By nature, baseball players tend to be brass-bound optimists. Tuned to the long haul, they keep their hitting shoes laced tight amid soul-killer losing streaks, try to ignore bad omens and play through pain. No single win ever gets them too high, and they take a couple of losses with the stoicism of battle-weary soldiers. The regular season, after all, spans six months and 162 games. A ball club with heart can reinvent itself half a dozen times; a good club can do it when it really counts -- in the crucial last weeks of the year, when every run looms large and the grounds crew tries to remember where it stored the red, white and blue bunting.
With just over forty games left in another mediocre season, the Colorado Rockies' optimism is under siege, and the players are clearly feeling the heat -- from the parched August skies, from their fans, from within themselves. "We're still within striking distance," says an obviously spooked Larry Walker, the three-time National League batting champion and seven-time Gold Glove outfielder. "The most important thing is playing in October. I'd rather have a bad year and make it to the playoffs than do well individually and have it end in September. October: That's what it's all about. But we have our work cut out for us."
For the Rockies to make their first playoff appearance since 1995, several nearly impossible things will have to happen. First, they must leapfrog the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West to finish second behind the seemingly uncatchable San Francisco Giants. The best second-place team in the National League, the 64-53 Philadelphia Phillies, will have to collapse like a matchbox in a hurricane. And the Florida Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos will need to come down with West Nile virus. For the moment, the Rockies are a distant seventh in the league's wild-card race behind Philadelphia (which was part of the Rockies' disappointing 3-3 home stand at Coors Field last week), and not even their legendary home-field dominance -- strongest in the big leagues -- is likely to pull them out of the doldrums. The Rox play nine of their next thirteen games at home, but the opposition will be ultra-tough: three games with Florida, followed by six against the two best teams in baseball, the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco.
No wonder Larry Walker shaved his head last year. Probably keeps him from tearing his hair out in a down season where he is hitting only .291, with a paltry ten home runs.
Last week, manager Clint Hurdle (who took the reins from the fired Buddy Bell in late April 2002) found himself looking up at the league's elite with grudging admiration and looking sideways at his own players with a mixture of bafflement and annoyance. Following a discouraging 7-2 loss to Philadelphia in the opening game of the series, in which his best young pitcher, Shawn Chacon, failed for the fifth straight start to get his twelfth win, Hurdle shook his head. "There are reasons we are a .500 club," he said. "We're not able to overcome mistakes. I said it on day one, reiterated it through the All Star Break and I'm talking about the same thing now: Until we become more consistent with our starting pitching, [until] we can go through the rotation a couple of times and get quality starts from everybody and get consistent with our defense and our offense -- until then, we're a .500 club. We've got to improve dramatically. Because .500 is not going to get us anywhere."
That mediocrity goes deeper than one game, of course. It goes to injuries, to heartbreak, maybe even to bad karma, and you could feel all of that in the silent Rockies clubhouse after Chacon's loss to the Phils. Colorado had just returned from a nightmarish 2-4 road trip in which they lost four straight one-run games, during which streak they blew two ninth-inning leads, then lost to Pittsburgh 1-0 on a game-ending double-play call that umpire Tim Welke later admitted was dead wrong. Earlier in the game, Walker and fellow outfielder Preston Wilson smacked into each other with such force that both of them fell groaning on the warning track.
Little wonder that Chacon's sixth loss of the year -- he hasn't won since June 23, shortly before he became just the second Rockies pitcher in history to be named a National League All Star -- brought gloom to the home clubhouse. In the shower-humid air, among the half-stripped rolls of athletic tape, a pair of young Rockies stared glumly into the plates of lasagna and meatballs they'd ladled up from the players' buffet. Unsmiling, the clubhouse man tossed three or four wet towels into a laundry basket, then sprayed a table with Windex. A lone bottle of André champagne sat atop a TV set, unopened for good reason.
In front of his locker, the defeated Chacon sat on a folding chair with ten pounds of ice strapped to his right shoulder and forearm. "I don't know what it is," he said, speaking in a near whisper. "Some guys have bad Julys, or bad Aprils, or Mays. I guess I have bad Augusts. Hopefully, this year I can turn it around for the sake of our ball club. There's still time, but for us it's getting down to the wire." Chacon lost again Sunday, to Pittsburgh.
For Denny Neagle, of course, there will be no wire. On July 30, the $9 million-per-year Rockies starter underwent ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow -- the kind of surgery that ends pitching careers and will almost certainly signal a finish to the most reckless spending spree in club history. After the 2000 season, Colorado signed Neagle and lefty Mike Hampton to a pair of multi-year contracts worth nearly $175 million. Three years later, Hampton is with the super-hot Braves, and Neagle could be finished forever -- an omen even the most optimistic Rockie cannot ignore. Forget the blown umpire's call that may have cost the Rockies a game on August 2, or even that horrifying escalator accident that injured 35 fans at Coors Field exactly a month earlier. Neagle's injury comes down on the team with the force of a voodoo curse: Hurdle now has no starting pitcher older than 28, and half of them have spent time on the disabled list this season. When they weren't searching for their stuff, that is. After young Aaron Cook started the year 2-6, he was sent down to Colorado Springs and now finds himself in the Rockies bullpen. Meanwhile, reliever Jose Jimenez has twenty saves, but he's also lost twelve straight decisions -- six of them this year. Because of a bad shoulder, the 11-4 phenom of 2002, Denny Stark, spent more than three months on the DL.
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Still, Colorado already boasts three ten-game winners this year -- Chacon, Jason Jennings and Darren Oliver -- for just the second time in its history, and the club has baseball's top RBI producer, ex-Florida Marlin Preston Wilson, with 112. Walker has endured his usual plague of injuries, but first baseman Todd Helton motors on, despite a sore back, as one of the game's top sluggers. Who else but the mild-mannered Helton would keep a stack of sixteen bats at his locker -- old bats and new, haunted bats and lucky ones. With solid Charles Johnson now behind the plate, speedy Jay Payton in left field and two sure-handed infielders, Chris Stynes at third and Juan Uribe at short, the Rockies look more talented than ever -- at least if you can imagine the future. Meanwhile, the phenom of the moment, Taiwanese right-hander Chin-Hui Tsao, is a perfect 2-0 following his recovery from reconstructive elbow surgery in May 2001. On August 6, the 22-year-old three-hit the Phillies in an impressive 5-1 win, looking every bit the real thing.
So along with the bad omens, we now see some good ones -- and if they don't pay dividends until next season, or the season after that, at least general manager Dan O'Dowd may have set aside the buying-and-trading frenzies of the past three years for something more valuable: consistency, heart and stability.
Certainly, those are the things Clint Hurdle was searching for as he surveyed his bruised and battered club. "What winning teams do," he said, "is get guys on base and then get 'em in. Good teams pitch well, and they're disciplined. They come out in a good frame of mind -- hungry and mean -- and they play good baseball throughout the season. That's the challenge in front of us."
In all likelihood, though, the optimists will have to wait until next year.