3 Colorado Rockies Two more big-ticket pitchers believe they can conquer Coors. They may be right

March 26, 2001

The cell phone bleated while Mike Hampton was watching his two
young sons at a playground near his suburban Houston home. It was
early December, and the pursuit of Hampton, the top pitching
prize in the free-agent market, was intensifying daily. The Mets
were lobbying hard to keep him in New York, while the Cardinals
saw him as their missing World Series link; other teams,
including the Braves and the Rockies, were also contenders. All
the wooing had begun to take its toll, but Hampton answered the
phone.

"I say hello, and this guy starts in, saying he's John Smith, a
columnist with the Denver Post," says Hampton (who then explains
that the caller didn't actually use the name John Smith but
rather an unprintable moniker). "He's calling to see what my
chances are of signing with Colorado. For a second, I'm thinking,
What the...? until it hits me. So I say, 'Neagle?'"

Sure enough, on the other end Denny Neagle, the newest Rockie and
baseball's preeminent court jester, let fly a maniacal laugh. The
two pitchers had met only a handful of times, but Neagle, who had
signed a five-year, $51.5 million deal with Colorado the day
before, made his first pitch as a Rockie directly to Hampton. As
Neagle recalls, "I just said, 'Look, I would love to be your
teammate, and I think that if you come here, we can get to the
World Series.' I think he appreciated the call, and he told me
that things were close. Later, when I heard he signed, I was--we
all were--shocked, but in a good way."

When Hampton signed a then record eight-year, $121 million
contract four days after the phone call, Colorado's playoff
expectations shot a mile high, and with good reason. Offense has
never been a problem in Denver, but Coors Field has undone
Rockies pitchers for almost a decade (see Kile, Darryl). The
signing of Hampton, coupled with Neagle's arrival, gives Colorado
its best starting rotation in the team's nine-year history and
reason to think it can challenge for the division crown. "When
those two signed, it made me want to be here," says veteran
outfielder Ron Gant, who signed on Dec. 10, a day after Hampton.
"They don't care where they have to pitch. They have no fear. To
get one of those guys is great, but to get both?"

Hampton was in a similar position with the Mets a year ago,
expected to be a difference maker after going 22-4 and leading
the Astros to the playoffs in 1999. But he initially blinked in
the face of those expectations; at April's end he had a 2-4
record, a 6.48 ERA and, he admits, little control of himself on
the mound. But he rebounded with a 4-0 mark in May, helped lead
New York to the postseason and was named the League Championship
Series MVP. As the pitched battle for his services bled into
December, he narrowed the field to St. Louis and Colorado. His
final meeting with the Rockies, combined with wife Kautia's
newfound love for the Denver area, sealed the deal. If any
pitcher has the repertoire to succeed in Coors Field, it's
Hampton, 28, whose diving cut fastball and power sinker should
keep the ball on the ground and out of the thin Colorado air.
"People make a big deal of pitching here," says Hampton, "but I
wouldn't have come here if I didn't think I'd succeed."

Fellow lefty Neagle brings a different pitching style but a
similar history of success. Neagle, who has an 89-47 record over
the last six years, is a control pitcher who mixes a superior
changeup with a nibbling fastball. It's of little concern to him
that he's also a fly ball pitcher in a homer-friendly ballpark.
"I like hearing that you can't pitch effectively here," he says.
"That fires me up. Changing from the Blake Street Bombers to a
team focused on speed, defense and pitching is the way to go.
Mike's the key, and I think we'll take the pressure off each
other."

One afternoon in early March first baseman Todd Helton looked on
as Neagle tortured a reporter with his deafeningly realistic
rendition of a locomotive's whistle. Meanwhile, Hampton sat
quietly in the trainer's room, lost in thought. "With those
guys," Helton said, motioning to Colorado's generous new helpings
of levity and fire, "things are different here. In the past we
acted surprised when we won. We won't anymore."

--J.E.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Neagle (right) has already made one successful pitch, helping talk Hampton into spending his next eight years in a hurler's graveyard. COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA GANT

[ENEMY LINES]
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Rockies

"It's huge that the Rockies were able to add some pitching, but
I still don't think this is a topflight team....Pedro Astacio
has an outstanding fastball in the low 90s with good life and an
above average breaking ball and changeup. He should be better
than a .500 pitcher....Mike Myers and Gabe White are two of the
best lefty setup men in baseball. Those two guys clamp down on
everybody. Myers is mostly a matchup guy, but White can get
righties out too. That's important because the bullpen is thin
on quality righthanders....Jose Jimenez's ball moves all over
the place--he has a very good sinker and a good split, slider
and change. As he gets comfortable, he'll be solid in the
closer's role....Good teams are supposed to be strong up the
middle. The Rockies have real questions there. Centerfielder
Juan Pierre has great speed, but he doesn't throw well, a
problem because he has to play deep at Coors. Counting on Ben
Petrick at catcher is a gamble because he's young, though Brent
Mayne is a very good backup. Mayne knows the league and is a
good receiver, and his hitting has really improved. Todd Walker
can hit, but he doesn't have much range at second and his arm is
just average....On the other hand, Neifi Perez has a strong arm,
throws on the run well and has great range left and right. If
he's not the best defensive shortstop in the league, he's
second....They have a nice platoon in left with Todd
Hollandsworth and Ron Gant. Playing in Coors, Gant might have a
Jeffrey Hammonds-like bump in his numbers this year."

[THE LINEUP]
projected roster with 2000 statistics

2000 record: 82-80 (fourth in NL West)
Manager: Buddy Bell (second season with Colorado)

BATTING ORDER B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB

CF Juan Pierre L 118 .310 0 20 7
2B Todd Walker* L-R 150 .290 9 44 7
RF Larry Walker L-R 28 .309 9 51 5
1B Todd Helton L 2 .372 42 147 5
3B Jeff Cirillo R 78 .326 11 115 3
LF Ron Gant*[1] R 125 .249 26 54 6
SS Neifi Perez S-R 82 .287 10 71 3
C Ben Petrick R 186 .322 3 20 1

BENCH

OF Todd Hollandsworth L 138 .269 19 47 18
IF Terry Shumpert R 268 .259 9 40 8
IF Greg Norton[1] L-R 288 .244 6 28 1
C Brent Mayne L-R 294 .301 6 64 1
OF Mark Little(R)[1][2] R 358 .283 15 64 22

STARTERS PVR W L IPS WHIP ERA

LH Mike Hampton[1] 32 15 10 6.6 1.35 3.14
LH Denny Neagle*[1] 59 15 9 6.3 1.39 4.52
RH Pedro Astacio 66 12 9 6.1 1.50 5.27
LH Brian Bohanon 132 12 10 6.1 1.47 4.68
LH Ron Villone[1] 183 10 10 5.5 1.65 5.43

BULLPEN PVR W L S WHIP ERA

RH Jose Jimenez 54 5 2 24 1.29 3.18
LH Gabe White 105 11 2 5 0.94 2.36
LH Mike Myers 167 0 1 1 1.06 1.99
RH John Wasdin* 283 1 6 1 1.42 5.38
RH Mike DeJean 309 4 4 0 1.58 4.89
RH Bobby Chouinard 272 2 2 0 1.35 3.86
LH Tim Christman(R)[3] 355 0 0 0 1.22 2.53

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie
B-T: Bats-throws
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 156)
*Combined AL and NL stats
[2]Triple A stats
[3]Double A stats

"If Perez isn't the best defensive shortstop in the league, he's
second."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)