Stay the Coors

In this era of obscene player salaries and disposable loyalties, assembling a baseball team is an agony of constant reinvention, incessant tinkering and, when the occasion calls for it, vain hope. Unless, of course, you're the New York Yankees, who have no need for the usual wishful thinking, so inflated are they with smug certainty. For everybody else, putting a decent club on the diamond is an endless and mostly thankless struggle, fraught with error and poisoned by failure.

Just ask your Colorado Rockies.

By this time last year, general manager Dan O'Dowd and field manager Buddy Bell had slashed a pitiful club to ribbons. Would-be revolutionists new to the neighborhood, they had concluded that brute force -- personified by the Blake Street Bombers of old -- couldn't get the job done at home-run-happy Coors Field, much less on the road. A new balance of slick defense, timely hitting and aggressive base-running was what O'Dowd and Bell proposed. As for that perennial bugaboo, pitching, the nouveaux Rox would now simply stop walking so many guys, throw strikes and hope for the best. On Opening Day, 2000, the Rockies had seventeen new players in the dugout and plenty of pipe dreams in their heads.

By closing day, they'd put another dismal fourth-place finish in the books, which began with a nine-game June swoon. And most of their momentary bright hopes had been scattered to the winds. See you around, Tom Goodwin. You're gonna love the bratwursts in Milwaukee, Jeffrey Hammonds. Find any good anger-management programs in Beantown, Mike Lansing? Keep that wing warm, Julian Tavarez. Wherefore art thou, Stan Belinda?

This year's retooled Rockies are another work in progress, and they will test another theory for winning baseball games at 5,280 feet -- one that has proved treacherous in the past.

We are talking, of course, about the team's decision to spend $172 million on long-term contracts for a pair of left-handed starting pitchers. Mike Hampton, late of the pennant-winning New York Mets, and Denny Neagle, who earned a World Series ring last year with the aforementioned Yankees, were among the most talented and desirable free agents of the off-season -- they racked up a total of thirty wins last year and had plenty of veteran savvy to go around. Hampton has a nasty sinker that produces ground balls by the bushelful, and Neagle has an uncanny gift for squeezing out wins. That O'Dowd managed to land both of them is regarded as a major-league coup -- and a welcome relief to former staff ace Pedro Astacio.

That Hampton and Neagle might soon be transformed from normal, clear-thinking human beings with healthy egos into quivering blobs of protoplasm is borne out by Denver's baseball history. As anyone who knows a balk from a bunt can tell you, former Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen couldn't get anybody out at Coors Field and ruined his arm trying. The estimable Billy Swift went 8-4 with a 5.56 earned-run average before getting hurt. The multimillion-dollar hope from Houston, Darryl Kile, won eleven and lost thirteen as a Rockie (with a 6.38 ERA) before returning from the dead as a St. Louis Cardinal. Shall we revisit the gruesome Rockies careers of Greg Harris, David Nied and Bruce Hurst? Probably not.

As for the expensive new acquisitions, Neagle was 3-3 with a 7.30 ERA at Coors Field through 1999. The fearless Hampton was an admirable 4-0 at altitude while with the Houston Astros, but his only 2000 start here for the Mets ended with five early-inning runs on the scoreboard and a bellowing tantrum by the lefty in the New York dugout.

On Monday, Hampton sported purple pinstripes for the first time in the Rox season opener, and he pitched a masterpiece against the talented St. Louis Cardinals -- thin air be damned. He scattered five hits, struck out five in eight innings plus, and retired slugger Mark McGwire three times -- two fly balls and a strikeout. When Hampton tired in the ninth, Bell gave him a very unpopular hook. Reliever Jose Jimenez got the last two Cards on a double-play ball to preserve a rare Coors Field shutout, 8-0.

Afterward, Hampton was as cool as if he'd just shot a casual game of eight-ball down in the rec room. "No matter where the ballpark is," he said, "if you're better than their pitching, then you're gonna win, and that's about as straight as I can get. Our pitching staff is solid, and I think we can pitch here. Period."

As irony would have it, Monday's loser was former Rockie Darryl Kyle, who continues to suffer from altitude sickness. One of only two twenty-game winners in the National League last season, he was blasted for eleven hits and six runs in five torturous innings before hitting the showers amid a derisive Denver chant of "DARR-yl! DARR-yl!"

What Hampton's opening gem portends for the remaining 161 games of the season remains to be seen. But for the second revamped edition of the Rockies in as many seasons, a few things seem certain.

One, the club's high-priced new pitching, even if it turns Coors Field form on its ear, won't mean a thing if former National League MVP and batting champion Larry Walker gets hurt again and, heaven forbid, something happens to the brilliant young first baseman Todd Helton (whose new $141 million, nine-year extension could be a bargain if he's healthy). The Rockies' best player hit .372 last year with 42 homers and 147 runs batted in and established himself, at 27, as one of the game's major stars. Helton and Walker are the crucial sources of power on a team that can no longer hope to lead the league in home runs as in the days when messrs. Galarraga, Bichette, Walker and Burks sent the bleacher crowds scurrying for souvenirs.

Two, even though Walker has generously deferred $6 million in salary to keep his team solvent, the Hampton and Neagle deals necessitated cutting corners elsewhere. To wit: Spindly centerfielder and lead-off hitter Juan Pierre is quick as a cat, but his lack of power and below-average throwing arm are detriments at Coors Field; young catcher Ben Petrick can hit, but his mechanics behind the plate are suspect, and he lacks experience handling pitchers; second baseman Todd Walker, a castoff of the lowly Minnesota Twins, batted .290 last year, but his range is limited and his throws are weak. It comes as no surprise that the 2001 salaries of these three starters add up to a measly $1.5 million -- about what Alex Rodriguez pays his chauffeur. That means that shortstop Neifi Perez, platooning left-fielders Todd Hollandsworth and Ron Gant and gifted but underappreciated third baseman Jeff Cirillo -- a .326 hitter who looks like the most valuable product of the Rockies Revolution of 2000 -- will probably need career years if Colorado is to compete this year with the pitching-rich Los Angeles Dodgers, ever-solid, smartly managed San Francisco and an ill-tempered, hard-throwing Arizona Diamondbacks club.

The D'Backs are not the favorites, but they might be the hip pick to win the National League West, not least because aging veterans like Mark Grace, Matt Williams and Jay Bell know that the clock is ticking on their World Series dreams. Barring major injuries, they'll be tough, especially with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the rotation.

Meanwhile, commingled hope and confidence wafted northward this winter from the Rockies' training camp in Tucson. Neagle's trademark practical joking was said to be a mood-elevator. Walker's veteran leadership gave off postive vibes. Hampton's game-day ferocity is proving contagious. Helton's magnificent 2000 is a model for all to behold as the Rites of Spring unfold.

Who knows? But manager Buddy Bell was aglow Monday in the Rockies' post-game clubhouse. "We already had confidence in spring training," he said. "I just think [Hampton] adds to it. I really believe that. It's not just his energy and his talent, but his passion for the game that comes out when he's pitching. And that has an effect on the other pitchers."

And the Neagle factor? "Well, Denny's a little different," Bell said. "When he doesn't pitch, he's a fun-loving guy, but the day he pitches, he's serious, and he competes as well as Mike does. It was nice to win today and give Neags a little cushion."

It was also nice to give 48,114 bellowing, sun-splashed Rockies fans a little cushion on Opening Day. Every last one of them, however, would do well not to get too comfortable. The seats are likely to get harder.


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