The Next Level Above Human

On the bulletin board outside the Rockies' clubhouse, some wit had posted a newspaper photo of Marshall Herff Applewhite, the late, lamented guru of the Heaven's Gate cult--he of the astonished eyes.

It's astonishing, all right. As of Wednesday morning, seven games into the season, the Rox had won five straight--four of them on the road, no less--and the pitching staff's collective earned-run average could have fit under a corner of home plate. Right-fielder Larry Walker, who missed sixty games last year with a broken clavicle (not to mention a broken heart) was hitting .448, with six homers and thirteen runs batted in.

"Last year," he said quietly, "I was not the Larry Walker who plays this game." Last week he was named National League Player of the Week.

In 1996, a few other Rockies also failed to recognize the men they saw in the mirror. But oft-injured five-million-dollar-man Bill Swift, for one, who had not chalked up a "W" since what seemed like the dead-ball era, dominated the visiting Reds Monday afternoon in the windy, cold Coors Field home opener. After getting knocked around in Cincinnati last week, he gave up just three hits and one earned run in six tidy innings of work. Meanwhile, his teammates staked him to a 10-zip lead by the end of four. In the five-run first, catcher Jeff Reed hit Colorado's sixteenth home run of the, uh, the week; in the five-run fourth, Vinny Castilla lost number seventeen in the left-field seats. Astonishing.

Like to know what reliever Darren Holmes yielded to the Reds in the last three innings? Nothing. Zilch. He also struck out five of the ten men he faced with his nasty changeup. Final score: 13-2.

Astonishing. A three-game sweep in Montreal? Are you kidding? With Rockies pitchers giving up just nine runs? They manage that as often as the Hale-Bopp Comet mows down a row of parked cars on Blake Street. Ten homers in seven games from Walker and Castilla? Last year Vinny didn't hit number four until late May.

Before Rockies fans start duking it out in the parking lot over World Series tickets, it might be a good idea to note that a hundred and fifty-some games remain in the 1997 season.

"We're feelin' good, we're lookin' good, and we just hope it can continue," enthused veteran outfielder Ellis Burks, who before Monday's opener joined teammates Eric Young and Andres Galarraga at home plate to receive baseball's Silver Slugger Awards--earned by the best hitters in each league at each position.

Now, did someone here dare to whisper the words "Cy Young Award?"
Don't let this get around, but if you were to throw out the two opening-season losses in Cincinnati and count only the five wins since then, the Rockies' team ERA on Wednesday morning would be under 2.00. This is like saying that Louie Anderson has just run a four-minute mile. Or that Roseanne has taken Martina Hingis out in straight sets. There may be a hundred and fifty-some games left, but who are these guys?

Have you seen that melodramatic fountain they've installed behind the center-field wall? Must be the new shower room for the visiting pitchers.

Swift was cautiously hopeful Monday afternoon. Good pitching, he said, is just as contagious as good hitting, and the five "quality starts" Rox arms put together in Cincinnati, Montreal and Denver could tell a tale. "Exactly," he said. "Guys see guys doing well, and they want to do the same. You go out there and you keep the ball down in this field. And we're gonna score a lot of runs. You go out and throw a good six, seven innings, we'll win a lot of ball games. And we felt real confident on the road. [All-Star Reds shortstop] Barry Larkin told me today when I was on second: 'You guys looked real solid on the road.' So the other players have seen it, and the guys here know."

Slugger Walker knows. On Saturday he stroked three home runs against his old Montreal club, while Expos fans drenched in Labatts rained boos down upon him. He just hit the ball. It was the kind of lift Walker and his club--which staggered to a league-worst 28-53 road record last season--badly needed. "We've always had confidence here, and we've always had confidence on the road," he said. "But sometimes we were defeated before we went on the field last year. I think that's changed."

In 1996, Rockies pitching coach Frank Funk must have felt like an innocent bystander in Hebron. On Monday he explained what might be called Funk's Law: "I don't want 'em to be satisfied," he said of his staff. "I would like 'em to have the same feeling that pitchers had a long time ago--where if you didn't pitch nine innings, you really didn't do your job as a starter. And I want our people thinking that way. I want 'em to feel if they come up short of seven or eight innings, even if they win the thing, it wasn't all that good a day. Because they're capable of doing that. Every one of 'em...the end of Spring Training was pretty miserable, and we didn't play very well. But I saw the right kind of attitude. I saw that competitive edge. I mean, they were wantin' to get out of Tucson and turn it up a couple of notches, and let's go do it for real."

To a man, everyone in the Rox clubhouse is praying that Swift is for real again. Reuniting in Denver with his old San Francisco battery-mate, Kirt Manwaring, may have nothing more than symbolic value. But if Swift can rebound to anything like his great Giants seasons--10-4, 2.08 ERA in 1992, 21-8, 2.82 in 1993--the 35-year-old righty would likely become the linchpin of a staff that lacked direction and confidence in '96. On the other hand, the first twinge in his tender shoulder could bring the dreams of April crashing down.

To the Swift, as they say, goes the Race. But, good God! The vision of him standing out there on chilly first base Monday without a jacket was enough to stir a call to the psychiatrist as well as the orthopedist. Doesn't he need to keep that wing warm? Apparently not. It was Opening Day. Swift was ahead 10-zip. He'd just stroked a line-drive single to center field. The sun was shining bright, and all was well with the world. What could possibly go wrong? Best check back in June. Or August.

Meanwhile, manager Don Baylor could barely suppress a smile at the thought of his other risen Lazarus, the red-hot and aforementioned Mr. Walker. "He had a streak like this in 1995," the skipper recalled. "It's magical, really. If he continues to play like this first week, there's no telling what kind of a season he can have."

If Walker were to somehow literally reproduce his first week all year long, he'd hit 150 home runs and knock in 500. They'd have to bronze him right there in the outfield and airmail the entire package to Cooperstown.

Meanwhile, this is but the second week of April. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less. But the vibe in the Rockies clubhouse, and on the field, is that the players are nowhere near as astonished by their fine start as the rest of baseball may be. Their eyes aren't as big as Marshall Applewhite's, and they have no intention of checking out of their major-league dream anytime soon.

"It is a little different," Baylor said Monday. "The butterflies were not like '95, when we opened the stadium, and there's not the high drama in the clubhouse. This is more like business as usual."

As long as they keep takin' care of it, who knows how close the real gate to heaven lies?

Beleaguered fight junkies searching for something--anything--to admire in their sport these days probably won't find it in heavyweight Donovan "Razor" Ruddock, who was arrested last week after allegedly ripping a two-carat diamond ring from his girlfriend's finger. Nor can they much savor the spectacle of Oliver McCall, who, his handlers now claim, had a nervous breakdown in the ring during his February title fight with Lennox Lewis.

Students of the sweet science will find encouragement in the heart and soul of one Genaro Hernandez.

On March 22, the tough (34-1-1) super-featherweight from Los Angeles faced WBC champion Azumah Nelson for the title in Corpus Christi, Texas. By all accounts, Hernandez dominated five of the first seven rounds. But after the bell ending the seventh round, Nelson hit Hernandez a shot to the throat that instantly incapacitated him.

Ring officials told the challenger that if he was now unable to fight on, Nelson would be disqualified for the late blow and the championship belt would pass to Hernandez. Perfectly legitimate. That's the way Riddick Bowe twice defeated Andrew Golota--on disqualifications. It's happened a hundred times.

Genaro Hernandez said no.
Rather than win a title sitting down, the 130-pound fighter took a seven-minute rest to let his bruised pipes clear, then signaled he was ready for round eight.

Already ahead on points, the wounded Hernandez hung on to take the twelve-round bout on a split decision. Afterward, he said he would never have accepted the win on a disqualification because he had too much respect for his 38-year-old opponent.

That's not all. When the vanquished Nelson tried to give Hernandez the jewel-studded title belt, the winner declined until the combatants had passed through the ropes and out of the hot lights.

"You wore it into the ring," Hernandez told the loser, "you wear it out of the ring."

That name again? Genaro Hernandez. Call him champ.


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