Play Ball!

In 2000, life among the Colorado Rockies remains a pennant or so short of bliss.

National League batting champ Larry Walker recently went to Las Vegas, he reports, where he lost not only his money but his swing. Six games into the season he was hitting an un-Walkerlike .133. "Oh, man," he lamented, "the ball looks like a marble comin' in right now." On opening day in Atlanta, starting left-fielder Jeffrey Hammonds pulled a hamstring, and he's been immersed in the whirlpool ever since. Key reliever Jerry DiPoto's on the injured list. Going into Monday afternoon's cold and windy home opener, new third baseman Jeff Cirillo was batting just .167, and shortstop Neifi Perez weighed in at .217. In the ninth inning of that game, with the Rockies leading Cincinnati 7-2, new stopper David Lee gave up a three-run homer to a guy playing just his fifth big-league game -- one D.T. Cromer. Perhaps spooked by old Coors Field late-inning horror stories, Lee then committed an egregious error on a routine throw to first. Stan Belinda had to come in and save the day.

Still, the Rockies love their chances this year. On Tuesday morning they were 3-4, but their new and improved starting pitchers had kept them in every game by doing what seemed impossible for staffs of seasons past -- throwing strikes. As everybody knows, Walker's stroke will return. On Monday, Cirillo had two doubles and two walks and scored three runs. The Rockies' spirits are high, despite a couple of bad breaks -- notably a blown home-run call the other day in Miami. "We have a lot of confidence in each other," said second baseman Mike Lansing. "We're not relying on any one person, and I think we all know that."

The newfound speed of the Rocks -- call them the Rolling Stones -- has also paid dividends. Case in point: Center-fielder Tom Goodwin, the former Texas Ranger who once advanced from first to third base on a sacrifice bunt, has already stroked an in-the-park home run and two triples this season, and -- your eyes are not deceiving you -- has reduced the vast dimensions of Coors Field to merely human scale. "Yes, it's a big outfield in left center," the fastest man ever to patrol that acreage calmly surmised after only nine innings out there, "but in right center, it's just like any other ballpark."

That would be news to the guy who started in right field Monday for the visiting Reds. In seven years as a Colorado outfielder and a local icon, Dante Bichette hit 201 home runs. But 402 balls catchable by a sleeker fielder probably eluded the chunky slugger. Now he's gone, and with him the last vestige of a club that was built for power but didn't win many ballgames after 1995.

First time the big guy stepped to the plate on Monday, the Rockies stadium announcer let loose with his famous cry, "Dan-taaaay Bichette!" and the fans responded with a huge ovation. But they knew. Knew the Blake Street Bombers are a memory. Knew that the most popular player in the Rockies' short, disturbed history belonged on another ball club. For his part, Bichette, now in his twilight at 36, gracefully acknowledged reality. "I guess it was time to go," he said. "I feel a little sad, though. I wanted to retire with [the Rockies] organization, but things just didn't go the way they were supposed to go, and that's the way it is. Maybe," and here he laughed, "I'll come back and manage one day. My heart will always be in Colorado."

In the Rockies clubhouse, heart is a big issue these days. With seventeen new faces on the roster, as well as a new manager (Buddy Bell) and a new general manager (Dealin' Dan O'Dowd), the Rockies are a team that will take some getting used-to this spring. But it's also one with new reserves of belief. "Obviously I didn't play much last year," the oft-injured Lansing said. "But the general consensus here is that last season, maybe when we got down early, we hung our heads a little bit. Now we're ready to dig a little deeper."

Can finesse and speed replace power in the most home-run-happy ballpark in the history of baseball? Lansing thinks so: "Anytime you play in this park, whether it's us or anybody else, the way the ball travels, the size of the yard, whatever -- if you stay on balls and you hit them well, you got a chance somewhere. The gaps are big. Hit the ball in the gaps and we got a team that can run. We showed that today, and it's kind of exciting."

Indeed. In the fifth inning of the Coors Field opener, speedster Goodwin ripped a triple to right center and nearly ran through Rolando Arrojo as the infinitely slower starting pitcher trundled first to third and then staggered home. "I wanted to make sure he scored," Goodwin joked. "I don't know if he was slowing down or not."

Walker, one of the few Rockies blessed with good wheels and -- when it's working -- a home-run swing, also sought to demystify Coors Field for the year 2000. "We're always going to have the speed now," he said, "and pretty much anyone in this ballpark can have power." The facts supported that theory Monday. After hitting just seventeen homers this year in spring training -- fewest in the majors -- the Rockies hit two in the opener: Lansing and first baseman Todd Helton each clubbed it out to ice the game.

The fourth guy to homer? Fellow by the name of Ken Griffey Jr., the former Mariners superstar who was playing his first road game in a Cincinnati uniform. This wasn't just any home run, either. It was the 400th dinger of Junior's career, making him the youngest player -- 30 years, 141 days -- to reach that plateau. Not only that, but he stroked it on the occasion of his father's fiftieth birthday. While Ken Griffey Sr., the Reds' bench coach, looked on from the visitors' dugout.

By season's end, Griffey Jr. could well catapult his team into the World Series. The Reds won 96 games in 1999 -- their best season in 23 years -- but lost a one-game playoff to the New York Mets. In 2000, Junior could make the difference in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the Rockies face a tough road against National League West rivals Arizona, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But even if they don't win a division crown or a wild card, their style of play should excite. Examples: From 1995 through 1999, Goodwin led all major-leaguers in stolen bases (243) and has twice as many triples as home runs; Helton, runner-up for rookie-of-the-year honors two years ago, hit .320 last year with 35 homers; third baseman Cirillo, previously hidden in small-market Milwaukee, is arguably a better fielder than the departed Vinny Castilla, and over six seasons, he ranked first all-time among Milwaukee Brewers hitters with a .307 average -- a group that included steady types like Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. If Rockies starters can keep throwing strikes, who knows? Speed, finesse and poise -- the cornerstones of the O'Dowd Plan -- could carry the club further than Coors Field's many critics may imagine.

For now, cautious optimism rules Rockieland. "We played well," manager Bell said of Monday's debut. "Maybe a little tight at the end, but that's Coors Field...I thought Arrojo did well, and we came up with some big hits...It's a beautiful ballpark and a beautiful day. It seems like we were gone forever."

For Rockies fans, forever stretches back to 1995, when their pitching-poor, home-run-smashing club managed to reach the National League playoffs, only to decline drastically in four successive seasons. Now, a new theory is in force. Perhaps it is stated best by its physical embodiment -- outfielder Goodwin. "Speed and power?" he mused. "We definitely still have some power. There's Helton, obviously. Lansing. And Walker. When we get Hammonds back, there's more. We're definitely going to have some guys with legitimate home run power. But. We just have to make sure on the days we're not hitting home runs that we're fundamentally sound and still able to manufacture some runs. Because that's going to make all the difference."

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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