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Imperfect Pitch

If Darryl Kile is conversant with the Navier-Stokes Equation or the Magnus Effect, he's not letting on. The man who was supposed to reinvigorate the Colorado Rockies' demoralized pitching staff last season and lead the club out of the doldrums wound up with a 13-17 record. At Coors Field, which is to hitters what a feed trough is to pigs, the previously well-adjusted ex-Houston Astro ace won just five games and lost nine while giving up 6.22 earned runs per nine innings.

Visiting batters, who could never get to the park early enough, hit .313 against him.

Before accepting owner Jerry McMorris's many millions to don purple pinstripes, maybe Kile should have read up on the Navier-Stokes Equation. It is, after all, the key to the fluid dynamics of air flow as they apply to thrown baseballs. In part: If the resistive drag force varies only as the square of the velocity, and if the Magnus force is only an imbalance in that resistance, which follows from the faster motion of one side of the ball through the air than the other, we should expect that the Magnus force would be proportional to spin frequency, to the air velocity and to the value of the drag coefficient at the ball velocity.

In other words, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa and the rest of the league are going to hit the living crap out of you at Coors Field. And by the time you go to Cincinnati or Philadelphia, you're going to be so shell-shocked that you can't get anybody out there, either.

Without even delving into plausible stress-strain cycles or vibrational anti-nodes, just a week into spring training it's probably safe to say that the Colorado Rockies will stink again this year. For one thing, their pitching stars are still Kile and Pedro Astacio, a Los Angeles Dodger castoff who went 13-14 last year with a 6.23 ERA. For another, the Rox were unable to lure five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens away from the Toronto Blue Jays. Evidently well-versed in maximum compression impacts and ballistic pendulum effects, Clemens joined the New York Yankees, who won their 24th World Series last October. General manager Bob Gebhard also failed to land San Diego's Kevin Brown, the mound ace who led his team of overachievers to the Series last year. Brown's now a Dodger, content to play his home games at sea level. Randy Johnson? Forget it.

Because everybody knows the truth by now: Pitching in Denver is like vacationing in Kosovo.

In lieu of meaningful acquisitions, the Rockies signed left-hander Brian Bohanon, who was 7-11 in 1998 with the Dodgers and the New York Mets. And they got Lenny Harris, a 34-year-old utility outfielder who has played half a season everywhere but Mars.

If you've never heard of either one of these players, congratulations: You evidently have a real life and don't waste your time rooting around in the dark cellar of baseball trivia.

Most people are familiar, however, with the Rockies' new manager, Jim Leyland. His idea of a drag coefficient is cupping his cigarette in the dugout shadows until he thinks the TV cameras aren't watching, but he has worked near-miracles on the baseball field. In Pittsburgh he assembled the best team in the National League piece by piece and almost got it to the World Series before Pirates management, pleading poverty, stripped him of his stars--outfielders Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds and staff ace Doug Drabek. In Florida he instantly converted a multi-zillion-dollar player payroll into a league pennant and a 1997 world championship before Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, pleading poverty, stripped the club of everything but its jockstraps. Last year the Fish lost 108 games.

Here in Denver, though, Leyland is not likely to be betrayed by the team owners. As housewarming gifts, they've given him Bohanon and Harris, after all, and his staff of pitchers will remain intact as long as orderlies from the state hospital don't have to take some of them away come mid-season. A master tactician, Leyland has in the past found a way to win lots of tense 3-2 and 2-1 games. With a few adjustments, he may find a way to win tense 25-24 and 18-17 games. Apparently he's a reasonable man, a grownup who won't care if Dante Bichette wears pigtails or Larry Walker brings a witch doctor to work with him, as long as they play hard for nine innings and produce runs.

The Rockies' exemplary third baseman, Vinny Castilla, should find working with Leyland a joy: The cigarette-smoking man loves players who field as slickly as Castilla and for the last three years have remained in the league's top ten in home runs and runs batted in. The club's young shortstop and first baseman, Neifi Perez and Todd Helton, are likely to benefit from Leyland's tutelage. But if testy, underachieving second baseman Mike Lansing doesn't shape up, he might find himself looking for a new job.

Meanwhile, management dragged its feet in signing 1997 MVP Walker to a new contract, and now that the publicly unhappy right-fielder has gotten his $75 million, fans must pray that he doesn't get hurt again and miss most of the season. The team's two catchers, Kirt Manwaring and Jeff Reed, are aging journeymen who hit exactly eleven home runs between them last year. Instead of going after Mets free agent Todd Hundley, who seems to hit two dingers per at-bat at Coors Field, or superstar Mike Piazza, the Rockies stood pat behind the plate.

So, too, in center field: Ex-Giant Darryl Hamilton has speed to burn, a valuable commodity in the vast expanses and treacherous power alleys of Coors Field, but he's ordinary at the plate. Wonder if Darryl's boned up on his baseball physics: A drive hit 400 feet in Yankee Stadium travels 430 feet here, and a "gapped" line drive lands three-tenths of a second sooner, cutting the range of outfielders like Hamilton by eight or nine feet on such plays.

No wonder Hamilton looks tuckered out after every game. And let's not even mention the bulkier figure stationed over in left field. Bichette can still hit the cover off a baseball, but when in lumbering pursuit of a drifting fly ball, he looks like that purple Teletubby everyone's arguing about.

Leyland will have his hands full, all right. Espe-cially in light of the fact that every other team in the National League West (but for the picked-clean San Diego Padres) improved itself in the off-season while the Rockies stood still. Along with the $105 million man, Kevin Brown, the Dodgers signed Hundley, Gold Glove center-fielder Devon White and one of the most underrated managers in the game, Davey Johnson. Showing off their deep pockets, the second-year Arizona Diamondbacks gobbled up Seattle's Randy Johnson, who's the most feared pitcher in baseball, along with Todd Stottlemyer and ex-Rockie Armando Reynoso. Total armament cost: $89 million. They also signed ex-Padres centerfielder Steve Finley, one of the best in the game. The San Francisco Giants balked at the rich free-agent market, like the Rockies, but with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in the lineup and elite pitchers Shawn Estes and Robb Nen on the staff, they figure to overachieve once more for manager Dusty Baker.

Here in Denver, there are plenty of questions for a fourth-place team that figures to finish fourth again, for a floundering club that hasn't gotten a sniff of the playoffs since its wild-card finish in 1995. Will Walker feel unappreciated and sulk? Does Neifi continue to develop? Will Dante sink into another prolonged slump? Why in God's name didn't the Rox pick up a catcher?

But the real trouble spot, as always, will be sixty feet, six inches from home plate. Out there on the hill, Kile might be fending off mental illness this season, and the inconsistent Astacio could find himself wondering how the weather is in Sonora. Right-hander John Thomson has to show he's not spooked by the Coors Field demons, and Jamey Wright has to prove he can get the thing over the plate: He gave up 95 walks last year in 206 innings. As for the Rockies' overworked bullpen--the only "complete games" at Coors Field are in checkers and poker--how would you like to be Curtis Leskanic or Jerry DiPoto, summoned from beyond the outfield fence every night with the bases loaded in the eighth, with none out and the score tied 12-12?

In anticipation of the new season, fans can only hope that Leyland has absorbed (and can now counteract) the all-important Saberhagen Theorem, which states that the component of force in the direction of motion of a batter's hands is directly proportional to the kinetic energy arising from the implied cycle of compression and expansion. Said another way, if your entire snakebit career as a Colorado Rockies starter consists of eleven pitches, four of them will be hit into the left-field bleachers.


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