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The Fat Lady's Song 

The end of an era arrives as Rockies begin rebuilding phase

click to enlarge Todd Helton contributes to a successful run-down of D-back Hanley Frias - CASEY KERRICK
  • Casey Kerrick
  • Todd Helton contributes to a successful run-down of D-back Hanley Frias

The honeymoon is over. Thank God! The pressure was getting to be unbearable; who could live with all those exaggerated expectations?There is little the Rockies can do but enter into the next phase of their history with a more realistic sense of their identity. Spared the old building process, the Rockies now move directly to rebuilding, hoping for the patience, foresight and courage to develop and stand by a multiyear plan, nurturing prospects and enduring the individual statistical blips that make the concept of an average so relevant in the game, whether it's slugging, earned runs, throwing out base runners or logging innings pitched.

With the exception of Larry Walker's second consecutive batting title, fans have found little to cheer about. The emphasis has been on embracing the young players arriving from Colorado Springs like so many wide-eyed farm boys with visions of fountains erupting in the bullpen as they launch home runs into the adoring, if sparsely filled, bleachers. Incidentally, the wide open spaces in the upper deck and behind the outfield wall are one of the most appealing byproducts of the team's steady demise. Gone are the fair-weather fans, quickly spoiled by a team with 12 all-star representatives, including one at every position except catcher, shortstop and pitcher; three batting titles; two Gold Gloves; a Manager of the Year; and a Most Valuable Player. Welcome back to the diehard purists, relishing the joy of the rookie watch, keeping an eye out for the prospects who can give the team depth and security. And welcome to a new generation of kids who are learning that the nose-bleed seats are their playground, where a party, of six can have a whole section to themselves, running each other wild as they fuel themselves on soda pop and cotton candy.

The Gebhard legacy

The Rockies may never recover from Bob Gebhard's effect on the franchise. They hired Dan O'Dowd as their new general manager last week after a perfunctory three-candidate search following Gebhard's resignation "under pressure." While O'Dowd is perceived as one of the sharpest young minds in the business thanks to his supporting role in building the Cleveland Indians dynasty that recently clinched its fifth straight division title, it will take more than a few trades and free-agency pick-ups to erase Gebhard's stain.

In fairness, Gebhard did a lot of good for the Rockies. Most notably, he had an eye for everyday players, and his expansion draft secured overlooked talent like Galarraga, Bichette, Holmes, Girardi, Castilla, Reynoso and Leskanic, three of whom are still wearing Rockies pinstripes. On the other hand, Geb had a knack for letting the big ones get away, and four of those seven players are now employed by teams that will win their divisions over the next few days.

And although O'Dowd is committed to building a winner "sooner than later," the Rockies need to strengthen a farm system that has been too frequently used as a finger-in-the-dyke quick-fix. Still, home-grown, Springs-cultivated talent led by the likes of Jason Bates, Edgard Clemente, Angel Echevarria, Derrick Gibson, Luther Hackman, Todd Helton, Quinton McCracken, Neifi Perez, Ben Petrick, John Thomson and Jamey Wright have all been a credit to the crop.

click to enlarge Luther Hackman redefines the term "quality start" for a team with a worst-in-the-majors record of yielding nearly 6 runs per 9-inning game - CASEY KERRICK
  • Casey Kerrick
  • Luther Hackman redefines the term "quality start" for a team with a worst-in-the-majors record of yielding nearly 6 runs per 9-inning game

And therein lies the trade-off from the days of the old Blake Street Bombers to a future of prospect watching. While Major League Baseball promoted a "Turn-Ahead-the-Clock Day" in every major league ballpark this season, based on the timeless adage that the worst thing about the future will be fashion, outgoing Manager Jim Leyland has offered his own glimpse of the future by sending out starting lineups where the only two "veterans" are Perez and Helton.

How good are these prospects? We've seen encouraging power from Gibson and Petrick, who each had multiple-homer games last week, exemplary fielding reminiscent of his Uncle Roberto from center fielder Edgard Clemente and a couple "Coors Field quality starts" from Hackman, who pitched six and five innings, giving up five and seven runs, managing to leave with a lead in his first outing and to trail by only four -- a virtual dead heat at Coors -- in his last start. Nevertheless, Leyland's J.V. lineup managed to lose 11-3 to a second-year expansion team.

Needless to say, Gebhard's most enduring legacy will be the stigma he created for pitchers who wear the purple and black. Pitching in Coors Field, altitude and all, is not as hard as the organization has made it appear. But Gebhard's success with everyday players, paired with Don Baylor's phenomenal success mentoring hitters, skewed the facts, miraculously producing the offensive firepower to match steady failings of a seven-year experiment in patchwork rotations and a potluck approach to the bullpen. From the start, the Rockies played exciting ball, giving up homers as fast as they could hit them, conditioning fans to lose their voices over high-scoring bash-ball and ignoring and avoiding the intricacies of "small ball," where finesse pitching, tight defense, aggressive base running and a solid bench add up to a pennant chase.

After years trying to run washed-up pitchers and untested youths through the rotation, Coors Field has earned a reputation as purgatory for pitchers. Despite having ample financial resources and organizational integrity, the Rockies have lost their chance to attract the kind of quality free-agent pitchers that their new nemesis, the Arizona Diamondbacks, have secured in two short seasons of expansion development.

Gebhard always thought the team was one ace away from contending, while, in fact, they've generally been two or three reliable starters from being taken seriously. The Rockies will finish the season with only two pitchers accumulating more than 10 victories. Arizona will win the division with the lowest winning percentage of any post-season team in the league, and they will do it on the strength of a rotation boasting four pitchers with more than 10 victories.

Life after Leyland

Retiring Manager Leyland's legacy has the potential to be as psychologically damning as Gebhard's, and it will be years before we can entice another manager of his stature to Colorado. Touted as the organizational savior after Baylor was dismissed as the '98 model scapegoat, Leyland has been demoralized by his team's playing and by his sense of the Coors Field factor. Leyland slowly gave in to the park's indomitable aura, learning a new vocabulary that made room for "Coors Field homers" and the expectation that his pitchers were doomed to inflated ERAs thanks to architecture and altitude beyond anyone's control.

If anything, his unsuccessful sojourn vindicates Baylor, but it may take a couple victorious seasons before the collective consciousness in the big leagues accepts the notion that anyone can manage effectively in Colorado. Ultimately, the credibility cultivated by pursuing Leyland with a three-year contract ends up looking like another misstep along the lines of acquiring Bruce Hurst, Bill Swift or Bret Saberhagen. Sentimentality is wearing thin around these parts for a manager who has now left three posts in four years. Leyland will be back in the majors within three years, coming out of "retirement" to accept a post in a franchise without the baffling gremlins that have haunted his short-lived residency in the basement of Blake Street.

There is something to be said for the prospect of starting from scratch. There's an intangible dysfunction permeating the home dugout, reeking of defeat and hereditary fatalism. It's time to cut the losses and lose the losers before another generation of Rockies is taught to accept their doom.


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