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For Whom the Bell Toils

Patrick Merewether

Buddy Bell had been in town all of five minutes when he started talking in riddles. "The situation here can be as perfect as a situation can be," Bell explained at the October 20 press conference where he was installed as the Colorado Rockies' new manager. "I understand that no situation can be perfect."

Hegel couldn't have said it better. Or Stengel, for that matter. Among the current crop of idealist philosophers, David Gus "Buddy" Bell, age 48, may have no peer. He believed in relative perfection three years ago in Detroit, when his Tigers finished dead last in their division with a 53-109 record. He believed it in 1998 when, with Detroit foundering again at 52-85, he marched into the general manager's office and demanded to know if he'd be retained as the team's skipper the following season. The semi-perfect answer to his question came the next day: He was fired.

As a big-league manager, Bell lost 60 percent of his games in three seasons with the Tigers (184-277). That kind of success, it appears, is exactly what new Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd and the club's baffled owners were looking for in their less-than-exhaustive talent search for a manager to replace Jim Leyland. The estimable Leyland, you will recall, spent just one year in the Colorado dugout before the unholy spectacle of 11-9 losses and horrible fielding plays and pitchers' shredded egos drove him first to a bed with rumpled sheets in his office at Coors Field and then into early retirement. The cigarette-smoking strategist who loved to say "fuck" in interviews said "fuck you" to the Rockies with two years still left on his contract and wisely slipped off into real life.

Neither Leyland's failure at high-altitude managing nor the psychological depths to which the Rockies' constant misfortunes drove him has fazed Buddy Bell. Like the captain of the Titanic or Napoleon at Waterloo, he wanted this job. Despite talking in riddles. "First of all," he told the press that day, "I'd like to judge this Coors Field on my own. I have to see it to believe it. Because I'm having a hard time believing it."

Believe it, Bud. As Leyland quickly discovered and the late-lamented Don Baylor quickly discovered before him, Coors Field produces no momentary aberrations in the fluid dynamics of struck objects. Coors Field is constant hell. Coors Field is the Bermuda Triangle where pitchers' careers swirl down into the deep. Coors Field is Kosovo on a bad day, pelted by mortar and artillery barrages. Coors Field is the place where baseball managers go to lose their minds.

Meanwhile, don't let it compromise your belief in perfection, Mr. Bell, but the Rockies' starting rotation in the year 2000 is likely to be even less talented than the one that in 1999 won 49 games and lost 64 while compiling a bloated 6.19 earned run average -- the highest on the planet, ever. Supposed top starter Darryl Kile makes $8 million a year, but he went a dismal 8-13 this year and walked only seven fewer batters than he struck out; he'll likely be gone this winter. Youngsters John Thomson and Jamey Wright, tabbed as key members of the staff at the beginning of 1999, both spent months trying to put their arms back together at AAA Colorado Springs, but when they returned to the big club, the effort didn't show. Back with the Rockies, Thomson finished the year 1-10 with a grotesque 8.04 ERA.

Brass tacks: No free-agent ace with a brain under his cap will now be willing to sign with the Rockies -- not even if Jerry McMorris holds the man hostage or buys him a Caribbean island. That means the starter's burden will once more fall to Pedro Astacio, a Los Angeles Dodger castoff who managed to win a club-record-tying seventeen games for the sinking Rox in 1999, and to the chunky lefty Brian Bohanon, who represents one of former GM Bob Gebhard's only good moves of recent seasons. A dependable journeyman, Bohanon is also something of a bargain: He'll make only $2 million in 2000.

Do we really want to revisit the Rockies' bullpen woes? Probably not. Suffice it to say, Mr. Bell, that there's no Mariano Rivera in that bunch of goofballers out there behind the center-field fence, no John Rocker, no Armando Benitez. The names Dave Veres, Jerry DiPoto and Curtis Leskanic (is this the year he's finally traded away?) don't exactly set the hearts of Rockies fans aflutter, but that's no surprise. It's opposing hitters who love to see them coming into the game. The addition of 33-year-old Stan Belinda certainly won't scare anyone.

Buddy Bell, third-generation big-league ballplayer and brass-bound optimist, is said to have a sense of humor. Managing at Coors Field, he'll need it. My favorite Bell story grows out of a spring-training game some years ago in Florida, when the then-Gold Glove third baseman was suffering through an uncharacteristically tough day in the field. After Bell committed his second or third error of the afternoon, the memorably witty umpire Ron Luciano started kidding him -- at which point Bell flipped Luciano his fielder's glove and said, "Here. You play third. I'll umpire." And that's just what they did -- for an inning. Luciano even tried to nail a runner at second base, and although his throw was high and late, fellow ump Joe Brinkman called the man out. Chuckles all around.  

Let's hope Bell is still laughing next July. The Rockies have $45 million worth of payroll tied up in nine players -- including the nearly untradeable two-time batting champ Larry Walker ($12 million) and second baseman Mike Lansing ($6 million) -- which severely limits O'Dowd's trade options. Most marketable? Third baseman Vinny Castilla, who would be a major loss, and Kile, who would not.

Along with lousy pitching, Bell has also inherited no team speed, no dependable leadoff hitter and, since dealing swift but gimpy Darryl Hamilton to the New York Mets, no center-fielder capable of covering the vast green reaches of Coors Field. Now that Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette, traded to Cincinnati over the weekend, are gone, the fearsome Blake Street Bombers are a memory and the club has no top-line veteran catcher. Rookie Ben Petrick played well in his debut, but he's green, and light-hitting Kirt Manwaring has been let go.

That's not all. Temperamental second baseman Lansing and his $6 million salary spent all of 1999 on the injury list, and the value of a healthy Lansing as a top-of-the-order hitter remains in question. Shortstop Neifi Perez is slick enough afield, but he doesn't hit for much power. First baseman Todd Helton's second year in the bigs was solid, but Coors Field fans won't be forgetting the Big Cat anytime soon.

The Rockies' best player is still Walker, who won his second consecutive batting crown this year, following an MVP in 1997. He's defensively brilliant, steals bases and hits home runs. He can fire up teammates. But Walker will turn 33 in December and has been plagued in recent seasons by a series of injuries. If he gets hurt again, the Rox are almost certain to finish last again in the National League West.

Given its financial constraints, Rockies management may not be able to sign a whippet-swift centerfielder who can hit for average and power -- even though such a player would likely love Coors Field, especially if he values gaudy individual stats over team performance. Perfection would be Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr., who becomes a free agent in 2001. Reality might be Tom Goodwin of Texas or Jim Edmonds of Anaheim. The back-up outfielder the Rox got in the Bichette deal, Jeffrey Hammonds, is no cure-all. As for catchers, don't expect Todd Hundley or Mike Piazza to wear purple pinstripes anytime soon.

Do expect Buddy Bell, idealist, to persevere. A "players' manager" who had an eighteen-year playing career and has spent a lifetime in the game, he won kudos among Tigers players and says he isn't daunted -- not yet, anyway -- by the stresses of home-run baseball at Coors Field. For now, he has yet another riddle that covers the whole ballgame, so to speak:

"The Detroit situation is a situation that obviously I wish would have worked out better. But if it did, I wouldn't be here, so I guess it worked out."

Semi-perfectly, anyway.


If your Denver Broncos hope to salvage a little respect in this lost season, they'd do well to shoot for November 14 and November 22.

On the 14th, Mike Shanahan's battered troops face the Seahawks in Seattle. It's a nationally televised Sunday-night game, and if Denver (minus John Elway, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, John Mobley and Alfred Williams) can rise up to give Mike Holmgren's Hawks a snootful of fist, they will at least shows the fans and the staff at Sports Illustrated that they have a heartbeat. Eight days later, the Broncos host the Oakland Raiders, whom they've beaten on the road for one of their two wins on Monday Night Football. The Raiders will be looking for revenge, of course, and they're famous terrors on Monday nights. A Denver victory in that one would surely infuse this injury-prone, controversy-laced year with a ray of light.

Following the Raiders game, Denver gets a well-earned week off before facing division-leading Kansas City, Jacksonville, Seattle (again) and, on Christmas Day in Detroit, the shocking Lions. Detroit has lost its best player to retirement, too, but leads Green Bay, Minnesota and the remainder of the NFC Central with a 5-2 mark. In August, that game looked like a stroll on the AstroTurf for the Broncos. In November, it looks like Detroit's springboard to glory.


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