Hall of Famer Robin Roberts was once asked to recall his greatest thrill in an All-Star game. The Phillies' estimable right-hander answered immediately: "When Mickey Mantle bunted with the wind blowing out in Crosley Field."
Your Colorado Rockies should be so lucky. The recent eleven-game losing streak that likely spelled an end to the club's playoff hopes for the Year of Our Lord 2000 featured no such thoughtfulness on the part of opposing batters -- large or small, great or humble. In early July in San Francisco, where the Rockies managed to lose four games in 48 hours, superstar Barry Bonds beat up on Rockies pitching, and so did some guys named Marvin Benard and Felipe Crespo. The Anaheim Angels then outscored Colorado 28-10 in the course of their three-game sweep. Following this year's All-Star game, in which no slugger deigned to bunt, the Rox came home and lost some more -- three straight to depleted Cincinnati and one to bad-fielding Oakland -- before squeaking past the A's, 10-9, in the second game of a day-night doubleheader on July 17.
In the midst of their longest swoon since baseball immortals like Freddie Benavides and Jerald Clark graced the roster, the Rox engaged in two bench-clearing brawls, and manager Buddy Bell got himself tossed three times. General manager Dan O'Dowd sent outfielders Darren Bragg and Angel Echeverria and pitchers Rigo Beltran and Scott Karl packing while picking up a Blake Street-Bomberesque slugger named (aptly) Butch Huskey and a utility infielder, Todd Walker, from the hapless Minnesota Twins. Desperate, the Rox also called up young backstop Ben Petrick, who hits like Roy Campanella but catches like Ray Charles. The French didn't need this many reinforcements at Verdun.
No one had anticipated the scope of the disaster -- or even that disaster would strike. On the first day of the losing streak, the Fourth of July, the Rockies found themselves leading the National League West, eleven games over .500 and poised to put daylight between themselves and such divisional pretenders as the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants.
"We're playing good ball right now," manager Bell declared. "A few breaks and we'll be able to keep this up."
Instead, a few major breakdowns brought the Rox to ruin -- and dropped them into fourth place. Former MVP and league batting champ Larry Walker, who has hit only six home runs this year, was in and out of the lineup with an injured elbow. Starter Masato Yoshii, acquired from the New York Mets in the off-season because he had good control, lost four games in fifteen days, dropping his season record to 4-11. During the streak, the team batting average was .221. The clubhouse turned into a tomb, and fans started braying from the cheap seats. Ever the poet, Rockies TV broadcaster Dave Armstrong summed up Colorado's ninth straight loss, a 9-2 beating July 14 at the hands of the Reds (it was also Cincinnati's first complete-game pitching performance of the year), with one word: "Yuck!"
The club needed no further distractions, but it got one anyway. Last week a Denver TV station reported that Rockies second baseman Mike Lansing, who likes to ride around with cops when he's not lolling in the whirlpool, was sitting out in the squad car when Denver police broke into the wrong house last fall and shot non-drug-dealer Ismael Mena to death. Lansing wasn't talking. Probably waiting till his batting average got respectable.
The fans fumed. "What year is this -- 1993?" asked Rockpile regular Bob Halley shortly after Ken Griffey Jr. demolished the Rox with two homers on June 13. "The top of the order couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat, and the pitching stinks, as usual. At least when we had Dante (Bichette, now with Cincinnati) and the Big Cat (Andres Galarraga, the comeback star in Atlanta), we could hit the *&^%*& ball out of the %$#&*% park and win some &%#*&% games 12-10. Now they're scoring two runs against the Giants."
Meanwhile, the newly sprint-conscious, defense-minded Rockies might do well to stay out of California altogether, were it not for the unhappy fact that three of its four divisional rivals happen to live and work there, and half their interleague games involve the Angels and A's. Colorado has played sixteen games in the Golden State this season and lost thirteen of them -- by a combined score of 83-36. Only the last-place San Diego Padres have fallen to the Rox in California this year.
The book on Colorado, as always, is that the Rockies are a terrific team at Coors Field, held aloft on high altitude -- but they're dog meat as visitors. Indeed, as of late last week, they still had lost fewer games at home (13) than any team but the Seattle Mariners. But their miserable road record -- 17-32 -- indicated a dual personality disorder that would baffle Sigmund Freud, much less the Elias Sports Bureau. Just days ago, the best hitter in the National League, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, was batting .445 at home and .319 on the road. Leadoff man Tom Goodwin, the personification of the Rox's new speed program, was hitting .353 here and .223 elsewhere. Most dramatic of all, new third baseman Jeff Cirillo, who was a model of consistency in five-plus years with the Milwaukee Brewers, was hitting .445 at Coors Field and 219 points less than that when he visited Miami or Chicago or even Milwaukee. If the O'Dowd Theorem -- less bulk, more base runners -- is to bear fruit, it may take more than adding seventeen new players to the roster, as O'Dowd did for Opening Day 2000. It may take hypnotizing those players into believing that Pac Bell Park or Riverfront Stadium is actually at the corner of 20th and Blake streets.
While we wait, Rockies fans are more aware than ever that the honeymoon is over. But for too long, the Rockies have been the wayward spouse, staying out late, refusing to go to work the next day and making lots of lame excuses.
"I've just about had it," said purple-and-black-clad Ted Bayless, who's been going to Rockies games regularly since Eric Young cranked that first home run over the wall at Mile High Stadium. "Listen, I understand loyalty and all that, but there are some other things going on in this state that a lot of us could be doing besides watching a ballclub that can't beat anybody. I mean, Jesus. Cincinnati just unloaded one of their best pitchers (Denny Neagle, sent to the Yankees) and are apparently giving up the season, but they come in here and sweep the Rockies? What's going on?"
Denverites who've never lived on the North Side of Chicago or in Boston may not grasp the true meaning of fidelity, but Bayless, too, has a point. "I pay -- what? -- 25 bucks for these seats, and these guys come out here and stink up the joint? I'll stick with the team as much as the next guy, but there's a limit. Believe me, a lot of people in this town can't wait for the football season to start. And the Broncos were six and ten last year!"
As the old Swiss aphorism warns: "Marriage is a covered dish."
On the other hand, perennial optimists -- the kind of people you meet at the racetrack and the all-you-can-eat buffet -- point out that the Rockies are only six and a half games out of first place. They say anything can happen in a 162-game season. They say Sandy Koufax is retired and Mel Ott is dead, so the Rox won't have to face them in late September. The optimists believe that Pedro Astacio is a real ace, that Larry Walker's sore wing will soon be as good as new and that the newfangled, speeded-up Rockies -- call 'em the Rolling Stones -- will be there in the end, lousy pitching and the Arizona Diamondbacks be damned.
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Little matter that the Rox dropped two of three to pitiful San Diego over the weekend.
Fan Chris Chambers declared himself among this sunny-minded group last Tuesday, just before the Rockies, cut loose at last from the horrors of the streak, annihilated the Oakland A's at Coors Field, 18-3. "You wait," he said. "They're good. They're really good. I like Todd Helton. And Larry Walker. And Tom Goodwin is my favorite. I mean, they're cool. See, I got their hat. They're gonna go to the World Series."
Well, maybe. On the other hand, Chris Chambers is eight years old, and he never got to see Mickey Mantle bunt.