The Basement Tapes

Pity poor Montreal. In that northern outpost, you can hear the vendors pouring Molsons up in the third deck while everyone waits for hockey season to begin. And Baltimore. On the shores of Chesapeake Bay, another expensive chemistry experiment has blown up in manager Ray Miller's face. While Will Clark scowls and Albert Belle flips the bird to the right-field bleachers, Orioles fans have turned into crab cakes at the prospect of a caboose finish. Minnesota? The underpaid, underpowered Twinkies may as well crank up the Evinrude and go out after pickerel.

But baseball is not much happier here in Denver, is it? Couple a hefty $60 million payroll with six-dollar results, and you've got one miserable bunch of bottom-feeding Colorado Rockies. They're nine games out of first place in the mediocre National League West, and they've just been swept at home by the St. Louis Cardinals. What are the chances they'll turn into playoff material anytime soon?

Meanwhile, those fictional "sellout" crowds at beautiful but deadly Coors Field now translate as section after section of empty green seats. Where once the Blake Street Bombers launched moon shots into the night and a plucky pitching staff managed to hang on for dear life, the Rox have slipped steadily downhill since winning a wild-card playoff spot in 1995. After a thousand games in the National League, there are a thousand reasons why the Rockies remain also-rans.

Here, by our lights, are a few of them:

GEB'S GAFFES: Give Bob Gebhard, the Rockies original (and only) general manager, credit for early insight. Before the crucial expansion draft of 1992, he saw the value of grabbing sluggers Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette, and now-third baseman Vinny Castilla, another Gebhard pick, has turned into one of the game's best performers--in the field and in the batter's box. Three years later, Gebhard also understood that Larry Walker is the kind of star you build a franchise around: He was named the league's Most Valuable Player in 1997, won the batting title by ten points last year and became just the third player since 1930 to hit .360 or better in successive seasons. He's the heart and soul of a team that needs a lot more of both.

But the Gebhard errors are legend. Signing expensive pitching flops Bruce Hurst (0-1 as a Rockie), Bret Saberhagen (2-1) and Billy Swift (14-10) were major miscalculations, to be sure, but sending rock-steady influences like veteran shortstop Walt Weiss and first baseman Galarraga to the Atlanta Braves has to rank right up there with Napoleon's confidence that he'd beat the spread at Waterloo. When manager Don Baylor got the ax last year after leading the Rockies for six seasons, increasingly restless fans wondered aloud why Gebhard didn't get a pink slip, too. Later they wondered how Gebhard failed to land star pitcher Kevin Brown or Yankees center-fielder Bernie Williams from the free-agent market and why he couldn't trade for pitcher Roger Clemens. Instead, the Rockies got lefty Brian Bohanan (who has a nice 9-7 record) and utility man Lenny Harris. The team is strapped with costly long-term contracts, and it's not winning. Come October, Gebhard could finally be gone.

LOUSY DRAG COEFFICIENT: By now, everyone on the planet knows that the batted ball travels faster and farther and the thrown curve ball breaks less sharply at 5,280 feet. That helps explain how the Rockies and the Cincinnati Reds were able to foment a 24-12 game at Coors Field this season (it's every hitter's favorite park) and how the Rockies hit a record 149 home runs at home in 1996. But it demonstrates only in part why the team's two "star" pitchers--Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio--are a combined 15-19 this season. If homers are jumping out of the joint so fast, why are the Rockies no longer getting their winning share of them? For one thing, Astacio tied for the big-league lead last season by allowing 39 home runs, and he's given up 48 dingers in only 38 starts at Coors Field over two seasons. Kile is just 8-13 at Coors in two years as a Rockie, and his fastball has apparently lost some steam here. He's also surrendered thirty homers in 27 starts. Surprisingly, ex-Dodger Astacio has proven the better of the two, but both guys get so worn out by their efforts at home that they often can't throw effectively on the road, either.

Remember Jamey Wright? How about John Thomson? Or Kevin Ritz? These were supposed to be the Rockies' star starters-in-waiting, but the hopes for them are largely gone with the wind. Pity the poor bullpen--and the future of Rockies' starting pitching, which Gebhard has always claimed was the club's top priority. Unless former Houston ace Kile, in particular, shows improvement as a Rockie (he went 13-17 last year), the team will have almost no hope of luring another top free-agent starter to its staff. And without one, their fortunes are likely to decline even further.

REDUCED SPEED ZONE: The slew-footed Rockies have stolen only 41 bases this season (nine by the hard-charging Walker), while their opponents have nabbed 88. By contrast, Mets outfielder Roger Cedeno, a part-time player, leads the league with 52 thefts. Even in a home-run park like Coors, speed regularly translates into runs scored. And good outfield defense. But since the club traded swift leadoff hitter Eric Young to the Dodgers and discarded speedballs like Quinton McCracken and Curtis Goodwin, they've been lumbering around like a Sunday softball team. Right-fielder Walker, who gets a great jump on anything hit, defies the usual rules in Coors's huge outfield expanses, but center-fielder Darryl Hamilton (four steals) is an average runner at best, and Bichette looks more and more like Butterball Esch out there in left. Said to be trade bait, Dante remains an RBI machine for the Rox, but will the two teams to which he would agree to join--Atlanta and Yankees--really want a guy who covers the buffet table a lot better than his position?

CURSE OF THE CAT: Andres Galarraga remains on the shelf this season due to a cancerous growth in his back. But letting him get away to Atlanta may still represent the breaking point for a Colorado club that made nice progress in its first three years, culminating in a 1995 playoff series with the Braves--who turned out to be the eventual World Series winners. Some of the Big Cat's value may have been hard to pin down--the counsel he gave to young Latin players, his easy humor, his veteran leadership in the clubhouse. But he was the one essential member of the Blake Street Bombers quartet that terrorized opposing pitchers at home and on the road. Galarraga's replacement, young Todd Helton, promises to be a superb player (if the constant losing doesn't undo him), and he finished a close second last year (to Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood) in National League Rookie of the Year voting. But Galarraga's absence--and players will say this privately--is a void that has not been filled: part reality, part mystique and ever tangible. Those painted "14's" that players on many teams are wearing on their caps this season honor an extraordinary player whose effects here went way beyond the numbers.

CAN'T CATCH A BREAK: Notice who caught Yankee pitcher David Cone's perfect game two weeks ago? None other than Joe Girardi, the former Rockies backstop who represents the other crucial loss from the club's 1995 team. A smart veteran who could handle pitchers with fragile psyches, Girardi has been an unsung but invaluable addition to a team that won 125 games and the Series last year and got everyone in baseball speculating that these may have been the best Yankees ever. It's evident now that Girardi was even more valuable to the Rockies. Of the mediocrities who replaced him, Kirt Manwaring remains a good defensive catcher who can't hit, Jeff Reed (now a Chicago Cub) was a journeyman with little power, and the current starter, 27-year-old Henry Blanco, played in San Bernardino and Albuquerque last year. At season's beginning, he was a Rockies "non-roster invitee." Blanco has five homers and 24 RBI this year--and is clearly no Joe Girardi.

MIDDLE MUDDLE: After failing to sign a top-of-the-line center-fielder like Bernie Williams, the Rockies are still going with ex-Giant Hamilton, who has just four home runs and 24 RBI in 323 at-bats. At least Ellis Burks and his wounded knee are in San Francisco. But there's more trouble in the Rockies' middle infield. Shortstop Neifi Perez, who tried to fill big shoes when Weiss left, is a decent glove man who's hitting almost .300 with flashes of power. But the slender 175-pounder has no resemblance to the current model for big-league shortstops, personified by Boston's Nomar Garciaparra and Seattle's Alex Rodriguez--a big guy who can flash leather, throw hard and hit home runs. This is the kind of player perfectly suited to Coors Field, but he isn't on the job. Meanwhile, second base has been a real mess. In 1998, newly acquired Mike Lansing disappointed with a .276 batting average, a spiky attitude and less power than advertised. He's lost most of this year to injury, giving management ever deeper pause about the departure of Eric Young.

THE CIGARETTE-SMOKING MAN: Is it too early to say that first-year manager Jim Leyland, who worked low-scoring, small-market miracles in Pittsburgh and led the expansion Florida Marlins to a world championship in 1997, may be the wrong man for the job here in Colorado? Probably. The team's mysterious hitting woes are not his fault, and the shell-shocked pitching staff is what it's always been. But the payroll here is still $60 million, $15 million more than San Francisco's. The team has not produced, and the old baseball saw that says a superior manager adds ten wins to a team's record has not come to pass. There's no use shouting for Leyland's severed head--not yet, anyway. But doesn't Don Baylor's 1995 performance--a trip to the playoffs, using smoke and mirrors and pitchers just off the psychiatrist's couch--begin to look better and better as the sorrowful seasons slide by? Two, three more years like this and we'll start thinking this is Montreal.


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