Jackson Holliday,a mop-topped three-year-old who often wanders through the Colorado Rockies'clubhouse with a miniature bat in hand, is an accomplished mimic who canreplicate the batters-box quirks of major leaguers on demand. Say"Nomar," and he kicks his feet together and fidgets with his imaginarybatting gloves in perfect imitation of Dodgers first baseman Nomar Garciaparra.Say "Big Papi," and he spits on his gloves and claps his hands in themanner of Boston's David Ortiz. Say "Matt Holliday," and he draws across in the carpet with his bat and swings with a high front-leg kick, justlike his dad, the Rockies' leftfielder. Say "Garrett Atkins,"Colorado's third baseman, and Jackson lowers his grip and taps his rightshoulder with the bat and squints into the distance.
The Rockies findJackson's routine pretty hilarious, but most fans might not truly appreciatehis performance. Certainly they'd recognize his spot-on impressions ofGarciaparra and Ortiz, but how many would be familiar with his impersonationsof Holliday and Atkins? Playing for a team that hasn't made it to the playoffsin a dozen years, the two Rockies sluggers are, after all, far from householdnames.
Born only 34 daysapart, the 27-year-old righthanded hitters are best friends and, in the wordsof manager Clint Hurdle, "cornerstones of the Rockies organization."Both also enjoyed breakout seasons in 2006. Batting, for the most part, thirdand fourth in the lineup, Atkins and Holliday were two of only four players inthe majors to bat over .320 with at least 20 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runsscored. (The others were Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.) "When you'rewatching them on video, it's tough to figure out what their tendenciesare," says Cardinals backup catcher Gary Bennett, a former Rockie."They may get beat inside in one at bat, and the next time you try to comein on them, they leave the yard. They seem to make adjustments throughout theat bat."
Says Marlinsreliever Kevin Gregg, "They both hit for power, both hit for average, andthey both drive the ball all over the field. They're a tough combination tohave in a row."
April 22, 2007
(It's probablylittle consolation to pitchers that Hurdle recently sandwiched veteran leftyTodd Helton into the cleanup spot to give opposing managers arighty-lefty-righty problem to cope with late in games: Helton, a five-timeAll-Star, has a lifetime average of .333.)
While Holliday'ssignature at the plate is his raw power and ability to hit the breakingball--"very unusual for such a young hitter," says Hurdle--Atkinsboasts a swing that sings. "There are a handful of swings in the game thatare special," says Hurdle. "And Garrett has one of the righthandedones, along with Manny Ramirez and Edgar Martinez, off the top of my head. It'sa picture-perfect swing. He's quick to the ball and long through it."
Colorado hittingcoach Alan Cockrell believes that stroke will someday earn a batting title forAtkins, who was fourth in the National League in hitting last year with a .329average. "Particularly in our ballpark, the gaps are big and there's a lotof room," says Cockrell.
Besides being thesame age and projecting a similar humility, Holliday and Atkins also sharecertain physical characteristics. Atkins is 6'3"; Holliday is 6'4".With close-cropped, brown hair, they look enough alike from a distance thatAtkins's mom, Diana, swears she sometimes has trouble distinguishing them.
The pair'sfriendship began when they were road roomies at Double A Carolina in 2002.(They met the year before, at Single A Salem, but with lockers on opposite endsof the clubhouse, "we didn't say two words to each other the wholeseason," says Holliday.) They are so tight now that Atkins, who's single,has lived with Holliday's family during spring training for the last fouryears, often serving as Jackson's babysitter after Holliday's wife, Leslee,gave birth to the couple's second son, Ethan, on Feb. 23.
"Honestly,Garrett probably knows Matt better than I do; they're around each other so muchduring the season," says Leslee. "They have similar personalities, thesame sense of humor, and they both have selective hearing. I'll ask Matt to dosomething, and he'll act like he didn't hear it. Garrett is the same way. Theyare both really good at avoiding things they don't want to do."
Neither one ismuch into hobbies. When their teammates start talking hunting and fishing, themost popular pastimes in the Rockies' clubhouse, "Garrett and I kind oflook at each other because it's like they're suddenly speaking a foreignlanguage," says Holliday.
They have theirdifferences, of course. Atkins has his own website, garrettatkins.com ("Myagent's idea!" Atkins claims), while Holliday does not ("At least asfar as I know," he says). Holliday enjoys working out in the weight room,while Atkins says he does it "only because I know it's the only way I'mgoing to make it through the season," he says. And while Holliday is fairlyeven-keeled, he doesn't approach Atkins's Zen-like serenity. "Nothing seemsto bother Garrett," says Holliday, who will occasionally slam a helmetafter a frustrating at bat. "He's always the same guy. You'd never know ifhe went 4 for 4 or 0 for 4."
Anotherdifference: the arcs of their careers, so neatly parallel, very nearly divergedin high school. Holliday was such a hot quarterback prospect at Stillwater(Okla.) High, where he broke several of Troy Aikman's state passing records,that Kansas City Chiefs G.M. Carl Peterson sent him a letter during his senioryear begging him to choose football over baseball. Holliday was recruited byNotre Dame, Tennessee, Florida State and Florida, but he signed a letter ofintent to play quarterback at Oklahoma State, where he could also play baseballwith his brother Josh, who is three years older, and for his dad, Tom, who wasthe Cowboys' baseball coach at the time. But when the Rockies selected him inthe seventh round of the 1998 draft and offered him a $780,000 signing bonus,Holliday went pro. "It was a really tough decision," he says, "butbaseball was always my first love."
While his minorleague career was unspectacular--his best full season was with Carolina in2002, when he hit .276 with 10 homers and 64 RBIs--Holliday made the most ofhis big league break when it came. In 2004, after just six games at Triple AColorado Springs, he was called up to the Rockies when outfielder PrestonWilson was injured. Holliday hit .290 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs in 121 gamesthat year. The next season he improved to 19 homers and 87 RBIs before bustingout last year, when he hit .326 with 34 homers and 114 RBIs and made theAll-Star team. This year he's off to another hot start, hitting .340 throughSunday.
Coincidentally,Atkins, who grew up in Irvine, Calif., and was a year ahead of Holliday in highschool, also thought about attending Oklahoma State to play for Tom Holliday.Starting when Garrett was five, his dad, Ron, an engineer and recreationaltennis player, spent hours each day teaching the boy to hit tennis balls toevery part of the empty lot across from their house. As a high schooler,"Garrett could hit everything that came across the plate," recalls TomHolliday, who is now the associate head coach at North Carolina State. "Hewas money in the bank." Atkins made a recruiting trip to Stillwater--wherehe met Josh but not Matt--but he signed with UCLA and became the Bruins' firstthree-time All-America.
Drafted in thefifth round by the Rockies after his junior year, in 2000, Atkins had a moredistinguished minor league career than his pal, but he got off to a slowerstart in the majors. In two call-ups to the Rockies late in '03, Atkins hitjust .159 in 69 at bats. Early the next season he opened up his stance, whichallowed him to stay behind the ball and hit the inside pitch more effectively."That was a huge turning point," he says. In '04 Atkins hit .366 with15 homers and 94 RBIs for Colorado Springs and won the Pacific Coast Leaguebatting title. When the Rockies gave him another look that September, he madethe most of his chance, hitting .357 in 15 games.
As a rookie thefollowing season he drove in 89 runs, the fifth-best total for a NationalLeague rookie in 25 years. Defense did not come so easily, however. Sincemoving from first to third in 2002, he had struggled just to be average, and hewas considered a stopgap for the Rockies until touted prospects Ian Stewart orJeff Baker were ready. Atkins did--and still does--daily footwork and agilitydrills to improve his quickness. "He has worked very hard to become abetter-than-average third baseman," says Mike Gallego, the Rockies' infieldcoach. Gary Adams, Atkins's coach at UCLA, noted the improvement when he sawAtkins spryly spear a line drive hit by the Dodgers' Juan Pierre in Los Angeleson April 9. "Garrett would have watched that ball go into leftfield when heplayed [for me]," says Adams.
Holliday also madea position switch, moving from third base to leftfield in 2001, his thirdseason in the minors. But as an outfielder he hurt his throwing arm and had tohave Tommy John surgery before the year was out. He is also a work in progresson defense. "I'm getting better at it," he says. "But there isalways more to fine-tune."
He has time. He's27 and only recently became arbitration eligible, which brings up one lastsignificant contrast between the two friends. Holliday avoided arbitration thiswinter by signing a one-year, $4.4 million contract, so he has a far fatterpaycheck than Atkins, who, with just 100 fewer days of service time, is making$400,000. "I make a tenth of what he makes, so I told him for every 10dinners we have together, I'll pick up one. It's only fair," saysAtkins.
Holliday doesn'tmind the arrangement, for now, because he knows Atkins will catch up soon."It'll come back to him next year when he's eligible for arbitration,"says Holliday. "Then everything's going to be 50-50."
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"It's tough to figure out their tendencies,"says Bennett. "They may get beat inside in one at bat and the next time youcome in on them, they LEAVE THE YARD."