Rolling Rocks Are Here to Stay

The Rockies' remarkable streak will come to an end (we think); their talent base, though, is built to last
October 21, 2007

THOSE WHO followed the entirety of the NLCS over the past week—and the brave souls who did are to be commended—will no doubt remember the specifics of how the games were won (Colorado pitching allowed no more than two runs in any of the games in its second-straight series sweep of this October) and how they were lost (most notably, Arizona walked in the decisive run in Game 2). Much of the rest of the country, however, had more pressing matters to attend to, at least judging by the TV ratings (historically abysmal), the national media attention (sparse) and even the behavior of some of the hometown fans. In Phoenix there were great swaths of empty seats in the upper deck for the series opener last Thursday. Even when the Diamondbacks fans showed some fire, it didn't work out. When Arizona outfielder Justin Upton was called out for interference on a double play that snuffed out a rally in Game 1, fans littered the field with water bottles, a hail of plastic that instilled not so much fear as puzzlement. (Said Rockies leftfielder Matt Holliday, "Why would I be scared of a plastic bottle?") After the game, stadium security guards apprehended a couple of fans trying to make off with a keg from the ballpark. The fans couldn't get this one quite right either: The guards discovered that the keg was, in fact, empty.

Clueless fans aside, the nation's collective apathy toward the series was not all that surprising. The D-Backs and the Rockies are both young franchises, both are in small markets and both have been notable of late, primarily, for losing. That is changing, however. Built from the ground up and relying heavily on their farm systems, both franchises are teeming with future All-Stars. A rematch next October would not be a surprise.

It's a bit of a shock that the Rockies are in this position, since they hadn't had a winning record since 2000, when they went 82--80 in Dan O'Dowd's first full season as G.M. Seeing the franchise as an imminent contender, O'Dowd made a dizzying array of trades (28 deals involving 75 big leaguers in his first two seasons alone) and threw around staggering amounts of money. (Remember Mike Hampton at eight years for $121 million? Denny Neagle for $51 million over five?) Few of the moves worked out; among the players O'Dowd dealt, Chone Figgins went to the Angels for someone named Kimera Bartee in '01. By '03 O'Dowd was widely disliked in Colorado. He'd jettisoned popular veterans, had no apparent long-term plan and was temperamental to boot. Those who worked under him tell of watching games with him in his suite and ducking as wastebaskets, chairs and assorted office supplies took flight, at which point O'Dowd would retire to his office to watch, alone. And this would be in April.

To the surprise of many, however, O'Dowd, now 48, was given a two-year contract in November 2003. At ownership's behest he began focusing on developing talent. The result: Most of the current team's core, including Garrett Atkins, Jeff Francis, Brad Hawpe and Troy Tulowitzki, came up through the minor league system. During the playoffs two rookies, in particular, have played vital roles: righty starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who consistently hits the high 90s on the radar gun, and Tulowitzki, the thick-legged Rookie of the Year candidate who plays and acts far older than his 23 years. (His presence is such that reserve Jamey Carroll jokingly attached a C to Tulowitzki's uniform, referencing his role as self-appointed captain.)

O'Dowd's counterpart with the Diamondbacks and his former protégé, Josh Byrnes, has a contrasting management style. Byrnes, laconic and purposefully bland in public—though not so with players; as second baseman Orlando Hudson says, his G.M. is "serious about his business, but like one of the fellas"—began his career in Cleveland with O'Dowd and followed him to Colorado, then took a job as the assistant G.M. in Boston in 2002. In '05 Arizona CEO Jeff Moorad hired Byrnes on the recommendation of Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. Byrnes's early moves were a mixed bag, and his focus on prospects bothered some players. When Byrnes traded established starting pitcher Javier Vazquez to the White Sox for then minor leaguer Chris Young (and two others) in '05, it angered some of the veterans, who wondered how someone younger than they were could be making such decisions. This season, as a rookie, Young justified his G.M.'s faith, hitting 32 homers and stealing 27 bases.

Youthful, deep and fiscally sound (Colorado is 25th in baseball in payroll, Arizona is 26th), both teams are in position to be contenders for years to come. That, if nothing else, should provide Phoenix fans with ample time to figure out the subtleties of fandom. Like, if you plan on stealing and drinking a keg, it helps if it isn't empty.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERPIVOTAL MOMENT Upton's clip of Matsui turned Game 1 upside down.

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)