Matt Holliday is sick to death of being asked if he was really safe.
"I get tired of hearing people talk about whether I touched the plate or not," the Colorado Rockies slugger tells me as he's seated in front of his locker, taking down a bowl of oatmeal before he heads out for practice.
Holliday's referring to the now-legendary play when, in the bottom of the thirteenth inning against the San Diego Padres, with the Rockies tied in a one-game playoff to clinch the NL Wild Card spot, he tagged up from third and slid into home, narrowly beating the throw to the plate. You remember. The bloody chin, the wild celebration, downtown Denver going apeshit. Although no photograph, no video ever proved conclusively that he'd touched the plate, that doesn't matter to a Rockies fan. The moment has come to characterize the greatest run in franchise history.
And if you're a San Diego fan, well, what do you expect me to say? Cry me a goddamn river.
For his part, Troy Tulowitzki is sick of being asked if the Rockies' incredible run last season was a fluke.
"People always ask us if we're still for real," the second-year shortstop phenom says while stretching on the clubhouse floor. "Like somehow it was too good to be true. I just tell them we'll see what happens. We believe in our abilities and we know how to take care of business."
And with that, Tulo and Holliday and the rest of your Colorado Rockies take the field to prepare for today's game against the Chicago White Sox.
What exactly is the angle of your story?" Jay Alves, the Rockies PR guy, had asked when I called to inquire about press credentials.
"What do you intend to write?"
Off the top of my head, I mentioned how last season I wrote a column asking Matt Holliday to play catch with me as a birthday present and how Holliday never responded. I told Alves that maybe it was time I followed up in person.
"Yeah, you're not going to be playing catch with Matt Holliday," he responded.
Other angles — me throwing batting practice, groupie-trolling through Tucson with new players — were suggested and rejected before we eventually decided that perhaps I should simply come down to spring training and report on my observations as a Cactus League virgin. I agreed, and hung up the phone with three questions in mind for every player I met: 1) Do you want to chest-bump? 2) Do you want to go for a beer? 3) Do you want to see if you can hit my knuckleball, because you probably can't? Follow up question: No, seriously, because it's pretty good.
But really, it didn't matter what questions I fired off at the Rockies. Because I was beside-myself psyched just to be going.
Imagine that you'd grown up in a cowtown playing baseball as one of your primary sports, and then one day, when you're thirteen and at the height of your zeal for the game, your city gets an expansion team and your old man gets season tickets. You ditch school for opening day. You go to dozens of games every summer. You watch the city fall in love with the squad, attendance records shattered, studs called the Blake Street Bombers hitting the ball into the ether — and you watch them reach the playoffs after only two years in existence! Then, with horror, you witness the tide turn like a tsunami. You watch mismanagement and failed experiments, and fans leaving the field in droves. You watch shitty baseball summer after summer and get to the point where you wish your heroes would vacate to other cities, simply because you want them to know how it feels to win. But the important thing is you keep watching. You take it all in, seated in an empty stadium with your peanuts and lemonade, because you're a baseball fan, goddamnit, win or lose.
And then, slowly, things start to change. Strange devices called humidors enter the picture, young guys who actually know how to play ball start coming through the minors, the club begins talking crazy about building, not buying a future. And in return, you start thinking crazy, like maybe this could actually work. And one season, it does! The team plays well all year — peaks and valleys, but solid, honest ball. And then, in one heroic, desperate swoop, the boys go 21 for 22! They play fearless, fire-eating baseball, refusing to lose, not caring about the outside world, just each other and the game, providing you with the most exciting finish to a baseball season you can remember! And at the end of it all, they somehow bring home a pennant.
It makes you feel vindicated; it makes you feel thirteen again. It turns you into a dazed, smiling, unabashed Rockies fool. You omit the World Series from your memory like a trauma victim, you wait until spring rolls around, and then you get your ass to the airport. You ignore all the other possible destinations, you pay no mind to the legions of ugly people with tiny heads boarding your plane to Tucson, you forget that the flight attendants tell you six fucking times that the plane has a picture of a bison named Humphrey on it.
None of that matters. What matters is that you haven't seen your boys since late October, and damn if you don't miss 'em.
The shuttle driver from the airport to Hi Corbett Field asks why I'm in town, and I tell him spring training. He asks me which club, and I tell him the Colorado Rockies. We chat baseball for the duration of the ride — the part when he's not raving about Tucson, anyway, which frankly, I just don't see — and when he drops me off at the stadium, he opens the door and offers some advice.
"Listen, you go out there and give it your all, you hear me, son?" he says. "Don't be intimidated by these guys, they're just ballplayers; just show them what you can do."
I realize that this guy thinks I have a tryout with the squad. I do nothing to dispel the notion. It's sweet and fatherly, and I don't feel like telling him that my baseball dreams were crushed in high school when everyone suddenly tripled in size, leaving my single-hitting ass to drift toward kicking soccer balls. But I love the fact that he thinks I'm a ballplayer. The geriatric working the check-in gate for press and VIPs, not so much. Because she thinks I'm Tony Gwynn.
"Are you Adam Clayton-Holland or Tony Gwynn?" the old bird warbles, holding up two envelopes containing all-access passes and squinting behind bifocals thick as fish tanks.
As far back as I can remember, I have only wanted two things in life: to get over 3,000 hits in the major leagues and to be black. But faced with the opportunity to achieve both of these dreams in one fell swoop, I balk like a total pussy. Because really, how long could I ride out that lie? Maybe I could get away with it among the septuagenarian Rockies hospitality staff — maybe — but eventually someone in the know would probably point out that I am not, in fact, a 48-year-old black Hall of Famer, and then I would be forced to hurl a smoke bomb in his face and clamber over the right-field wall, off to pursue a new life in Tucson, which, judging from what I saw on the ride in, would consist of either selling replica University of Arizona girls' softball jerseys or baking meth by the trailerful.
I confess that the hyphenated name she's butchering is mine, and she hands me my pass.
The purple piece of paper hanging around my neck says I have access to the field, press box and clubhouse — when, where and how is up to me to decide. Naturally, I head toward the field. It's about 11:45 a.m., today's game starts at 1:05 p.m., and the Kansas City Royals are taking infield. I ask another geriatric working the gate if I can go on the field, and she says "Of course" with such pure, unadulterated duh in her voice that I get the feeling I could probably pitch a few innings if I just acted like I was supposed to. I walk the warning track from right field to home plate, balls whizzing by my dome as Royals players yell, "Heads up!" I watch the players take infield from the steps of the dugout. As cool as that is, it's not what I'm here to see.
Where are my Rockies? I figure they're in the clubhouse, so I sniff that out and ask yet another member of the Greatest Generation if I can enter.
"Yeah," he says. "Press has got another ten minutes."
I'm walking down a hallway, chalkboards and rosters hanging on the walls, and I hear a voice that sounds remarkably like Clint Hurdle's coming from a nearby office. I poke my head in, and it's Clint Hurdle, the Rockies manager, poring over papers!
"Not now," he says. "Later."
But of course, sir. I continue down the hall, accompanied by sounds of hip-hop, round a corner — and am suddenly surrounded by Rockies. Aaron Cook here, Ubaldo Jimenez there, Atkins, Sullivan, Spilborghs, Iannetta all shooting the breeze. Look, there's Yorvit Torrealba, the catcher! He's speaking in Spanish, just like a real Venezuelan would! Awesome! And who is that firing away on his Sidekick? It's Tulo, the future of the franchise! I wonder who he's texting? Remember that triple play he had last season? Man, I wonder if he'll sign my face?
The fanboy in me is taking over, so I pull out my notepad and try to look business-like, scribbling away like I'm too important and too busy to talk to the players. But the truth is, I just don't know how to approach them. Is it even a good time? Minutes before a game? I want to ask Tulo to give me a ride in his new Maserati — but would that be weird? I spy Tracy Ringolsby, the legendary cowboy-scribe who covers the Rockies for the Rocky Mountain News, and introduce myself. I ask if it's cool to talk to the players now, and he says sure, looking at me with sympathetic, you're-new-to-this-game-ain't-ya eyes. I watch another reporter ask a question of Tulo, only to receive a bored, monosyllabic answer. And I flee the clubhouse.
The last thing I need is for Troy Tulowitzki to think I'm a dick.
The press box is a far easier place than the clubhouse for a bona fide Rockies geek, because it's chock-full of them. Beat reporters for both of the daily papers, representatives from Major League Baseball, fresh-out-of-high-school kids interning in television and radio and, apparently, acne, all swapping stats and thoughts and observations on yet another day at the park. Situated at the top of the relatively small Hi Corbett Field (capacity 8,665), the press box affords a remarkable view of the ballpark and the palm trees hovering beyond the high outfield wall; above them are their metallic counterparts, huge lights for the practice fields behind the stadium. And above them is a seemingly never-ending air show, plane after plane after plane taking flight from Davis Monthan Air Force Base, then shredding across the giant sky. From this particular vantage point, I scrawl two observations in my notebook.
One: Tucson tanning leads to augmented, if not exaggerated, withering in the elderly Arizona female; however, the unsightliness of said phenomenon is offset by the skin on the younger of the species. 'Tis the yin and yang of a desert existence.
Two: The press box at Hi Corbett Field has the fastest wireless I've ever encountered. The first half of the first inning is not yet over, and I have checked all my e-mail accounts, watched several videos on YouTube and read a delightful column, "Who Would Alex P. Keaton Vote For," in the New York Times.
Another nice feature of the press box is that a voice keeps coming over the intercom like God, feeding information for the daily journalists to pummel into their laptops like prophets. That same voice also informs us when a player is available for interviews, and when it announces that Ubaldo Jimenez, the Rockies' 24-year-old Dominican fireballer who pitched the first few innings of today's game, is available, I jump in with the gaggle of recorder-toting journalists and head toward the designated interview spot. I stand at the back as the pros fire off a litany of inquiries: How did your arm feel? How confident were you in your off-speed stuff? Jimenez answers the questions softly. Despite his height and the fact that he can throw a ball 98 miles an hour without it bursting into flame, you can't help thinking that he looks like a big kid.
When the other reporters wind down, I finally take a swing: "Ubaldo, have you given any thought as to what you're going to use for your walk-up music this year?"
Ubaldo doesn't really understand my question, so I switch over to Spanish. He smiles.
"Probably something reggaetón," he responds in Spanish, then heads back into the clubhouse.
I look around at the other reporters. Shit ain't so hard.
High after having spoken to an actual Rockie, I decide I've earned another trip to the clubhouse. Brazenly, I stroll in — only to find Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday engrossed in conversation. Hawpe signed a three-year contract with the Rockies today, and I listen as they discuss that, scribbling furiously in my notepad. I'm waiting for them to finish so I can snag Holliday for an interview, but a Rockies rep politely informs me that no media is allowed in the clubhouse during the game.
I'm back in the press box just long enough for Ringolsby to tell me that the voice of God has announced that Hawpe is available for interviews. I join the crew, and the press corps is full of questions about the contract, whether Hawpe is excited, whether he thinks it's a good gesture on the part of the club. He fields the questions politely, offering a slew of sound bites. Then it's my turn, and I hit him with the same music question that I'd asked my main man Ubaldo. The right-fielder laughs and says he hasn't given it much thought. So I quickly offer my next query, the one I thought of on the plane ride down.
"SportsCenter right now is doing a feature where they are trying to determine the greatest sports clip of all time," I say. "Growing up in Denver, there's really only one or two that come to mind. John Elway helicopter-diving for the first down against Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII and the Rockies' one-game tie-breaker against the Padres last season, with Holliday sliding into home plate. What sports clips or memories do it for you? What play still gives you chills?"
Hawpe nods his head pensively.
"Being a baseball fan, I like Cal Ripken taking his jog after he broke Lou Gehrig's record," he says. "That was one of the most unbelievable things in the world to me, especially after playing 162 games a season and realizing all it takes to achieve something like that. It was just a real special moment."
This prompts Ringolsby to remark that growing up as a Texas Rangers fan, Hawpe probably didn't have too many of those moments. Ringolsby knows his stuff, so he plays off my question to talk ball with Hawpe. Following his lead, I chime in about the Rangers, too. I'm starting to see that these Rockies, hero-worshipped though they may be, are just normal dudes. This realization is not exactly earth-shattering, but I defy you to walk up to one of your favorite athletes of all time and not be a little star-struck.
The game ends in a Rockies loss — the main highlight is Tulo's first-pitch-he-faces bomb — and I walk a few blocks to a bus stop, where I catch a ride to my hotel and watch Hillary beat Obama. Sigh. I eat at a nearby T.G.I. Friday's, where I write this joke: I don't like eating at T.G.I. Friday's, because I like my meals to be non-denominational. And I don't believe in goodness.
One of the bartenders offers me a dessert that, if I'm not mistaken, contains both chocolate and cheddar cheese. But I decline: I have a big day tomorrow. The press is allowed back in the clubhouse from 8:45 to 9:45 a.m., and I've got me some more Rockies to holler at.
In the clubhouse the next morning, I watch Brian Giles — the San Diego Padres infielder who tried to throw Holliday out at the plate in that historic tie-breaker last season, and who is now in camp competing for a spot — man his iPod that's plugged into the clubhouse's stereo. Clint Hurdle comes out of his office to appraise each track. But I don't see any of my favorite Rockies, so I head up to the bleachers to catch them coming into the clubhouse from the weight room. And then I see Todd Helton.
"Todd, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" I call out to the Rockies' first baseman.
"Does this look like an interview spot to you, bud?" he responds with a stone face.
I start to stammer, but then Helton cracks the faintest hint of a smile. Is Todd Helton fucking with me? I think Todd Helton is fucking with me. And he's got a damn good poker face.
"I heard a rumor about you," I say.
"I'm not gay," he fires back.
Poker face and a sense of humor. I'm seeing a side of Helton I've never seen before.
I tell him that I've heard he's in the market for a new hunting dog, and he perks up.
"Yeah, what you got?"
I tell him how my mother recently bred her show-dog Chesapeake Bay Retriever, arguably the best breed of water dog in the world, and that we have one left. Helton says he's not really looking right now but appreciates the offer. But I know I can't leave it at that, so I ask how many dogs he has. He tells me two, but that he's more of a laid-back dog kind of guy, and Chessies are a little high-strung for him, a little snappy around strangers. Helton knows his shit. This is certainly an occasional trait in the Chessie bloodline, which developed from the breed having to protect fishermen's shacks on the Chesapeake Bay. But while I respect Helton's take on the matter, I feel I must inform him that this is not the case with all Chessies, and definitely not with this current, sensational batch. I tell Helton that I took one of the puppies, and that her demeanor is quite mild. Still, Helton tells me he's happy with his two Chocolate Labs.
"Even though I was duck-hunting and goose-hunting on the river this winter," he begins. "And it was flowing straight ice, you know, big chunks of ice, and my young dog wouldn't jump in there, it was scared to death. My older dog got in there, but that's really when you need a Chessie."
Helton asks if I have a picture, and of course I do, so I pull out a photo of the one unclaimed Chessie in the litter, and he and I laugh at the size of his big old head. Then Helton thanks me for showing him the picture, but he politely declines again and heads into the clubhouse.
I was that close.
I realize that talking about Chesapeake Bay Retrievers will probably be my one interaction with a man destined for the Hall of Fame. And this makes me incredibly happy.
But it's no time to gloat, because I spy Tulo and Holliday crossing the outfield, heading for the clubhouse. Rather than accost them outside, as I did Helton, I position myself by their lockers. Holliday is slow to get there, since he's chatting with a few teammates and grabbing a bowl of oatmeal. But once he finally sits down in front of his locker and I ask if I can interview him, he's happy to oblige.
For being perhaps the best baseball player in Major League Baseball — yeah, I said it — Matt Holliday is remarkably chill and down-to-earth, even if he is the size of a mastodon. I ask him the walk-up-music question, and he tells me he hasn't given it too much thought, but there's a Linkin Park song he's into right now. No comment. I move on to the SportsCenter greatest-clip question, and he talks about growing up in Oklahoma with his father, who was a college coach, and how a lot of his enjoyment of sports came from following the guys who went through his dad's program and made it into the bigs.
Then he mentions Joe Carter's winning blast against the Phillies in the 1993 World Series. "That's probably the one that sticks out the most," he says with a grin.
I ask him about the off-season, who he stays in touch with.
"A lot of us live in Denver, so I see a lot of these guys every day: Garret (Atkins), Cory (Sullivan), Jeff (Francis). Tulo lives there now, but he wasn't there much during the off-season. I talked to him most days, though. Spilly, too," he concludes, referring to Ryan Spilborghs.
I mention a quote he gave at the start of spring training about how nice it was to be back playing baseball after all the silly ways he and his teammates find to compete during the off-season. When I ask him to elaborate, Holliday talks about competitions in the weight room, pull-up battles, nights out bowling, video games and playing Ping-Pong in his basement. And as he's telling me this, I realize why so many people fell in love with this team: They're just a group of friends playing baseball together.
I once had a coach who said if he was offered a team of nine all-stars or a team of nine friends, he would take the nine friends every time. Camaraderie is not something that can be forced or faked, and there's no denying that the Colorado Rockies have it. It's incredibly rare in baseball to have a group of guys come up through the minors together — through overheated buses and shitty motels — and then stay together long enough to perform at the highest level the game allows. In an era of free-agency and arbitration, that just doesn't happen all that much. But it did for the Rockies, and they look poised to have it happen again.
When the Rockies were making their run last year and the press was suddenly paying attention and asking the players if they were surprised to be as far along as they were, the standard reply from virtually each one was that he wasn't surprised at all, that he believed in the abilities of his teammates long before anyone else was paying attention. If pressed, some players would go on to comment about how they loved the large turnout of fans, the newfound attention — but that really, they were simply playing for each other. Hearing Holliday talk about bullshitting with his boys in the off-season hammers this point home even more, and I ask if he's excited that the team is locking up most of the core guys for a while. Of course, he says, so I fire off my next doozy, a query developed in a post-T.G.I. Friday's stupor.
"The powers-that-be finally get around to making a movie about the 21-out-of-22 winning streak of the Colorado Rockies," I say. "Who plays Matt Holliday?"
Holliday marinates on this for a minute, then decides I need to ask his teammates. He calls over Cory Sullivan, who ponders the question.
"Well, if you want to go serious, you could get Vin Diesel," Sullivan says. "But do you ever really want Vin Diesel to play you?"
"What, are you kidding?" Holliday responds. "Vin Diesel would win an award for playing me."
"Or you could get Woody Harrelson on the juice," Sullivan offers. "That'd probably be pretty good."
I move on to Tulo. Rockies fans should be pleased — if not at all surprised — to hear that Troy Tulowitzki is all business. Aside from mentioning the possibility of some Britney Spears as walk-up music this season, he answers every question with professionalism and efficiency, staring directly at me and focusing on the task at hand. This is clearly the man you want playing shortstop for your team.
The sports memory that stands out most for Tulo is Kirk Gibson hitting his shot for the Dodgers against the A's, then hobbling around the bases pumping his fist. But this is not a good memory for Tulo. He grew up an A's fan, so it's a hard pill to swallow. He also vividly remembers the earthquake during the 1989 World Series.
"I lived right there in the Bay Area, and I'll never forget my dad carrying me out of the house during the World Series," he says. "It was vivid."
He was five.
I try to get Tulo talking about his recent purchase of the Glass House penthouse, but he hasn't spent much time there yet, so he doesn't have a lot to say about it. He does offer up a few spots where he likes to hang out downtown, though: Snooze, Sullivan's, the ChopHouse. But he says he's just as likely to enjoy some hole-in-the-wall joint.
I fire off another one.
"You're obviously a very competitive person, and I'm sure you want to top your last season," I say. "Does that mean that if you don't get two triple plays this year, it's pretty much a failure?"
"I'm going to go ahead and say that won't happen," Tulo says and laughs. "It would be amazing, but I'm not going to be disappointed if it doesn't."
I thank Tulo for his time and wander around the clubhouse. Marcus Giles has been counting down the clock until the press has to leave, and with only a few minutes left, I decide to give my who-would-play-you-in-a-movie line to a couple more players. I ask Spilborghs and, without skipping a beat, he fires back, "Tony Danza."
"Tony Danza back in the day or Tony Danza now?" I ask.
"Tony Danza now," he replies.
"Who would play Matt Holliday, then?"
Spilly thinks it over for a second.
"Stifler," he says, then disappears into the showers.
Spilly is the kind of guy you want to grab a beer with.
Feeling pretty proud of my interview technique thus far, I approach Aaron Cook. The Rockies pitcher is shirtless and has a bag of ice strapped to his shoulder. I ask Cook who would play him in a Rockies movie, and he looks at me as if I just asked him if pie is delicious.
"I don't know, man," he says dismissively.
"Who would play Tulo?" I ask, clearly not picking up on his signals.
"I don't know. Brad Pitt, okay?"
With that, he turns around and begins chatting up Brian Fuentes. I would not want to step into the batter's box against Cook right now. I get the feeling there might be a little chin music.
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Today's game is against the Chicago White Sox, and I spend the rest of the day exploiting my press pass. I watch batting practice, at times leaning right up against the batting cage so that I'm mere feet away from my favorite sluggers. Holliday and Tulo smack the snot out of the ball; Atkins hits well, too, and if the few swings I saw Helton take are any indication, he's poised to smash way more than the seventeen bombs he hit last season.
But really, what do I know about it? I'm no sports writer covering Hi Corbett Field, as much as I want to think I am. I'm simply an unabashed Rockies fan lucky enough to have scored a golden ticket to the chocolate factory.
I'm just another guy caught up in the magic of the boys of summer come spring.