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2001: A Sox Odyssey
Round the horn with Chris Cron and the Colorado Springs Sky Sox

click to enlarge Limited Edition  All-Star outfielder Roberto Kelly opens the season in a Sky Sox uniform. Catch him while you can. - DARRALD BENNETT
  • Darrald Bennett
  • Limited Edition All-Star outfielder Roberto Kelly opens the season in a Sky Sox uniform. Catch him while you can.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the ball yard ...

Last year's Sky Sox team was a new and improved model, turning themselves from a team seven games under .500 to a team six games over in the course of one season with Manager Chris Cron at the helm.

This year's team is a younger version than last year's veteran-laden squad. A youth movement is in line with the stage-two structuring of the Dan O'Dowd Dynasty Rockies organization. But a handful of spring injuries have thrown the franchise to the brink of organizational panic.

The Indy caught up with a handful of the team's key players and their manager over the course of a short week at Spring Training and a pre-season scrimmage against the Air Force at Sky Sox Stadium. A day after the Rockies' brilliant Opening Day shutout of the Cardinals, optimism was high and the future looked so bright there was talk of trading in wrap-around sunglasses for heavy-duty ski goggles.

Hurler Homecoming

The Rockies' light-year leap in improving their starting pitching figures to have a significant effect on the work being done down the pike at the AAA level. "Last year we're getting phone calls at 5 in the afternoon saying, 'Hey, we need your starting pitcher,'" Cron told the Indy two days before opening the season in New Orleans. "That's a tough situation to be put in."

The Opening Day starter was John Thompson, a three-year veteran of the Rockies who lost all of 2000 to a shoulder injury and hasn't pitched on a regular basis in 16 months.

"He had a very, very good spring training," Cron pointed out. "If everything was equal, he wouldn't be here to begin with, but the big club's sticking with their game plan. We're going to err on the cautious side here."

Thompson was feeling great as the pre-season drew to a close. I saw him pitch in Tucson, scattering four hits over 4 2/3 innings without an earned run before coming out on a pitch count. He was building confidence, throwing strikes, and taking advantage of his improved mechanics, reminding himself not to "try to get the guys out; throw my pitches and let them get themselves out."

Thompson is fully focused on a return trip to the big leagues. "I had a taste of it for a couple years," he explained back in the Springs. "It's like blood in the water for a shark. You can smell it."

But despite Thompson's healthy shoulder, a recurring blister on the middle finger of his pitching finger sent him to the showers early on Opening Day in New Orleans after two scoreless innings. This is a notorious blister, last seen nearly two years ago in the Sky Sox clubhouse. It knocked Thompson out of Denver that May, and it knocked him out of a Sox game in the second inning. By that time the blister had already been bothering him for five years, sporadically reappearing and interfering with his control and command.

"I got a lot of energy starting this year because of missing all last year," Thompson said last week. Two days and two innings later he was back on the bench on Opening Day, his energy bottled up for a projected ten days, which could mean we'll see him on the mound as early as Sunday or Monday against New Orleans.

The No. 2 man in the rotation is Andy Larkin, who has been used as a reliever for most of the past three years, but who Cron expects will slip back into the form he used to start 14 games for the Marlins in '98. Shawn Chacon and Robert Averette (the scheduled pitcher in Friday's home opener) will fill the No. 3 and 4 spots in the rotation, making the jump together from the organization's AA Carolina Mudcats.

"We're expecting good things out of them," Cron assured, "It's going to be good for guys like Chacon and Averette to be here for a full year and get their feet wet. They're tough nuts, and that's what it's going to take."

Chacon was drafted by the Rockies from his high school in Greeley, Colo. and has made stops at every level of the organization. "Since Day One I've been working to get to the big leagues," Chacon noted before last week's exhibition game. "That's just going to continue from here, nothing's going to change." A moment's pause caused him to re-evaluate, acknowledging that "there might be a little added pressure knowing that I'm coming home to pitch, knowing that friends and family are going to be coming in droves."

David Moraga is the fifth starter, and Sean Bergman is temporarily filling Thompson's shoes, while behind the plate, Adam Melhuse has the starting catcher's job. A versatile position player with experience at first and third bases and in the outfield, Melhuse is expected to focus on his catching skills this season. "He opened up a lot of eyes this year as a catcher in the big-league camp," Cron observed, "and we're going to try to get him back there to catch as many times as possible."

Who's on first?

"We got a lot of flexibility this year in our position players," Cron told the Indy, noting "a lot of guys who can play a lot of different positions." Neifi Perez's rare trip to the disabled list is already challenging the Rockies bench depth, but closer to home, starting Sky Sox third baseman Mike Bell broke his arm while tagging a runner at first in a pre-season game against the Mariners.

"It's a bad break for him and us and the Rockies," Cron observed. "It looks like he broke the whole bone in his arm and he'll be out for at least two months. We're going to miss him. It'll be nice when he gets to get back."

In the meantime, Mike Peeples will handle the hot corner, joining a solid defense with Juan Sosa at short, Brooks Kieschnick at first and Brent Butler at second. Butler hit .292 for the Sox last year before injuring his hand after being selected to the Olympic Baseball team.

"I'm looking forward to getting to the big leagues," Butler said last week, downplaying his Olympic disappointment. "I put it behind me, but it was kind of tough to swallow at first." His hand healed quickly, and he reports "no problems."

Angels in the outfield

There are only five men on the roster--including coaches--who have played in 100 or more big-league games, and four of them are sharing the outfield duties. Scott Bullett, Melvin Nieves and Kevin Sefcik are three of those four, but the real jewel patrolling the outfield in what is sure to be a limited engagement is Roberto Kelly. Kelly brings 14 years of big-league experience to the clubhouse, having played on eight Major League teams including seven seasons with the Yankees. He's a two-time All-Star outfielder, and he's even got a World Series ring on order from his stint with the Yankees last year before his season-ending elbow injury forced him to watch his teammates win the Series from his home in Florida.

"Last year was a nightmare," Kelly commented in Tucson a day after his first start in the outfield in nearly a year. (He went 3 for 4 at the plate, but his arm was never tested in the field.) "To sit down and watch those guys play, that wasn't easy at all. I'll get a ring, but it's not like I earned it. It's not something to show off."

Cron, however, does hope to show off Kelly to his young team. "You can't look past his experience," Cron remarked. "He's got the most experience I've ever been around. Your teammates can teach you a lot of things, and what better guy to ask than a guy who's got a resume like that? He may not be here very long, so you better get as much out of him as you can."

Whether he finds a place on the Rockies roster or draws interest and attracts a trade, Kelly is likely to be back in the show before the end of April. "He wants to get back there," Cron said. If he can teach nothing else to his teammates, Kelly will fuel the flames of desire and heighten that shark's sense for the blood of the big leagues.

"Right now we're wearing the Sky Sock uniform," Melhuse pointed out. "If you left it up to each one of us, we'd be [in Denver] right now, but unfortunately, that's not the way it works. Now we have another job, to help the Sky Sox win games and at the same time do what's necessary to help ourselves get better. If your name's written down somewhere between 1 and 9 that means you're in the game and you play hard."

Cron fills out the first home lineup card Friday evening, and count on it, the sharks will be circling.


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