The expansion Colorado Rockies wear the colors of a bruise, and their spring-training complex is the former home of the Cleveland Indians, and their workouts are buzzed daily by A-10 Warthog fighter planes, and there is not always hot water in the showers, and there is an outfielder in camp who has handicapped license plates on his car....
Then again, the Rockies may draw four million fans to Mile High Stadium this summer, and they've already sold 26,000 season tickets, and they will set an Opening Day record of 80,000 fans on April 9 if the Denver fire chief will allow it, and they have a promising poster boy in pitcher David Nied, their first pick in the expansion draft....
"[Manager] Don Baylor and I signed autographs at a card show in Colorado, and 700 people were in line before we even got there," says the 24-year-old Nied, who has spent 23 innings in the major leagues. "I try to tell people I haven't done anything here yet."
So there were good signs and bad signs as Colorado pitchers and catchers reported to Hi Corbett Field in Tucson for their first workout, on Feb. 19. This suggests either that the Rockies will be wildly popular underdogs who gloriously overachieve or that they will suck mountain air. At season's end their highlight reel may be Rocky, or it may be The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But spring is a time of beginnings, not ends. So for now we celebrate the Creation, the Genesis of this ball club.
On the first day, the Rockies reported.
Michelangelo Buonarroti hewed his David from a column of marble abandoned by another sculptor. Larry (the Bear) Bearnarth will hew his pitching staff from a column of names abandoned in the expansion draft.
Bearnarth never said he would create a perfect rotation. "Michelangelo never said he made a perfect sculpture," says Bearnarth, patron of the arts, reader of books, solver of crosswords, speaker of French, smoker of Merits and pitching coach of the Rockies. "He said only that he chipped away the excess. Now, I'm not comparing myself to Michelangelo. He spent half his life on his back, looking up at the ceiling."
And the Bear is always on his feet, chipping away the excess among the 36 pitchers in the Rockies' camp in an attempt to liberate the David encased therein, the 11 future Cy Young winners who will make up the Colorado pitching staff. Or not. "You guys are some badass ladies!" shouts ever-smiling spring instructor Frank Funk, who is hitting ground balls back to the mound. Jim Neidlinger takes a one-hopper off the cup. "Whoa, keep your skirt down, honey," says Funk.
Among the pitching candidates are two Denverites. Mark Knudson, a 32-year-old nonroster invitee, is the second-oldest player in camp. A journalism major when he was at Colorado State, Knudson would be happy just to cover the Rockies a couple of years after they move to Coors Field in the LoDo section of Denver in 1995. "We have waited for 30 years for a major league team," says Knudson. "We've been teased by Marvin Davis and Charlie Finley, so the community kind of held its breath until the stadium bill passed. Playing here was always in the back of my mind. And occasionally on the front of my T-shirt."
Knudson was the Opening Day starter for the Milwaukee Brewers two years ago, but he spent 1992 wearing a Rockies' T-shirt beneath his uniform at Triple A Las Vegas. His fellow Coloradan in camp is righthander Clint Zavaras. Was. Ghoulishly, Zavaras, the son of a former Denver police chief, suffered a torn cartilage and a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee this morning, the first day of the first camp, while covering first base.
On the second clay, God created Zim.
If baseball had a dollar bill, Don Zimmer's face would be on it. "This is my 44th spring training," says Zimmer, the Rockies' bench coach. "Another six or seven, and I'm gonna pack it in."
That would give Zim about as many years in the major leagues as the Rockies' entire 40-man spring-training roster. Only two starting pitchers (former Detroit Tiger Kevin Ritz and former Houston Astro Butch Henry) spent all of last season in the bigs. Only one Colorado catcher (former Chicago Cub Joe Girardi) did. The Rockies have more Double A batteries here than the people at Eveready.
"A lot of these guys had never been on a date when I started pitching in the big leagues," says 31-year-old reliever Jeff Parrett, who was 9-1 with the Oakland A's last season and admits to feeling now as if he should be somebody's mentor. "I feel like I should be developing a new pitch. Or something."
The Rockies' youth is one reason general manager Bob Gebhard hired the 43-year-old Baylor. "He's very patient," says Gebhard. "And if history repeats itself, he will need patience." Baylor has made it clear that he would rather emulate the 1961 Los Angeles Angels, whose 70-91 record is the best ever for an expansion team, than the expansion New York Mets of one year later, who lost 120 games but inspired three decades of lightbeer commercials. "Players will get called on to do commercials and things," says Gebhard. "But I certainly hope it's not because this is a comedy act."
On the third day, pitchers got tagged.
Everything here is factory new: ball bags, pitching machines, extension cords, shin guards, baseballs, bats and the Hi Corbett complex itself. Pima County refurbished most of the joint last winter for the Rockies, exorcising the ghosts of the Indians, who trained here for 45 years. Then there are the uniforms. The Rockies' uniform tops are way cool, predominantly black and purple, like a shiner. "They're pretty," purrs pitcher Parrett. "Passionately purple."
There is, however, a problem: Nobody in camp knows anybody else. "I wish we had our names on our backs," says Nied, "so I wouldn't have to call everyone Hey."
To alleviate the situation, pitcher Bryn Smith, 37, distributes HELLO MY NAME IS nametags for the Rockies to wear today. Alas, some players write prison numbers instead of names on their stickers. Others swap nametags with their teammates. Thus nobody still knows anybody else.
Number 7 (hello, his name is Joe Girardi) hits the first spring-training batting-practice home run in the Rockies' history this afternoon, a precursor of something you will be seeing a lot of in Denver: balls disappearing into thin air. A University of Denver study shows that the ball carries 9% farther in Denver than it does elsewhere in the majors.
Sadly, Girardi's tater does not travel through the hole in the Kentucky Fried Chicken ad in left centerfield, a feat for which a player wins $1,000 from KFC. "I don't think we'll have to worry about that happening," says minor league hitting instructor Darrell Evans, looking out from the dugout toward the fence. The hole is 20 feet off the ground. It is 395 feet from the plate. It is the size of a grapefruit.
On the fourth day, Tucson was trashed.
The good news on the clubhouse message board today (YOU GET PAID + YOU GOT HOT WATER) means that all the Rockies will smell good when they retire after dinner to their rooms at the Viscount Suites hotel (WELCOME COLORADO ROCKIES/ LUNCH BUFFET $6.95). For, truth be told, Tucson when the sun goes down is not Monte Carlo. Nonetheless, none of the Rockies complain, perhaps in deference to nonroster invitee Jim Olander, who was born and raised and still resides in Tucson.
Olander, who turned 30 yesterday, fractured his left knee while playing for Triple A Denver last spring. Doctors repaired the injury with bone grafts from his right hip. Thus, even while Olander competes for a job in the Rockies' outfield, the handicapped plates are still valid.
Anyway, if Olander and his teammates are not complaining about the slow pace of the Old Pueblo, well, debauchery-seeking sportswriters are another story. Which is why, today, Denver Post columnist Woody Paige writes a screed against Tucson to be published in tomorrow's paper, which is sold in Tucson, and which will set off small flares of protest here, and which we in no way endorse by excerpting. In the piece Paige describes a conversation he had with a Tucson convenience-store clerk, who was asked what the store's best-selling product is. "Depends," said the clerk.
"Depends on what?"
"No," said the clerk. "Depends."
On the fifth clay, Baylor banned beards.
When Don Baylor bans beards, the radio announcers consider electrolysis. Baylor is a good and fair man, but he is, as they say out here, one tough hombre. He tells the fully assembled team today that the Rockies will not be intimidated by the established clubs. "I don't hold these guys to any higher standard," Baylor says later, "than I held myself to as a player." And Baylor did not have a beard as a player. He probably couldn't grow one, given the number of depilatory fastballs he saw on the way to becoming major league baseball's alltime hit-by-pitch leader.
Smith, who was 4-2 for the St. Louis Cardinals last year, has worn a beard since 1985. He shaved it off for one game in 1990 and was promptly spot-welded for seven runs in about as many minutes. So the Baylor beard ban, which takes effect today, is a bad sign. A light bulb went on above Smith's bald head as he watched his whiskers fall into the sink this morning. "I was going to keep it and try to transplant it," he says of his fallen facial foliage. "But it all went down the drain." Sigh.
On the sixth day, Smith scheduled surgery.
The shave proves fateful. The Rockies announce today that Smith will undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. How did Smith tear the cartilage? He has no idea; long-term wear and tear, perhaps. He is the oldest man in camp. He is a nonroster invitee. Can the Samsonian Smith possibly make the team now?
Talk about a guy who cuts himself shaving.
And on the seventh day....
What, you think they rested? From what? "Shee-yoot, if ya only gotta run that fast, I could make the team," a middle-aged man claims, dubiously, from the Hi Corbett stands as Rockies run wind sprints in rightfield.
Work? This is fun. When Nied was introduced at Currigan Hall in Denver on expansion-draft day, some 20,000 fans were there to greet him. "I never thought a person's life could change in one day," he says. "But mine did. A couple of pitchers were telling me out here, 'If you don't win the Cy Young this season....' I just hope that people don't judge me on one year, good or bad."
In other words, this David is but one part of the larger David that Bearnarth is chiseling out for the Rockies. As for the few wrinkles yet to be ironed out in the pitching staff, the Bear will tell you that those aren't wrinkles, those are pleats. A box in USA Today asked the following question before camp opened: "Can pitching guru Larry Bearnarth fashion a competent staff from...riffraff?"
"First of all, I'm not a guru," says the Bear, a pitching guru in the Montreal organization for 21 years. "I understand why you guys write that this is riffraff. But I don't see this as riffraff."
"I think this is exciting," says Zim. "I really do. New players. New city. New fans. Friends ask me, 'Why the hell are you working for an expansion club?' Hell, everyone here is excited. I'm gonna have fun here, I can see that already."
"Of course this is fun," says Bearnarth, beneath a blue sky as brilliant as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. "It's good to be alive. It's good to be in uniform. It's good to be in baseball."
In sculpting his David, Bearnarth knows well that the biblical David was himself a pitcher of sorts. And that one day he killed a giant.