I love baseball. When my mind wanders down happy paths (sometimes narrow, sometimes wide) the most expansive areas have a field, a ball, a bat, and nine gloves. I recall as a boy in bed at night, my brother Chris just three feet away in his, the tubes glowing in the small green AM radio on the nightstand between us, as baseball poured from its small tinny speaker. The voices of Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson doing analysis and play-by-play for the Atlanta Braves.
My brother and I listened to the Braves religiously through the seventies. We welcomed the advent of WTBS with its broadcasts of the games as manna from heaven. Those were lean years for Atlanta, when losing seemed more realizable than winning, and each newly acquired big named pitcher would seemingly buckle to his knees grasping his pitching arm with some injury as soon as they disembarked the plane at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport.
Such a baptism in following the sport should have hardened me to whatever franchise I would migrate to in adult life. But it is a truism that no matter what you have experienced, no matter what you have seen, you haven't seen it all - yet.
I am in Colorado now, and after living here seven years, Colorado was chosen to get an MLB Franchise, the Colorado Rockies. Now the Rockies are celebrating their twentieth year which they are calling "The Year of the Fan." A great idea, but the follow-through has left something to be desired. So far, the only things the fans have to smile about are the inventive and humorous Colorado Rockies television commercials which star some of their season ticket holders.
Going into spring training (the annual rebirth of the religion that is baseball) the Rockies were believed to be in contention for a spot in the post season. Now with the season in full swing (pun intended), the Rockies will be lucky if they do not lose one hundred games, and what was the “Year of the Fan” has become the “Year of the Dan.”
Dan would be Dan O'Dowd, General Manager of the Colorado Rockies, and harbinger of the Rockies’ doom. He has wheeled and dealed this team solidly out of contention in a year dedicated to the people that have supported the team through its highs and lows for twenty years.
Last year the season was crippled by an under performance from its ace Ubaldo Jimenez, the loss of its number two pitcher Jorge Del la Rosa to Tommy John surgery, the mediocrity of the three man in the rotation Jason Hamel, the inconsistency of forth starter Jhoulis Chacin, and a broken neck incurred by fifth man in the rotation Juan Nicasio. "Wisely" the Rockies dumped their ace to the Cleveland Indians for having a poor season, for which they received two good minor league pitchers and an unknown position prospect.
The season ended with many question marks hanging over the Rockies pitching as-well-as having serious needs for the revolving doors at right field, and second and third base. It was time for the Rockies GM to step up to the plate and show more than his lackluster job of previous seasons. Would it be too much foreshadowing if I were to say that Dan O'Dowd struck out looking?
To his credit, O'Dowd made good moves in right field and second base signing veterans Michael Cuddyer and Marco Scutaro. No off season moves were made about third base and so Manager Jim Tracy divided the duty among Gordon Pacheco, Chris Nelson, Jonathon Herera, and DJ LeMahieu.
I really do not want to address the pitching situation, but I have to. In the off season, O'Dowd dealt mediocre Jason Hamel to Baltimore (where he has become the rock of their rotation) for Jeremy Guthrie (he of the 17 losses for 2 of the last 3 seasons). O'Dowd retained the inconsistent Chacin, strong good-natured Juan Nicasio (he of the broken neck), and added to that Jeremy Guthrie, young untested Drew Pomerance, and spring training acquisition forty-nine year old Jamie Moyer (fresh off Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery). You could almost feel the division quaking in their collective spikes of facing that fearsome five!
Just into the season’s infancy, the first round of disasters struck. Chacin and Nicasio both went on the disabled list and have not seen action since. Guthrie has performed as-well-as a seventeen game loser can be expected to perform. Drew Pomerance was sent to triple A Colrado Springs to work on mechanics, and Jamie Moyer was handed both his cane and his release papers.
In the field, the Rockies lost all star/all world shortstop Troy Tulowiski to what may be a season ending groin injury. This left the infield in chaos and opened the way to expanded micromanaging on the part of Jim Tracy. Tracy decided to share shortstop duties among Scutaro, Chris Nelson, Gordon Pacheco, Jonathon Herrera. Since Scutaro was partially reassigned to short stop, Tracy got to play musical chair at second with Scutaro, Nelson, and LeMaheu.
In case you were thinking that first base is the lone island of sanity in the sea of the infield, Todd Helton (who has done his usual superlative defensive job) is aging and not hitting as-well-as past years, so he is given frequent days off and right fielders Cuddyer and Tyler Colvin (with a dash of let-me-see-which-hat-I-wear-today Pacheco and Yoda-of-the-clubhouse Jason Giambi) alternate on the corner. All this switching around of players is more difficult to follow than Abbot and Costello explaining “Who’s on First.” It is no wonder that our normally high team fielding percentage is suffering. Without stability to the infield, chemistry does not have a chance to form, to gel into the familiar bonds necessary for a 6-3-2 double play, or even sometimes to know where to throw the damn ball.
This juggling act has its effect offensively as well. There is for all practical purposes no fixed batting order save that when the game starts the pitcher bats ninth. Batters are not getting the chance to settle-in to the leadoff spot, or four-hole, or lower half of the order, or wherever. Each place in the batting order requires a different strategy. Shifting personnel around so much weakens the offense that the Rockies can produce (as an example, the Rockies have been outscored this year in the second and third innings by approximately sixty runs).
Back in the land of the pitcher, the Rockies moved Guthrie to the bullpen, brought up Alex White along with rookie Christian Friedrick to start, Josh Outman was moved to the starting rotation from the bullpen, and resigned Jeff Francis to the club. Around this core, Jim Tracy implemented a league perplexing four man rotation. Based on the theory that the less opposing teams see of the Rockies’ starters, the better the chance the Rockies’ starters can put the team in a position to win a game. Because of the short time between starts, starters are limited to just seventy-five pitches with the hope they can make it through the fifth inning, then the long reliever can take over, and the holder and the closer can then play their parts – I call it “pitching by committee.”
What actually happened when this system was implemented was that both Alex White and Josh Outman were shelled out of their first starts within the first few innings, ultimately resulting in both being sent down to the minors. Drew Pomerance was brought back up, and Jeremy Guthrie was given another shot at the rotation. Pomerance has performed well, though due to arm soreness took a drubbing last time out. Jeremy Guthrie had not changed his shaky ways and was shuttled off to the Kansas City Royals for Jonathon Sanchez (1-6 when acquired, 1-7 after his first outing in a Rockies jersey). The primary bright spot for the Rockies pitching has been the surprising play of Jeff Francis who has pitched consistently and has been a solid veteran presence on the field. Francis however is no longer an ace, and is better suited as an anchor of a rotation and not its best performer.
If it is confusing finding your way through this maze of names, positions, and moves, it has been doubly so to the fans who root against the tide of crumbling hope for the Rockies. As I mentioned, I am a veteran of witnessing promising melt down, but the dreams-turned-to-dust of the Rockies’ season is like nothing I have seen in my more than four decades of being a baseball fan.
This year I have watched both the moves by the GM and the juggling by the Manager and have found both wanting. I join the multitude of Rockies’ fans, lantern in hand, searching in the dark not for an honest man, but an honest assessment of the team. I am looking for ownership to say more than, “Man, we really aren’t that good, are we?” The fans need and deserve decisive movement, decisive change. I am not talking a sacrificial response such as changing the hitting coach, or sending the pitching coach to be special assistant to the GM. I am talking about replacing Dan O’Dowd and Jim Tracy immediately.
The position players we have are fine, and look to grow into the high ceilings that scouts have predicted for them. The starting rotation is a disaster and needs complete reconstruction, but I am unsure who is available that would make a significant difference at this point. Much of the damage is done this season, but ownership can at least make the infield more stable, ownership can at least give the batters fixed spots in the order, and ownership can show the fans that it cares about putting out a quality product by firing O’Dowd and Tracy. Any argument revolving around direction or stability to this move would be spurious and hollow as ownership had no difficulty in removing Clint Hurdle as Manager at mid-season when that change was required.
The fans are still coming to the park, the fans are still following the broadcasts, and the fans are still loyal. Show them that they are justified in this love and trust, pay more than lip service to the “Year of the Fan,” move out O’Dowd and Tracy, and move on to what this team can be.