Note to Rox: Go Fish

Denver baseball fans find themselves nailed to the couch again this October, watching a pair of teams from distant cities contest the World Series. This is the way it's been for five seasons, and likely the way it will remain for five or ten or who knows how many more. Because the Colorado Rockies are not World Series material. To reach the World Series, you need more than three guys who can hit the ball halfway to Brighton. You also need pitchers whose earned-run averages are smaller than their hat sizes--no matter what kind of homer-crazy ballpark you call home.

You need pitchers like the ones the Florida Marlins have. The ones they developed. The ones they bought. And the one they stole from an old lefty named Fidel Castro.

It cannot be pleasant for Messrs. McMorris, Gebhard and Baylor to watch the Rockies' 1993 expansion-mates beat them to the punch and play for a world championship in just their fifth year. If the Marlins take out fellow underdog Cleveland in the Series (and even if they don't), the pressure will be greater than ever for a club with the most glamorous attendance figures in the big leagues to finally get off its butt and jump into the free-agent game with both feet. That cup of playoff coffee the Rox got two years ago against the Atlanta Braves is ice-cold.

If McMorris and Gebhard are moaning, consider poor Frank Funk. Let's hope the family of the club's latest pitching coach is keeping close tabs on him (and his medicine cabinet) this week.

History tells a tale of two cities. The Rox probably got out of the blocks better than the Miamians in the 1992 expansion draft. To reduce it to simplest terms, Florida got lucky with Jeff Conine and Charles Johnson, the exemplary catcher who didn't make a single error in the regular season this year and smashed a Game One homer into the upper deck Saturday night. Colorado wound up with Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Eric Young and the most splendid of all retreads, Andres Galarraga. All the Big Cat did in 1993 was to become the first expansion player to win a batting title, then careered on to become the people's choice in these parts.

In 1992, neither new club landed much in the way of strong arms, of course, because high-quality pitching is always the first casualty of expansion. To make things worse, the Rockies quickly developed an image problem that will remain with them forever: For home-run hitters, Denver is seen as paradise; for pitchers, it's Palookaville. Any kid with a curveball and a dream of getting on the Wheaties box tells his agent he'd rather pitch Tuesday night softball in Keokuk than start for the Rox. Any veteran hurler out of a job but in his right mind instantly surveys the baseball cemetery wherein the likes of David Nied, Omar Olivares, Joe Grahe, Marvin Freeman, Mark Grant, Greg Harris, Jeff Parrett and Mark Knudson lie buried and prays to land in the greener pastures of last-place Oakland or the mediocrity of Minneapolis.

The most elaborate Rockies gravestones, of course, belong to pitchers Bruce Hurst, Bret Saberhagen and Bill Swift. These three costly investments, unspeakable fizzles all, represent the folly of the Rox front office at its most profound. The aging Hurst stuck around for part of 1993 before vanishing into the vapors. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Saberhagen turned out to be badly damaged goods shipped in from Shea Stadium. Swift managed to reinjure his arm every time he flushed the toilet, appearing in just seven games in 1996 and collapsing in '97.

Altogether, this zillion-dollar package of starters never won twenty games for Colorado.

Maybe the Rockies just shouldn't mess with anyone whose last name starts with "S"--unless he's an awfully good lefty. Going into the 1997 season, the team's all-time roster listed eight "S" names: One was a catcher, Danny Shaeffer; the seven others were all failed right-handed pitchers--Swift, Saberhagen, A.J. Sager, Mo Sanford, Scott Service, Keith Shepherd and Bryn Smith.

At the same time, the Marlins did their homework and made bold moves. After drawing more than three million fans in their inaugural season, they were badly hurt at the turnstiles by the 1994 baseball strike. But that didn't keep them from signing two top pitchers in 1995--Al Leiter and Kevin Brown. No sore-armed Saberhagens for them. Due to frequent rainouts and a hangover of ill fan feeling from the strike, Marlins attendance slipped to just 21,000 per game in 1996. Owner Wayne Huizenga's response? He opened his checkbook wide in 1996 and 1997, adding Cuban defector Livan Hernandez and Miami native Alex Fernandez to his roster of outstanding starters and beefing up a lineup led by slugger Gary Sheffield with veterans Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, John Cangelosi, Jim Eisenreich, Darren Daulton and John Wehner. Quite a load of talent for one club, even in today's money-mad marketplace.

Florida also bagged manager Jim Leyland, perhaps the game's keenest mind, from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On players alone, Huizenga's 1996 spending spree cost him $89 million: His payroll went from $23 million in 1995 to $31 million last year to almost $55 million in 1997. Carp if you must, baseball Luddites, about "buying" a pennant, but these highly paid Fish from Miami were also highly motivated. Even after starter Fernandez tore his rotator cuff in the playoffs and both Sheffield and Brown were brought low by the flu, the Marlins put away the heavily favored Atlanta Braves and their blue-chip pitching staff in the National League Championship Series. They are the first wild-card team to reach the World Series (they finished nine games behind the Braves) and the quickest newcomers to do it.

"Forget about the money," starter Brown snapped after knocking off the Braves last week. "We did this on heart. You don't think about money when you're out there. Those were the Braves we beat. Maddux. Smoltz. The best."

If they've done nothing else for America this fall, the Marlins have spared us another dose of Atlanta's most familiar sights--Jane Fonda snoozing through another Series in the first-base boxes, pitching coach Leo Mazzone rocking back and forth on the bench like a lunatic set loose on a day pass, ex-President Jimmy Carter in his Hush Puppies doing the tomahawk chop with Ted Turner.

Now that the existence of God has been re-established and the Braves have been sent to the showers again, many fans will be delighted if Florida wins the Series--despite owner Huizenga's untimely siege of buyer's remorse. The Blockbuster video king still says that the team is losing lots of money and that he may sell out. Fine, but how about waiting until the commissioner gets the trophy to the clubhouse?

Without some major buying, the World Series won't happen here for a while. While the Fish were boosting their World Series hopes, the Rockies' front office seemed to have fishhooks in its front pocket. Despite drawing 50,000 fans to every game at Coors Field and sporting a roster overloaded with marketable sluggers, Colorado made less noise last year than any other team in the league on the trading and free-agent fronts. Whether out of meekness or fear of getting Swifted again, Gebhard moved cautiously. After letting Joe Girardi escape to the Yankees, he signed ho-hum ex-Giant catcher Kirt Manwaring. Inexplicably, he gave the club's most reliable starting pitcher, Armando Reynoso, to the astonished Mets for a questionable reliever, Jerry DiPoto. At year's end, he traded unappreciated second baseman Eric Young for Dodger pitcher Pedro Astacio, whose worth here has yet to be proven. He picked up journeyman Frank Castillo from the Cubs and traded promising young infielder Craig Counsell to Florida for a forgettable reliever named Mark Hutton. Mini-move piled onto mini-move.

Except that Florida was delighted with its deal. In the post-season this year, starting seond- baseman Counsell is hitting just about .400 for Leyland.

Meanwhile, the Rox failed to unload beloved but dispensable slugger Dante Bichette for a decent (if reluctant) starting pitcher like Kenny Rogers. They also created a traffic jam at first base with veteran Galarraga and newcomer Todd Helton.

To be sure, Gebhard and the Rockies have made one great free-agent acquisition in their short history. He is outfielder Larry Walker, a man for all seasons and this year's likely National League MVP. But what has the club done for the fans lately? Walker came aboard more than two and a half years ago, on April 8, 1995. Glorious as that date remains, it also lives in infamy: Do you recall that Billy Swift hit town the same day? The Rox would have been better off with Billy the Marlin--by Sunday night, he could be wearing a World Series ring.