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Farewell to Arms

Regular starting catcher Jayhawk Owens struggled to pull on his pants, his sprained left thumb encased in a wad of Ace bandage big enough to gift-wrap a Cadillac. Most of the prematurely weary relief pitchers had their shoulders packed in ice, like flounder headed for market. Roger Bailey, who sprained his knee the day before against the Expos, had the stiff-legged walk of a New Year's Eve drunk. Marvin Freeman, who had injured his left groin three games earlier while running to cover first base, gloweringly declined to talk about his health but allowed that he would likely start Friday against the New York Mets.

These were the lucky ones. These were the ones who may actually play baseball again someday.

If the Colorado Rockies clubhouse was as tense and gloomy as the Gaza Strip Monday afternoon, no one could blame the players. After starting the new season 2-4 in Philadelphia and Montreal, the locals had just dropped their home opener 9-6 to a team that gives them trouble at any altitude--the Chicago Cubs. Ominously, the Cubs had scored six runs in the first two innings off Colorado starter Kevin Ritz, and after the Rox scrapped back to tie the game in the fifth, manager Don Baylor ordered an intentional walk of Cubs left-fielder Luis Gonzales in the seventh. The next hitter, catcher Scott Servais, smashed a three-run homer into the left-field seats. Goodbye, ballgame.

That was but the disappointment du jour. Going into Monday's home opener, Larry Walker was hauling around an 0-for-19 streak and hitting .111 (he went 1 for 5 against the Cubs); Dante Bichette suffered through a dreadful spring and was now batting .174 (2 for 5 Monday); Andres Galarraga was at .227 (0 for 4 against Chicago). Among the celebrated Blake Street Bombers, only third-baseman Vinny Castilla had popped the box: He had two home runs and five RBIs in the first six road games and was batting .273. Was this a classic case of slow starts? Would the sluggers eventually find their batting strokes? Sure. One week does not a season make. But seven games into 1996, the Rockies' disabled list already had five names on it. Aside from Owens and Bailey, lead-off man and top base-stealer Eric Young had a broken hand and was rehabbing in New Haven. Long-injured starter Bill Swift had thrown 45 pain-free fastballs and changeups in the bullpen Monday and was hopeful his right shoulder was finally coming around--but he hadn't dared to test his breaking stuff.

Then there was Bret Saberhagen. If you find it difficult to sympathize with a baseball player who gets paid $5,612,991 a year but never plays--a guy who has barely been able to break glass with his fastball since late last summer--consider how he feels. When the Rockies' public-relations director told Saberhagen that all the players would be introduced to the Coors Field throng of 50,185 before Monday's game and that he would have to go out on the field, the former Cy Young winner said: "Do I have to? It just seems strange." "Yeah, but you're part of the team," he was told. There was hurt in Saberhagen's eyes as he told the story. "I don't really feel like part of the team," he said.

Even canny general manager Bob Gebhard, as expensively suited and handsomely tanned as always, betrayed signs of wear. "None of us could have predicted this," he said. "In terms of Swift and Saberhagen, at the end of last year, with the medical notes I'd gotten, we thought they'd both be ready by Opening Day."

Translation: The two highest-paid Rockies--free-agent right-handers who have 219 big-league wins and earn $10 million between them--both remain on the shelf at the start of a campaign when the Rox mean to augment their power hitting with top-drawer starting pitching, give the beleaguered bullpen some well-earned rest and--just maybe--hold those late-inning leads against the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Instead, with the season only six days old, Gebhard and manager Don Baylor had to count their remaining pennies and hope that 32-year-old journeyman John Habyan, Bailey's roster replacement up from Colorado Springs, could get to Coors Field from Edmonton, Alberta, by game time Monday. Actually, Habyan arrived in the second inning, threw on a Rockies uniform and, barely eighty minutes later, found himself out there on the mound in relief of Ritz.

Clearly, early 1996 was not supposed to go this way.
"I had to milk as much as I could out of Ritz," Baylor lamented. The milk came to 122 pitches, 9 runs on 11 hits and 4 walks, in seven innings of work.

"Pitching is always a struggle to put together," Gebhard had said. "And when you lose one of your five starters [Freeman] indefinitely, it always makes you a little nervous. But it's not as bad as we thought, and he's going to pitch later on this week."

What of later on this year?
Justifiably, local fans are still aglow over the uprising of 1995, when the Rox won a wild-card spot, reached postseason play five years faster than any other expansion team and gave the eventual world-champion Braves the scare of a lifetime. The Rox led late in each of four playoff games with Atlanta but pulled out just one of them. No National League club will be caught unaware again this season, and if the Rockies experience a power outage here and there, it could be a very long season.

Consider. When Bichette, Walker, Castilla and Galarraga each hit more than thirty home runs in 1995--only the New York Yankees of yore had done that--skeptics pointed (again and again) to the homer-friendly aerodynamics of Coors Field. Gebhard believes the quartet can repeat its power performance--and that left-fielder Ellis Burks can help plump up the total. But don't be surprised if the Stout Street Bombers--Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols--attract more attention late this summer than the hometown sluggers in LoDo: Their career numbers of 1995 will be an awfully tough act to follow in any ballpark.

The National League West is also much tougher than last year. The Dodgers have that celebrated international pitching staff (Hideo Nomo, Pedro Astacio, Ramon Martinez, Ismael Valdes, and every Angeleno's favorite human stadium, Chan Ho Park), power hitters Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi and Mike Piazza, and another potential rookie of the year in outfielder Todd Hollandsworth. San Francisco will probably have to live with pitching woes similar to those of the Rockies, but a healthy Matt Williams, injured most of last season, could add 35 or 40 (or more) home runs to the charts, which won't hurt All-Star Barry Bonds's batting average or the numbers of newly acquired veteran shortstop Shawon Dunston. The Rox won eight and lost four against the Giants last season, but....

An even more threatening sea change could come at Jack Murphy Stadium. Under new ownership, the penny-pinching is over in San Diego, and perennial N.L. batting champion Tony Gwynn has been joined by classic lead-off hitter Rickey Henderson, veteran Wally Joyner and pitcher Bob Tewksbury. Take a closer look at the Padres' opening-day roster and you'll also find some players the Rockies may come to wish they'd never shopped: Willie Blair, Brad Ausmus, Andy Ashby, Doug Bochtler, Jody Reed. The Dodgers remain the chalk to win the West, but the retooled Padres are the hip pick. In any case, the Rox may not go 9-4 against San Diego again this season.

Meanwhile, Rockies management is praying that Saberhagen and Swift can go at all. The latter said his right shoulder suddenly felt fine in Monday's encouraging workout: "I don't know what happened, but it felt good. I guess things are working. Maybe I just need to throw off the mound a couple of times to get rid of it...I didn't tire at the end. It was a positive sign, a good direction...You want to be out there helping the team, which is struggling right now. I need to get in there and start doing my job."

Across the room--the other side of the Gaza Strip--the casualty report was not so good. "I take a lot of pride in my pitching, and the team's struggling, pitching-wise," Bret Saberhagen said. "They need complete games, and they need guys to go late in the game. That's always been in my repertoire, so it's frustrating. It's tough to swallow."

So the five-million-dollar man comes in day after day and works diligently at trying to build up his aching right shoulder, with no apparent improvement. "I don't have a crystal ball," he said, "so I just don't know. If it doesn't work, it wasn't meant to be, I guess."

For a team disarmed, it could be a long year on Blake Street.