Bud's Reign and Rockies' Rain all washed outI cannot believe this. On the air, on KNBR 680 AM radio in the Bay Area, I'm hearing the horrible weather looming over the ballpark in Denver this afternoon. The lights at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, have just gone out, a tornado has sprung up in the vicinity and lightning has struck quite near the game, which is now in its ninth inning.
Broadcaster Jon Miller astutely chimed in that the perilous meteorological conditions may symbolize the labor struggle leading to the looming player strike tomorrow, August 30, the strike date posted by Donald Fehr and the players' union reps. Will the players strike? Some say they will. ESPN.com has publicized clever signs brandished by fans nationwide at recent games; one message — "You strike, we're out!" — sums up the sentiments nicely.
More optimistic followers of the labor negotiations point to upbeat comments made by this or that player for this or that ball club. Tom Manager leaves one of his starters in for a certain number of pitches. Dick General Manager shuffles a few non-prospects for a 35-year-old starter and cash. Harry Ballplayer (not in the Wade Boggs way) sells the union line, something like caring about the fans. Many fans point to these as signs of progress. Others hold more skepticism.
Baseball thinkers and writers who understand the labor struggle better than I do cover the process with more insight and clarity than I could ever aspire to, so I'll just stick to the weather in Colorado in this space. But it strikes me that the Rockies, more than any other franchise, exemplify the disastrous path baseball has taken since '94.
The expansion to the Rocky Mountains — strictly Bronco territory until then — seemed to work, initially. Starting with the team's inception in '93, the Rockies outdrew beyond expectation. They were the first team (I may be wrong on this) to draw four million tickets in a season. In only their third season they reached the playoffs, losing to Atlanta in the National League Division Series. The highly-touted Blake St. Bombers tandem of Castilla, Bichette, Galarraga and Walker rang in brand-new Coors in style, mashing home run after home run into the jam-packed stands.
Recently, however, the Rockies have struggled in their personnel decisions, and have also failed to maintain a fruitful farm system. Darryl Kile never settled into the thin Rocky Mountain air. The unloading of aging cash vacuums like Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla proved to be smart moves by the Colorado front office, but current GM Dan O'Dowd has misspent those Benjamins on Mike "Gosh, the schools are great here" Hampton and Denny "I look like the young John Lithgow but I pitch like the old John Lithgow" Neagle. The current roster features two legitimate stars (Molson Man Walker and Tennessee Helton), and more so-called "tools" outfielders-turned late-bloomers (Kapler, Payton, Cust) than Clint Hurdle can cram into a lineup card.
Attendance, while healthy by, say, Tampa Bay standards, has declined noticeably since the The Year That Ellis Burks Was God (1996), and who could blame the fans? Would you show up to see Shawn Chacon cough up seven in four and watch as the Rockies come back to win 13-8? With the NFL season gearing up for kickoff? With the Avs putting up such a great fight in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs? With the Colorado State football team riding last year's thrilling campaign? With Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe keeping basketball interesting in the post-LaFrentz/Van Exel/McDyess era?
The Colorado Rockies, an organization that thrived as a fan-friendly product through the mid-to-late-nineties, have failed despite playing into all the scams of its generation. Expansion. New ballpark. Money. Fans. Homers. Money. Contracts. Losses. Failure. Lightning. Thunder. Rain. Wind. Destruction.
As the baseball world awaits word from New York — be it good news or bad — the ballclub in Denver is feeling the harsh effects of 1990s baseball already. They threw money at top-name players, and those contracts backfired. Now, their team is lousy, stuck with the lowly-but-hopeful Padres, behind three good-but-beatable teams. Hey, the days of Kevin Ritz and Jody Reed may not sound very exciting in retrospect, but fans were excited then.
The game has been called by now, and hopefully residents in the Denver area are protected during the storms. We all know by now that more imoprtant things than baseball command our attention at times. However, in the coming hours, we will discover whether Miller's comment, which sparked this train of thought for me, is timely prescient, or merely an inspiration for this rant.
But I digress.