For Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and a stampede of horses called the New York Yankees, this has been the most glorious of baseball seasons. Not so for the 77-85 Colorado Rockies, who in the mists of April were thought to be solid contenders. But when the ax fell, as everyone knew it would, upon the tender neck of Don Baylor, he still managed to hold his head high. After erasing a 7-0 deficit in Sunday's season finale and using a ninth-inning Neifi Perez homer to beat the Giants 9-8--a season killer for San Francisco, as it turns out--Baylor and his Rockies took a final walk around Coors Field in the slanting afternoon light. They waved to the fans. They slapped occasional high fives. They autographed inflated plastic kiddie bats, huge Vinny Castilla posters, brand-new baseballs and rumpled old programs. They signed everything short of the manager's death warrant.
That task fell to Jerry McMorris and the Monfort Brothers. The owners.
Six years' worth of coulda-beens and if-onlys had finally taken their toll. Baylor is gone, along with 440 wins and 469 losses, as the Rockies skipper. He is gone because you can't fire an entire pitching staff. He is gone because his catchers couldn't hit and some of his outfielders couldn't catch and because his club couldn't catch fire. He is gone because somebody had to go. But on Sunday, you couldn't catch him complaining.
"What else could you have possibly done this year?" one sympathetic reporter asked him.
"We could have won more games," he answered with a tight smile. "We lost a lot of close ones early in the season and never recovered."
But Bob Gebhard--the guy who should have been fired-- has made a nice little recovery, thank you. The great mind who brought you Bruce Hurst and let Andres Galarraga slip away to the Atlanta Braves has survived the McMorris-Monfort meat cutter, at least for now. While Baylor has been offered a mid-rank front office job, general manager Gebhard careers on, albeit as part of a committee now, in search of a catcher who will squat for less than a hundred million, a starting pitcher who can keep his ERA smaller than his hat size after a daunting look at Daryl Kile's 1998 numbers, and a center-fielder who can bat .300 while covering three counties of ground.
Gebhard's also looking for a new manager--a stoic who can sweat out 15-14 games while keeping some of his sanity. Who can bolt together the semblance of a pitching staff from the shelled and the shell-shocked. Who can perhaps walk on water. But don't count on seeing Jim Leyland, who was the Sage of Pittsburgh before he became the Master of Miami, on the Rockies bench. By all accounts, this studied minimalist, a star professor in the scratch single-sac-bunt, steal-third, hit-ground-ball-to-score-him school of baseball, would rather play a four-game set in a Florida hurricane than wrestle with the dead-calm, thin-air demons of Coors Field. It would take some convincing to bring him here.
Meanwhile, the question a lot of Rockies fans are asking this week is why Monday's firing wasn't a twin killing. The cops knocked off Bonnie and Clyde, didn't they? Butch and Sundance both bought the farm, right? Adam and Eve? Well, you know. But in this case--for stability's sake, we suppose--the Rockies' purge has stopped short of the front office. Bob Gebhard, a hard-trying guy who's committed some bonehead plays in his time, remains free to sign up the next Bill Swift who comes down the pike. To give him his due, he might also find the next Larry Walker. But you can't help thinking that in chopping-block terms, a doubleheader might have been better than a one-off.
While they were at it, the owners might also have axed the most annoying mascot in baseball, that purple Dinger thing, and really made a clean slate of it.
For now, let us take a moment to remember the dearly departed.
On Don Baylor's watch, a Rockies club whose first Opening Day lineup featured such titans of the game as shortstop Freddie Benavides and left-fielder Jerald Clark grew into an offensive powerhouse that could hit 200 home runs and steal 200 bases in a season. By 1995, the Rox became the first club since the 1977 Los Angeles Dodgers to boast four thirty-home-run men: Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker and Vinny Castilla. The foundation on which the Blake Street Bombers were built, first baseman Galarraga, won a National League batting crown (hitting .370) in the club's first year while belting 22 dingers. Larry Walker, the Rockies' most valuable free-agent catch, won the Most Valuable Player crown in 1997 and the N.L. batting title this year (.363).
Those individual accomplishments, Baylor said Sunday, rank high among his fondest memories. So does April 9, 1993, the date of the expansion team's home opener, when 80,227 fans crammed into creaky, doomed Mile High Stadium to watch the Rox play the Montreal Expos. Colorado's slightly built leadoff hitter, Eric Young, promptly smashed a Kent Bottenfield fastball into the left-field bleachers. That long shot would be the first of just three that Young hit all season, but it clearly set the style for major-league baseball in Denver--and perhaps presaged Don Baylor's fate.
Hunting for symbols? Only last week, the newly minted Arizona Diamondbacks and the Rockies combined for nine homers in nine innings at Coors Field, including three by Colorado second baseman Mike Lansing. The Rockies lost again, 8-6.
The home team carpet-bombs Blake Street. So do the visitors.
For Baylor, there was no prouder moment than October 3, 1995, when the mighty Atlanta Braves came into Coors Field to start a playoff series. In their third year, the 77-67 Rockies had made the swiftest move to the post-season of any expansion team. Little matter that the leagues had just expanded to three divisions each and added a pair of wild cards to the playoff mix. Playoff caliber is playoff caliber. Colorado's expansion-mates, the Florida Marlins, wouldn't find similar glory until 1997, when they won the World Series with a roster stuffed with millionaire free agents, then promptly dismantled the juggernaut.
"Yeah, I'm proud of that," Baylor said of 1995. "That was a great year with a lot of great moments. It probably raised expectations, too."
Certainly, it raised the blood pressure of the visiting Braves. They went on to win the World Series, but no team concerned them more than Colorado. I remember sitting in the visitors' dugout at Coors, in the midst of a steady afternoon rain, with Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. It was the eve of game one, the pinnacle of Rockies baseball history to date.
"This is a very powerful ballclub," Cox said of the Rockies. "A very scary ballclub. This is the kind of team which can knock you off before you know what hit you. Even with our great pitching. Donny has them playing great ball, and I don't mind saying we better watch ourselves."
Since that moment, the Rox have rolled steadily downhill. They lost that playoff series to Atlanta three games to one, and their respectable 83-79 record in 1996 was only good enough for third place in the National League West. Last season, highlighted by Walker's MVP, brought another 83-79 performance but no sniff of postseason play. This year Gebhard replaced the basically irreplaceable Galarraga at first base with young Todd Helton, whose .316 average and 25 homers make him a leading candidate for rookie-of-the-year honors. Good for Helton, but the club sorely missed the Big Cat's bat and his counsel in the clubhouse.
Gebhard also supposedly beefed up the Rockies' always-vulnerable pitching with ex-Dodger Pedro Astacio, former Houston star Kile and a couple of new relief men. But the high hopes were quickly dashed: This was the club's first losing season since 1994; Baylor paid with his head.
Now the fellow who dodged the executioner faces bigger hurdles than ever. Will Montreal manager Felipe Alou, the fox of all foxes, be willing to hazard the atmospherics of Coors Field? Former coach Art Howe probably would, but he's no Felipe Alou.
Will a top-of-the-line starter like Kevin Brown risk humiliation and a bloated earned-run average once he sees how Kile and Astacio combined for a 26-31 record in 1998? How about when Brownie gets a peek into the pitchers-only sick bay so long occupied by the likes of Roger Bailey, Kevin Ritz, Bruce Ruffin, Mark Thompson, Jamey Wright and Bill Swift? And if Gebhard can sign a Brown or (keep dreaming) a Randy Johnson, is there any guarantee he will not immediately transmogrify into a sore-armed Bret Saberhagen?
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Will Gebhard go after zillionaire catcher/slugger Mike Piazza, who is unlikely to re-sign with the New York Mets, who turned into late-season fizzlers? Landing Piazza might make the surviving GM look good to the fans, but is there any guarantee this unconscionably high-priced star would play any better than the solid, everyday catcher Gebhard traded away to the Yankees, Joe Girardi? Beyond the Piazza parlor, Met Todd Hundley might also be available, but Gebhard has a sorry history in dealing with New York: Saberhagen came from Shea Stadium; so did on-again, off-again closer Jerry DiPoto, in exchange for ace starter Armando Reynoso, no less.
Will Gebhard again trade away a strong young performer like Craig Counsell for an Aussie pitcher with a bad arm? Or will he again see the value in a Vinny Castilla, a second-round 1992 draft choice who's just turned in his third straight forty-home-run season? Will he dump a Young for a Lansing or a Girardi for a Manwaring? Or will he somehow find the fast, power-hitting center-fielder the club has always needed in huge Coors Field? Darryl Hamilton is a nice player who had a good half-season here, but he's no Ken Griffey, Jr.
Will Curtis Leskanic and Mike DeJean and Dave Veres and the admirable Chuck McElroy get some kind of job done, at least by thin-air standards, in the bullpen? Or will Gebhard have to shoot in the dark once more, picking up pieces and patching up arms and hoping for the best?
At least Don Baylor won't likely be here to see it.