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The Rockie road to Opening Day

click to enlarge The Rockies hopes are pinned on  a revamped pitching rotation, led by new ace and Opening Day starter Mike Hampton. - Photo courtesy of the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club
  • The Rockies hopes are pinned on a revamped pitching rotation, led by new ace and Opening Day starter Mike Hampton.

    Photo courtesy of the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club

It's so easy to forget that baseball is work. When the jets fly over the park on Opening Day and the superstars' faces fill the jumbo screen looking tougher than diamonds, there's an increasing danger of losing your apple-pie patriotism in a spiraling vortex of cynicism. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. The rest of us need the elbowroom.

There is no longer any such thing as relativity in the major leagues, where the minimum salary is 200,000 damn dollars a year and the current maximum is $154,000 per game. But in the preseason dream of March, before real time begins, all things are possible, and nearly every day an 18-year-old busher hanging on in a big league training camp with nothing to show for it but his meal money gets to play alongside the game's elite.

On a series of four connecting diamonds, backstop-to-backstop against each other in the 85-degree dry heat of a Tucson afternoon, the endless and obscure toiling that paves the road to the Rockies is as real as the sun baking into the scalp. The entire organization is within 100 yards of itself, from the 25-man Rockies roster to the brand new Casper club in the Pioneer League.

The days are running out, and the rosters are fairly well solidified, but that doesn't keep prospects from wearing cell phones on their belt loops, listening for a call-up. Chris Testa takes swings at a batting tee just past the Tri-City Dust Devils (A) bench. It's the last chance for the 19-year-old to make an impression and latch onto an $850/month minor league contract, and it beats chasing down foul balls from fans accustomed to the disposability built in to big-league budgets.

The Dust Devils shortstop plays shadow ball between pitches, scooping up imaginary grounders and firing over to first when he thinks nobody is looking. In truth, nobody is looking at Hector Tena, the 18-year-old light-hitting shortstop prospect who plays for the Rockies affiliate in the Dominican Summer League. Very few people come to these auxiliary field games at the Rockies complex: a few girls on beach blankets beside the outfield grass, somebody's mother, and a handful of wandering old-timers enjoying the free look at the future.

The next field over, John Thompson is working his way back into form, pitching for the Sky Sox as he rehabs from last season's shoulder surgery. Thirteen-year major league veteran Roberto Kelly plays his first game back in the outfield after an injury cut his season short with the Yankees last year, and projected Sky Sox third baseman Mike Bell contributes to an assault on the White Sox a day before breaking his forearm making a tag with the Rockies.

It's easy to lose track when the headlines are grabbed by $25 million contracts and the whining of players who feel slighted because they're only making half that salary. Enter Larry Walker, former MVP, two-time batting champ, and team player extraordinaire.

"Frankly, pitchers on the level of Mike Hampton wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Larry Walker," Rockies owner Jerry McMorris told reporters as he announced Walker's unselfish decision to defer half of his $12 million salary to make payroll available to sign the pitching ace. "Nobody wants to win more badly than you do," McMorris told Walker.

"This seems like the only legitimate thing to do," Walker told reporters of his decision to delay his financial gratification in order to speed up the prospect of a pennant. "It took me probably all of three seconds to make the decision."

When asked why he went against the grain in an era where everybody is angling for bigger contracts, Walker deadpanned,"I'm not from this country. We do things differently in Canada." The restructuring of his contract to defer over a 20-year period roughly half of the $37 million owed him was indeed a breath of fresh air for baseball. "I've got money," Walker assured anyone concerned about his welfare. "I don't need to put money in my bank account right now. I can live quite nicely right now where I'm at. It's a no-brainer."

Walker offered the deferment in December, but the details were finalized and announced Saturday morning. Hampton was acquired within a week of the Rockies' signing Denny Neagle, giving the Rockies two integral members of the World Series rotations for last year's Yankees and Mets. Hampton is undefeated in four Spring Training starts, and on Friday he demonstrated his versatility, beating out an infield single with the kind of hustle that General Manager Dan O'Dowd is anchoring his team around.

"He's a hell of an athlete. He's got a hell of a zest for competing," Manager Buddy Bell commented after Hampton's multitiered attack on Friday. "He really sees himself as an offensive weapon. We can do a lot of things with him offensively, even if he's not pitching."

"As long as my name's penciled in, one through nine in the lineup, I'm going to contribute every way I can," Hampton said after striking out the side and retiring the first six batters en route to a seven-inning, 98-pitch victory. "I treat everything like a regular season game," he added. "I'm out there to win regardless of what day, what season."

Hampton's fire is already rubbing off on his younger teammates. Catcher Ben Petrick -- poised to start his first full season with the Rockies after making the commute between the Sky Sox and the parent club over the last two seasons -- relishes the chance to work with the team's first legitimate ace.

"With a good sinker and throwing a nasty cutter, it's fun back behind the plate, because you can mess with his hitters big time," Petrick said before commenting on Hampton's well-rounded approach. "It's fun to see Mike get out there and swing the bat. He wants knocks. When you're a pitcher and you're on the mound all the time, you don't get an opportunity to go make plays and get a lot of at-bats. If I was a pitcher, I'd be like, 'When I get my chances, dude, I'm busting my tail.' That's the way he does it, and I like it. It's the same way with me, when I'm behind the plate. If I get a chance to dive for a ball, it's fun to do. How many opportunities do you get back behind the plate? You're squatting the whole time."

Hampton praised his young battery mate in turn, noting Petrick's determination to improve his defense after two partial seasons noteworthy for his hot bat. "He's a rare breed in that he's not afraid to ask questions," Hampton said of Petrick. "He's willing to learn and get better. A lot of top prospects don't worry about anything as long as they're hitting."

From minor league prospects to millionaire MVPs, the Rockies are out to prove that there's no price tag on hustle. When Walker isn't smashing balls over the 30-foot wall in Hi Corbett Field, he's turning doubles into triples, prompting Bell to call him "absolutely unconscious right now as far as taking the bat to the ball." Jeff Cirillo and Todd Helton hustle singles into doubles and then stick around on a scorching afternoon to take additional BP with Juan Pierre. Even No. 2 pitcher Denny Neagle talks about "kicking it up a notch" as the Rockies prepare for the ultimate test.

The Rockies are out of excuses. They have the pitching that has always been theoretical, dedicated team players, and increasing depth in the farm system. The clock starts ticking with the opening pitch on Monday when the last leg of the great experiment kicks into high gear.

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