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Rites of Spring 

Prognostications from Tucson, spring training ground for the Colorado Rockies

Mike Lansing comes to the plate, dragging his wooden club like Sissypuss. He swings like an artificial knee, but even worse, he watches a called third strike float by like Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener when the sex gets between him and his television set. "I like to watch," they say.

No worries. It's only spring training. A time to focus on fundamentals, not on results. Lansing is already assured of securing an opening day slot in the Rockies lineup and pouting from one foul line to another. The only thing we can hope for is that he gets a hiccup-induced concussion -- last year he had season-ending surgery after throwing his back out sneezing -- and believes he's part of the new, hard-working Rockies squad.

Lost amidst the roster cuts and rotation scrambles, overshadowed by fungo bats and drills to hit the cutoff man, obscured by split squads and spit wads, there is a world of training to do this spring that extends well beyond the professional players jockeying for position and a ticket to the show.

For the faithful fans -- the shut-ins on lifesupport who let their electronic checking accounts renew their season tickets after prices were hiked and the clubhouse was sold out from under us -- there are a few new drills to accompany the familiar conditioning it takes to digest a $4.75 Rockie dog and a family priced beer, where each draft costs enough to inebriate a family of six.

This is a crucial year for Rockheads -- a chance to have the kind of coming-of-age year that fans have been denied since starting the franchise out with the highest attendance in the history of the Major Leagues, a category we've led the league in every year until this one. Old habits have already died hard, with the three-year dismantling of a fan-favorite lineup that has seen Big Cat, EY, Weiss, Vinny, Ellis and Dante all sent packing. Now it's time to see if we're really baseball fans or just homer-happy Dinger-bats. Can we stomach a team that could lose more games than last year's cellar-dwellers?

For starters, if you can limit your window of perspective to four innings a day, the starting pitching does look much improved. If Pedro Astacio can keep from being deported on a domestic abuse charge, the ace looks to pick up where he left off last season. When quality starts are reinterpreted to four innings pitched with less than three runs yielded, the Rockies will have a quality staff to match any, making obsolete those 49 reasons, all in a row, why the pitching staff isn't performing up to expectations.

The self-proclaimed "best fans in baseball" have outlived their usefulness after watching the end of the Blake Street Bomber era. Instead of a lineup that boasted four 40-homer hitters, this year's patrons will be treated to a lineup anchored by two of the three leading singles hitters in the National League, Neifi "No Look" Perez and Jeff "Location, location, location" Cirillo.

How do you get excited about a line-up full of scrappy singles hitters, unproductive pouters and perennial mainstays on the disabled list? At least we won't have all that ecstatic leaping to the feet to worry about. Coors Field promises to be a more sedentary experience this season. Fans with backgrounds in golf-clapping are already being recruited to sections previously accustomed to hooting and hollering and spilling their beer on the fans in front of them.

Cirillo is guaranteed to add some kind of character to the team. He's praised for his work ethic, and the fact that he sleeps with his bat is used to demonstrate his dedication to the art of hitting. General Manager Dan O'Dowd is projecting him as a .353 hitter with 25 homers and 115 RBIs after moving to Coors Field, and baseball analysts rank him as one of the league's top five players, projecting him to lead the league in average (with Walker second) and stating that "a .400 season shouldn't come as a shock."

Look for Cirillo to have an especially productive spring, when he can still bank on the anonymity that six major league seasons in Milwaukee afforded him. Even as the all-time leading Brewers hitter, Cirillo remains something of an unknown based on his small market invisibility. Come April 3, that will change. Wedged between Walker and Helton in the batting order, the Rockies cleanup man should get an abundance of good pitches before opposing pitchers fully comprehend the threat he poses. His disciplined habits and his impassioned approach to the game -- in the spirit of Larry Walker -- could provide the "hundredth monkey" phenomenon necessary to make Walker's example a team ethic rather than simply an entertaining anomaly.

You've likely heard how important it is for Larry Walker, one of the most versatile and consistent players in the game today, to practice his leadership skills -- the ones peripheral to his gifts as a natural athlete. Walker is the near exclusive symbol of Rockies spirit, a franchise player in the worst way, the kind kids will fidget through an entire lineup waiting for, coming to life with another unpredictable at-bat from the last holdover of the days when the Rockies brimmed over with stars and heroes. He'll never overstay his welcome, but in a year to be named later, Larry will start to lumber, growing larger than life and lingering a little longer than we ever thought he could, stretching out his doubles on scrap and hustle.

If Walker's best days are ready to recede, and Cirillo comes to the Rockies poised to explode into his prime, Todd Helton received some extra assurance that he is being counted on as the Rockie of the future. Heralded as a potential MVP by former manager Don Baylor, Helton is also the poster boy for the Rockies "Growth Poster," a giveaway for kids, traditionally featuring a promising young star that fans can measure themselves against for years to come.

Those young fans have their work cut out for them, and a little training of their own is not out of the question. Though it may be premature to hock the snowboard for a new "finest in the field" Rawlings glove, it's always within the realm of optimism to put aside last year's bandaged lumber and pony up for a new Louisville Slugger. It's not exactly the wonder bat whittled down from the lightening-struck tree that killed your paw, but if you can avoid solid contact, it might survive the season.

And though -- barring a pennant race -- attendance is likely to drop again this year, the poetry of the play-by-play should not be discounted. It's time to field test the new models of portable radios, bringing a pillow out to Soundtrack and determining which brands offer the clearest reception through six inches of downy loft. While the ambitious scholar may tire from restless nights with a history textbook under the pillow, hoping the answers for a big test will imbed themselves in the subconscious, aspiring little leaguers drift off to sleep counting pitches and watching sheep bound over the left field fence like so many line drives searching for slumber. p

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