Ready to Hurl

Fred Harper

If the Yankees don't win the World Series this year, millions of shocked New Yorkers will want to know why. If the Colorado Rockies don't finish last, three Little Leaguers up in the Rockpile will want to know how.

Seen in the cold light of day, the 2004 Rox are an old club with bad pitching, no speed and very little lunch money. Their sunny brain trust assures us, though, that the latest collection of castoffs and mediocrities is already one big happy family, an upright bunch possessed of good character -- which means they'll be able to lose ninety-something games as a team, a special-interest group with a common purpose, without a lot of whining, finger-pointing and self-destructive regret.

In other words, the new bubblegum cards might as well include Lieberman and Kucinich. The National League West is likely to be dominated again by the Barry Bonds-led San Francisco Giants, who won 100 games last year before getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Miracle Marlins. The customarily dreadful San Diego Padres, the Rockies' only traditional footwipe, have snatched speedy outfielder Jay Payton away from Colorado and signed hometown blimp David Wells to a starter's spot, and they just might reward the faithful with a winning season in their brand-new ballpark. Full of the usual guesswork, hopeful Rockies fans point out that the punchless L.A. Dodgers are sure to be worse off after the loss of ace Kevin Brown (thanks again, Lord Steinbrenner) and the upheaval of new ownership. More happy theory: The Arizona Diamondbacks, just two seasons removed from their startling World Series win over the Yanks, will decline, now that flamethrower Randy Johnson has turned forty, their first and third basemen have retired and lost star Curt Schilling is baking fifty million dollars' worth of beans in Boston.

Great stuff. Still, what surge of springtime hope is appropriate for a Colorado club whose third baseman will be popular Vinny Castilla, a 36-year-old retread from the team's lone moment of glory, and whose venerable right fielder, 37-year-old Larry Walker, is coming off two straight subpar seasons in which he struck just 26 and sixteen home runs, respectively, while falling prey to his usual array of ailments? The Rockies' one authentic star, sublime first baseman Todd Helton, hit .358 last year and has turned into a perennial Gold Glove candidate. But he'll need the new media guide to identify the guys standing around him. For the third straight season, general manager Dan O'Dowd has given the Rockies' infield a major makeover -- this time on the cheap. Castilla is back after four years, and the guy at shortstop is now Royce Clayton, age 34, who's a full decade older than last year's incumbent, Juan Uribe. A couple of fellows named Aaron Miles and Damian Jackson will duke it out for the second baseman's job -- or maybe the foot-powder concession. Don't fret. No one else in town has ever heard of them, either.

Rockies optimists -- you know, the people who think al-Qaeda will not sprinkle anthrax in the Coors Field bullpen -- are already filling the saloons with a lot of brave talk about the rebirth of the Blake Street Bombers. If we can believe half of what they say, a slimmed-down Walker will regain his form and belt fifty dingers into the cheaps, center-fielder Preston Wilson will resume last year's tear (36 homers, 141 runs batted in), and newly acquired leftfielder Jeromy Burnitz will suddenly break off his career-long affair with the letter "K" and blossom at 52-80. Not likely. Not if you're swinging from the heels on every pitch and missing.

Helton and Castilla will provide their share of power, but the Rockies' outfielders -- no matter how many RBIs they produce -- aren't likely to flash a lot of leather on one of the hugest greenswards in baseball. Think Dante Bichette looked slow out there? Wait'll you get a load of Burnitz. Dinger could beat him in the forty-yard dash, and the last time he stole a base, the cops made him give it back. Walker still gets his great instinctual jump on every ball, and that rifle of his remains awesome, but he's slowed noticeably with age. That means the overworked Wilson will have to cover an awful lot of ground to his left and to his right, and even more gapped line drives than usual will be landing safe.

The ever-evolving O'Dowd Theory of High Altitude Baseball once endorsed speed (didn't work out), then embraced professional patience at the plate (nope) and, in the most distressing moment of all, opted for granting Steinbrenneresque salaries to a couple of star pitchers who couldn't get anybody out even when they weren't hurt. Now O'Dowd and company seem intent on giving back to Rockies fans what they love most: the three-run homer. The Noveau Bombers will often get beaten, but look for those 10-7 games and 14-10 games to return in profusion. This is not real baseball, never has been. But if the fans grab another beer and perchance to daydream, maybe they'll be able to convince themselves they're really somewhere else -- at a Broncos game, say.

That brings us, inevitably, to the nagging curse of physics. Any new discussion of the Rockies' perennial pitching woes is like bringing up the Cabernet harvest with Mormons. You don't get very far before somebody storms out of the room. And this year, the numbers seem to spell doom, even before the first Rockies slider fails to break and the visiting Cardinals put their first ten-run inning on the scoreboard. Here you go: The nine unfortunates from whom the Rockies' five starters will be selected won a total of 38 games last year while losing 61. Not one of the nine had a winning record, and their collective earned run average was a bloated 5.77. Not even the most lunatic Rockies fan would expect any 2004 improvement in the pitching hell that is Coors Field. This just in: Even last year's shell-shocked starters went 55-65.

This will not gladden the hearts of manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Bob Apodaca, who has the toughest job in America this side of an asbestos salesman. But at least they come cheap -- the alleged pitchers, that is. The Rockies payroll this year will come in at about $67 million (barely one-third of the Yankees obscenity), but a likely opening-day rotation of lefties Shawn Estes and Joe Kennedy and right-handers Jason Jennings, Scott Elarton and Denny Stark -- the whole bunch of them together -- would earn just over $2 million.

Little matter that the batboys at Fenway Park get paid more than that. The $2 million Colorado will lavish on its entire rotation is about the same figure it will contribute to the salary of ex-Rockie Mike Hampton as he toils for the Atlanta Braves. It's seven million less than Denny Neagle will get for not pitching. You know, bad arm. The kind of arm Hannibal Lecter would love. Neagle will be back in 2005. Maybe. In the meantime, two other National League clubs have assembled the strongest starting pitching staffs in the game. Good morning, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Y'all happy to be home in Houston? And how are things, Greg Maddux? You sly old fox. How much craft will you impart to those brilliant young guns at Wrigley Field?

Rockies fans can but shake their heads and pray for another big inning.

We would here raise the issue of Colorado's relief pitching, but it's getting close to mealtime now, and there's no use ruining your appetite. Suffice it to say that the Rockies have an unparalleled gift for giving games away in the late stages (especially on the road) and that management has always been as maladroit in choosing relievers as the Rockies' long, battered parade of sore-arms and wild things has proven to be out there on the mound. So the rest is silence.

Meanwhile, is there any cause for April hope on the high plains? Sure. Why not? No one's played a game yet. The newest Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, who will be paid just about $16,460 per inning this season, has not yet laced up his spikes. Bonds has hit no homer into McCovey Cove. No fan has snatched the Series from the Cubs, and Bostonians are not yet crying in their chowder. No Rockie has blown a save, and Larry Walker can still walk. So go ahead. Hope. Hold fast, true believers. Even as the unfaithful, grumbling over their Coors, start shopping for a team with a future.

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