Thin Air, Thin Hope

Three guys walk into a bar: a shortstop, an outfielder and a pitcher. "What'll ya have?" the bartender asks. The shortstop is the first to reply. "I'm gonna have a great season," he says. "I'm gonna have the kind of season where I scoop up every rocket hit within fifteen feet of me, then throw the guy out. I'm gonna bat about .310, with 35 homers. And I'm not gonna strike out more than, say, 200 times."

Wiping the mahogany with a damp rag, the bartender looks skeptically at the next man. "What about you?" "I'm gonna have a career year," the outfielder answers. "I'm gonna get 40 dingers in the thin air here, chase down every fly ball like my pants are on fire and steal 75 bases. I'm gonna strike out fewer than 180 times. No, wait. Better make that 205 times. In September we'll catch Arizona and never look back."

Four barstools away, an old man wearing three days' stubble and a twelve-dollar toupee starts to laugh. The bartender turns to the pitcher. "And you. Whadda you gonna have?" "I'm gonna have a season that defies all the odds, all the expectations," the pitcher answers. "By early July, I'll be nine and one, with an ERA under three and a half, and no one in the league -- not even Barry Bonds -- will be able to hit my sinker. I will prove, once and for all, that a fearless young stud can win consistently here."

At the far, dark end of the bar, a disheveled woman with orange hair stops biting her hands and lets out a derisive snort.

The bartender trains a cold eye on the ballplayers. "Get out! All three of you!" he says. "You've obviously been some other places before you got here."

No joke. In the Never-Never Land of Colorado Rockies baseball, theories come and go like bumblebees on a summer afternoon. There's no substitute for hard-nosed veteran pitching, one old axiom held. But when Bruce Hurst, Bill Swift and Bret Saberhagen couldn't get anyone out at 5,280 feet, it was abandoned. This year's new idea is that there's nothing quite like fresh, young arms developed and nurtured within the organization. This is the Jason Jennings-Denny Stark Principle, moisture-cured in Coors Field's very own humidor and tested for exactly one season.

In the decade since the Rockies began play, scientific experiment has known no bounds. There's nothing in the world to equal the home run, professors Baylor and Gebhardt once proclaimed, then stocked the lineup with lumbering sluggers like Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga and Vinny Castilla. That theory, which bore fruit in 1995 in the form of a wild-card series with the Atlanta Braves, was discarded a few years later, when the new Speed, Fielding and Pitch Selection Hypothesis enjoyed a brief vogue under Doctor Leyland.

Veteran Pitching II emerged as the guiding doctrine when Professor Bell served as dean, but when Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton bankrupted the club financially and emotionally, it went the way of the flat-earth theory. This season, Blake Street Bomb physics is back in fashion, just in time for the war in Iraq, not to mention some 18-15 bloodbaths against the Dodgers and Giants. The club will even have a new gizmo -- a hyperbaric chamber to reacclimate hitters to sea level before going on the road.

Meanwhile, if new acquisitions Jose Hernandez and Preston Wilson don't combine for 60 home runs, the front office will be disappointed. They're saying very little about the peculiarities of Hernandez's last September in Milwaukee, when the infielder warmed the bench so he could avoid setting a new big-league record for striking out. It's a mark the free-swinging Wilson, late of Florida, can challenge every year.

The other big news down in Tucson, which is the cradle of hope, is that the Rockies' latest theorist, Clint Hurdle, has instilled in his players a new sense of purpose and a new togetherness. There will be no stars on this Rockies team, Hurdle explains, and no TV in the clubhouse during games. Every last man will have to prove himself on the field, and the club's veteran core -- which is to say, first baseman Todd Helton and right-fielder Larry Walker -- will be expected to inspire yet another new team assembled from the halt and the damaged, the lackluster and the left over. Because this is a rebuilding year.

Little matter that every year is a rebuilding year in the Rockies organization, or that Walker shows all the interest of a wrestling fan at the opera every time another season starts to slip away. The club tried to trade him after 2002, but instead of moving on to the contending Arizona Diamondbacks, the most talented Rockie ever to put on purple pinstripes -- and one of the most frequently injured -- shaved his head and sincerely thanked the fans for keeping their faith in him.

But how much faith do the fans still have in the club? After ten years of futile trying and vain overspending, the awful truth may be coming into view. The Rockies can't win, probably can never win, because they go to work every day hampered by the inescapable equivalents of a pulled hamstring and a raging hangover. I'm talking, of course, about the old bugaboo of playing baseball at altitude. At root, every failed strategy, every botched experiment the team has tried in the last decade was designed to overcome the torment of physics. Nothing has worked. Hit a ton of home runs and your opponents hit a few more. Pitch your heart out and there goes your arm, too. Until they stuff the ball with feathers or send every batter to the plate with a broomstick, Denver's thin air will conspire against every Rockies pitcher, whether his name is Mike Hampton or Marvin Freeman, exhausting him so badly at home that he has nothing left when he gets to San Diego or Philadelphia.

Is it not time to face unpleasant facts? All the baseball theories the best minds in the game can cook up lead to the same conclusion: Trying to win at Coors Field is like shooting at the moon with a squirt gun. Ask yourself: Would a Rockies pitching staff anchored by Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan -- all in their prime -- be able to win the National League West? Don't count on it. By the end of their sentences in Denver, all of the veteran pitchers past administrations put so much stock in would rather have played in Detroit or carried hod in Topeka than faced another batter at Coors Field. Some, like the late Darryl Kile, rebounded at sea level; others fell apart forever. It will be interesting to see how Hampton does this season with the Braves.

Despite the encouragements of Clint Hurdle, the tender ministrations of Bob Apodaca (the Rockies' sixth pitching coach in eleven years) and the addition of veteran catcher Charles Johnson, you get the sinking feeling that the Rockies' bargain-basement young guns will find themselves in a nightmare by mid-season. Give Jennings, Stark and Aaron Cook credit for courage, but it looks more and more as though Denver, which distorts the game beyond recognition, is simply not a proper venue for baseball -- just as Baghdad is not the place for spring break.

What's a fan to do? Maybe the best thing is to grin and bear it. For decades, Denver scraped and begged for a major-league team. Eleven years after getting the Rockies -- a club with an incurable disease -- we might take a lesson from Red Sox fans, who carry the Curse of the Bambino on their backs with stubborn pride. Or from the beery multitudes crammed in Wrigley Field -- all of them secure, somehow, in the bittersweet belief that their lovable Cubs will screw it up again this year. Instead of feeling crushed by disappointment or devoid of hope, perhaps the not-so-long-suffering Rockies fan should embrace his team's fate and the comic ironies that go with it. There's a certain rough beauty, after all, in the notion that things can get no worse for the home team until the big leagues expand to Mexico City and Kathmandu. Why not get in on the joke?

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo