured sing-alongs. As always, Leyland chain-smoked Marlboros and, by the end, openly worried about his sanity. Gebhard resigned on August 20. Leyland told his players on September 6 that 1999 would be his only year as their manager.

After 25 years in the game, one of its smartest strategists gave up early on what he saw as a lost cause. The Rockies ended that season 72-90, last place in the NL West.

 

E-5: Defense + Patience + Pace = Fourth Place

When Dan ODowd Dealin Dan to his intimates replaced Gebhard as general manager in 2000, he brought with him a new theory about Rockie-ball. Sheer power wouldnt do the trick; seven seasons of mostly futile flailing had proven that. What the team needed was patient hitting (run counts full, select pitches carefully), solid fielding (defense, in the baseballs new football-tinged lexicon), good pitching and a ton of speed, especially in the outfield, to cover the vast expanses of green at Coors Field and to manufacture runs with stolen bases and first-to-third scampers on short singles.

A glance at the opening-day lineup for 2000 gives you the ODowd Theory with perfect clarity: in center field, not Ellis Burks, but fast, light-hitting Tom Goodwin; in left, fellow speed-burner Jeffrey Hammonds; at third base, dedicated batting student Jeff Cirillo, a guy who could wait all day for the pitch he wanted to hit. Power vestiges? Like death and taxes, Colorado had Walker and Helton, the rocks of the Rockies. Bases handsomely loaded by the feisty and fleet, the big boys would blast them home in theory, at least.

The pitching? Good enough, ODowd hoped. Hey, Astacio was on the hill every fifth day, wasnt he? And look: If poor Jerry Dipoto and Mike DeJean werent banging around a rubber room somewhere, or if they hadnt decided to chuck the whole thing and become Trappist monks, maybe he could send them out there again to clean up the mess.

The Rockies ended that season 82-80, fourth place. Attendance at Coors Field dropped below 3 million for the first time, and from high up in center field, the grumbles from the Rockpile became audible.

 

E-6: Who Wants to Be a Jillionaire?

If the expensively failed experiments with Saberhagen, Swift and Kile daunted ODowd, he didnt let on. On the contrary. In 2001, the same year foreign terrorists attacked New York and Washington, Dealin Dan did some big-league damage of his own right here in Denver when he signed free-agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to multi-year contracts worth $180 million. To a team laced with Todds Todd Helton, second baseman Todd Walker and outfielder Todd Hollandsworth ODowd added the two great pitchers he believed could reverse the ill fortune that had enveloped Colorado pitchers for a decade. Hampton was a sinker-baller just the thing to induce groundball outs at Coors and Neagles veteran prowess (his Yankees World Series ring was the size of a condominium) would win the day. This was the Rockies most careless splurge: The player payroll jumped $10 million in 2001 to a total of $71.5 million.

The results? In 2001, the touchy Hampton went 14-13. In 2002 he declined to 7-15, began loudly complaining and was shipped off to the Atlanta Braves while the Rockies continued to pay a lot of the freight. As for Neagle, the 19-23 record he put together in the course of three injury-plagued seasons in Colorado was abysmal but no more so than the seedy last chapter of his story here in Colorado. You know the one: that $40 hooker on West Colfax. Neagles arrest. The Rockies synthetic outrage about his morality. The dispute over the remaining $19 million on his contract.

During this spendthrift era, the club loaded up on more Todds third baseman Todd Zeile and pitcher Todd Jones. It installed a humidor in which to cool its balls an object of derision in both leagues. An escalator malfunction at Coors Field fans tumbling down the metal steps, the infernal machine groaning and jolting provided an apt metaphor for Rockies baseball as a whole. The club fired another manager, Buddy Bell, and hired an underling, Clint Hurdle. For all the trouble and expense and woe the organization went through between 2001 and 2003, it earned one last-place finish and a pair of consecutive fourths.

Today, Darryl Kile is dead. Mike Hampton is declining in Atlanta. Neagle landed in the backwater of Tampa Bay presumably with throwing arm healed and his pants zipped but the Devil Rays cut him last week. And the spending binge is over.

 

E-7: Monus to McMorris to Monfort

Along with their on-field woes, the Rockies have gone through enough drama up in the owners suite to fuel a couple of soap operas. Whether those woes have filtered down to the batters box and the pitching mound remains in question, but disgruntled fans certainly ask, too. The latest episode involved part-owner Jerry McMorris, who was ordered by an Adams County jury in February 2004 to pay $363,000 after he was found guilty of fraud in the liquidation of his failing trucking company, Westway Express. Last November, the majority owners of the Rockies, meatpackers Charlie and Dick Monfort, abruptly removed McMorris as a director and officer of the ballclub. I dont know what was on the Monforts minds, McMorris offered in response to this action. I was not given an explanation. He remains a shareholder.

Without McMorriss earlier efforts, however, the Rockies might never have come into being. In the summer of 1992, the original general partner of the club, a shady Ohioan named Mickey Monus, encountered a new round of legal problems, and big-league officials very nearly rescinded the franchise theyd awarded to Denver the previous year. The alternative plan was to transfer it to a group in Tampa. With just days to spare, McMorris jumped in as lead investor in a new Rockies ownership group, with Charlie Monfort and uranium king Oren Benton as members of the general partnership. Benton was later ousted.

Financial problems remain. The teams losing record has translated into sharply reduced fan support, and the club had to face cash calls in 2003 and 2004. Meanwhile, all along Blake Street, Rockies fans grumble that the Monforts and their limited partners dont have the kind of money that puts a winner on the field.

Its clear in todays marketplace that not every owner is George Steinbrenner, the boss of the Yankees. But its just as clear that a healthy new parity has taken hold in the big leagues. Evidence? In the last five years, five different teams have won the World Series the Red Sox, Marlins, Angels, Diamondbacks and Yankees. How long until the altitude-plagued Rockies finally do it? Can they ever?

 

E-8: The Blake Street Bambini

This year, the Rockies seem to have junked both of the competing theories of baseball at altitude: outslugging the other team, or limiting the visitors slugfest with expensive, top-of-the-line pitching. Thats philosophy by default, of course. Having taken their lumps in the Kile-Hampton-Neagle fiascoes, the Rockies now pledge to build from within and create a winner from the ground up.

Good luck. The rookies that manager Hurdle will start this year third baseman Garrett Atkins, shortstop Clint Barmes and catcher J.D. Closser all have the look of middle-of-the-pack prospects. And his youngish outfielders Mohr, Wilson and Matt Holliday have very little resemblance to the Bombers of old, or even to semi-sluggers like Jay Payton and Jeromy Burnitz, who fattened their numbers at 5,280 and promptly signed big contracts elsewhere.

Second baseman Aaron Miles? Who knows. As for the Rockies young pitching staff, most of it schooled in Colorado Springs by sinker/change-up guru Bob McClure, there are questions aplenty. Last season, lefty Joe Kennedy became the first Rockie ever to finish with a sub-4.00 ERA, and Jason Jennings looks for a return to the glories of 2002, when he was named NL Rookie of the Year. Shawn Chacon, every Rockies fans whipping boy last year because of his awful performances as a closer, returns now to the starting rotation. But does a healthy psyche return with him? As for phenom Jeff Francis, Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca (who holds a job only a masochist could love) says hes the real thing. Check back in July.

The teams marketing department chooses to call this bargain-basement aggregation of raw youth and mid-career mediocrity (anchored by the inevitable Helton) Gen R. Lets hope that doesnt stand for Generation Ridiculous. But even the ever-optimistic ODowd has his doubts. In recent media interviews, the general manager has openly questioned his own decisions over the past five years, acknowledged that many of them were ego-driven and pledged to take a hard new road. Success will take time, he says, maybe more time than the dwindling Rockies faithful are willing to invest, but he will never again try for quick fixes or splashy gestures. Hes relying on the kids to grow up. Eventually.

Bottom line: The Rockies will be lucky to win sixty games in 2005, and they wont have last years miserable Arizona Diamondbacks to break their fall into the basement. The D-Backs are much improved; the Padres figure to win the division.

By all means, go to Coors Field if you love warm sunshine and cold beer, but dont get your hopes up even with Barry Bonds absent from the San Francisco lineup and the L.A. Dodgers in their customary disarray. For Hurdle and his class, this will be Baseball 101, and Professor Adair is, once again, sure to be grading on a curve. So lets not get too upset about it, okay? Theres no crying in baseball.


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