A Whole New Ballgame?

Adherents of the long view can rattle on all they like about the grueling 162-game schedule and the notions that the real fight begins in late summer and authentic quality shows in October. Fact is, the Colorado Rockies' reconstructed brain trust will learn a great deal about its reconstructed baseball team before most fans get around to wiping the opening-day mustard off their shirtfronts. Or setting their season tickets ablaze in the parking lot.

Consider the rigors of April 2000. The Rockies -- if we may call that band of strangers shagging flies down in Tucson by so familiar a name -- open the season with three games in Atlanta, where the defending National League champions will come at them with the blue-chip law firm of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. These fellows almost never lose a case, especially against Colorado. But should they need help in final arguments (aka the bottom of the ninth), at least they won't get it from eminent civil-rights attorney John Rocker. This champion of the oppressed has been suspended until May 1 for his thickheaded comments about minorities, gays, New York subway passengers and anyone else you can think of. The Braves probably won't need him against the Rox. Meanwhile, a former Rockies hero, Andres Galarraga, will also be out to show up his old mates after a year away from the diamond to undergo cancer therapy. If the Big Cat doesn't hit a home run or two in the opening series, the baseball gods are snoozing.

We're betting that the locals will look a little bruised by the time they move on to Miami for a three-game set against the Florida Marlins. At first glance the Fish still look fried, but their stock of talented young pitchers is the envy of the league, so the visitors had better lace up their hitting shoes.

Colorado doesn't play at home until April 10, when their opponent will be Cincinnati. After falling one win short of the playoffs last fall, the surprising Reds didn't do much in the way of off-season improvement except to -- let's see here -- pick up some guy named Griffey to play center field. And hit cleanup. And add about 900 horsepower to the revitalized Big Red Machine. After demanding freedom from Seattle, Junior signed a nine-year deal with his hometown club for $116.5 million, a bargain-basement figure in the eyes of baseball's new generation of plutocrats. As a free agent in 2001, the game's best player would likely have raked in $30 million more. But then, why quibble over a few bucks when your father is your new team's manager-in-waiting and everyone in town is inviting you over for a nice bowl of three-way chili?

Anyway, Griffey and company will be playing their first away games against the Rockies, and the 29-year-old slugger won't mind a bit if he hits a couple of high-altitude heaters into the right-field bleachers, just to show the folks back in Cincy that he means business in road grays, too. By the way, the big guy standing next to Junior over in left field will be the newly acquired Dante Bichette. He was the most popular Rockie in the team's short history and a slugger of some note. Now he is Exhibit A of the brand-new, untested Roxian Theory that power can be sacrificed for speed, finesse and on-base percentage at homer-happy Coors Field. Time will tell, but one thing is likely: Whatever Ken Griffey Jr. doesn't know about friction coefficients attendant to baseballs struck at 5,280 feet, Professor Bichette will explain to him here in early April. If the two of them, in league with brawny Reds first baseman Sean Casey, don't hit half a dozen homers while visiting Denver, many local hotdog eaters and beer swillers will be surprised.

Did we mention that after Cincinnati, the St. Louis Cardinals come to town for four days? That's akin to fighting Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield on successive nights. Naturally, St. Louis will be bringing along its huge drawing Card, Mark McGwire. Last time we looked, Big Mac was a pretty fair home-run hitter at any altitude.

These formidable tests will get the Rockies through April 16. Then, as luck would have it, they visit Arizona to face another 1999 playoff team -- and Randy Johnson's 580-mile-per-hour fastball.

Whaddya think? Won't brand-new general manager Dan O'Dowd and brand-new field manager Buddy Bell have a pretty good read on their brand-new Rockies by then? Won't the fans? But for now, it can't hurt to review the enormous changes the club has undergone since finishing dead last in the National League West last year and catapulting manager Jim Leyland and his smoldering Marlboro into sudden retirement.

In the last five months, O'Dowd has been busier than an FBI agent at Connie Corleone's wedding. Since the forced resignation of original GM Bob Gebhard, Dealin' Dan has made six trades that have brought the team thirteen new faces. He's also signed five free agents, claimed one player off waivers and, for all we know, started negotiating with Babe Ruth's ghost. On opening day, Colorado fans will recognize the Rockies' right-fielder (perennial All-Star Larry Walker), the first baseman (splendid Todd Helton) and the shortstop (Neifi Perez), but almost everyone else will be a stranger. "I just hope all the jerseys come with names on them," O'Dowd told the New York Times last week. The opening-day roster could have as many as eighteen new players.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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