Sox-Rox Express leads to playoffs 

End Zone

Dimension is everything in baseball, and no dimension is more enduring than the 90 feet between the bases. It's just far enough that a good throw to first will beat a good runner by a gnat's hair on an infield grounder, and that distance has stood for a century and a half.

But the Colorado Springs Sky Sox rewrote baseball geometry in 2009. The shortest distance between two points is now defined as the distance between Eric Young Jr. and the next base, as the Pacific Coast League's Rookie of the Year challenged baseball's equilibrium by regularly beating out routine grounders and setting a franchise record with 58 steals before his Aug. 25 call-up to the Rockies.

Young helped establish another dimensional standard, joining 17 Sky Sox players beating a path on the shortest distance to the big leagues, the trip from Security Service Field to Coors Field.

With the Rockies mining their farm system for support on the big-league roster, the Sky Sox saw their own quest for a Pacific Coast League title yield to the charge of feeding the parent club with players ready to take the organization deep into "Rocktober." The Sox saw their roster ravaged as the Rox called up the Springs' brightest stars to help push their own playoff efforts. But don't expect much sympathy from the likes of Young, who left the Sox with two weeks to go in their pennant chase to start in center while his buddy Dexter Fowler went on the disabled list after fouling a pitch off his right knee.

"I didn't miss any pennant race, because as soon as I got up here, they jumped me into this one," Young said at Coors Field last week, the day the Rockies clinched their playoff berth. "It was tough leaving the guys behind, especially when we were so close to it in that final week, but at the end of the day, it's the ultimate dream to get up here. That's what I played for since I signed in professional baseball."

A winning atmosphere

Though the back-and-forth began in April, the real exodus started at the end of May, with Sox manager Tom Runnells blazing the trail after the Rockies dismissed Clint Hurdle, placed Jim Tracy at the helm and recruited Runnells as bench coach. Double-A manager and former Sky Sox player Stu Cole took over in Colorado Springs, joining pitching coach Chuck Kniffin and coach Rene Lachemann.

"What Stu and Kniff did, they were like, 'Go out there and have fun,'" says reliever Juan Rincón, a nine-year big-league veteran who went to the postseason three times with the Twins. "They just tried to make things easier, and I think that's one of the biggest things in baseball, to not put pressure on yourself, or let the game put it on you."

The change in atmosphere throughout the organization, with Tracy setting the tone from the top, proved instrumental in establishing the Rockies' new attitude. The environment around the Sky Sox was so conducive to growth that reliever Matt Belisle turned around his season and possibly his career with stints in the Springs totaling 33 appearances over 58.1 innings, chalking up nine saves, posting a 3.09 ERA (1.83 in relief), and finally returning to the Rockies in September, where he became one of Tracy's most reliable relievers.

Belisle credits the Sky Sox atmosphere for helping him find his game again, and when he returned from closing the season in Colorado Springs, he held big-league opponents scoreless in seven of eight September outings, contributing to big wins that took the sting out of the Sky Sox's last-day loss at Tacoma that kept them out of the PCL playoffs.

"We were in a pennant race," Belisle says of the attachment he felt to his Sox teammates. "It came down to a one-game playoff, essentially, and we came up short, and that wasn't fun. [But] I'm glad that it was a winning atmosphere while I was there."

The nine starters in the Rockies' playoff clincher were all products of the organization, draftees who worked their way up through the system, from Todd Helton and Aaron Cook to Troy Tulowitzki and Fowler, and the team could carry as many as nine '09 Sky Sox on its playoff roster.

"The baseball season is too long not to rely at some point on your system," says southpaw Randy Flores, who along with Rincón, Joel Peralta and Jhoulys Chacin — all with the Rox in September — combined for a Sky Sox no-hitter in Oklahoma City on Aug. 18. "It's a testament to the group of guys there that they chose to have in the organization to be ready when that phone rings for them."

Mike McCoy hit .307 in 132 games for the Sox but became primarily a late-inning pinch runner for the Rockies. To him, the basic philosophy played the same at either end of the Interstate 25 shuttle.

"We played winning baseball, and we come here and they're playing winning baseball," McCoy says.

Sweet sacrifice

Cole, a 14-year man in the Rockies system, embodies the organizational continuity. He's risen up through the ranks as surely as the players he has helped usher to the big leagues.

"You're kind of victimized by your own success," Cole says of his depleted squad's tough ending, after which he was brought up to the Rockies to help the staff. "It hurt [to lose the pennant] at the end of the season, but you can't take away anything from what those guys did down there all season. You gotta credit them for that."

Most every significant individual Sox departure paid dividends for the Rox, starting with that of outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, acquired from Oakland along with Huston Street and Greg Smith in the Matt Holliday trade. After setting the PCL on fire, Gonzalez went up to the Rockies on June 5, the Rockies' turning point. They swept the Cardinals and Brewers on the road and established a best-in-baseball 72-37 record from June 4 to the end of the season.

Young also adapted quickly, hitting leadoff and playing center in his first big-league game. He collected his first hit while his father cheered from the press box, and lifted his first home run over the left-field fence in a flashback to his dad's homer in the Rockies' first home at-bat in 1993. Since Fowler's return, Young has settled into a bench role, coming in to hit or run in late innings.

"I've always been the everyday guy wherever I've been," Young says, "but once you get past the whole ego thing and realize everybody in this locker room is in for the same goal, reaching the World Series and winning the World Series ... the team will gel a lot better and good things will happen. Those are situations you want to play in. If you say you don't want to be in those situations, you're playing for the wrong reasons."

The 71-mile shuttle between Colorado Springs and the big leagues has the Rockies in the playoffs for all the right reasons, and the Sky Sox faithful should have no shortage of familiar faces to follow into the next dimension.

Owen Perkins was the Independent's sports and entertainment editor from 1999 to 2001. Now living in Denver, he's a contributing writer for mlb.com, among others.


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