Into thin air

There’s an old memoir laying here on my desk entitled, “They’ve Got Rockies in Their Heads,” a fan diary of the Colorado Rockies’ first season, in which they drew a record 4.5 million fans back in 1993.

In one of the forwards, author David Whitford writes: “May you demand, and receive, your money’s worth in years to come. And may your devotion be rewarded.”

Sort of like perusing over the wedding register after a messy divorce, isn’t it?

All you really need to know about the sad state of baseball in the grand one of Colorado can be gleaned from this Rocky Mountain News readers poll, which asked fans to rank the top teams in the game, with some odd results, to say the least.

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The 30-33, third-place Blue Jays come out on top, followed by the Pirates. The Pirates.


Sanity creeps in at No. 3, where the 36-26 Detroit Tigers make an appearance, followed closely by the hometown Rockies and the Red Sox, who kick off a three-game interleague set this evening in the Fens.
OK, so there’s obviously some semblance of ballot-stuffing occurring here, but it still remains to be figured out exactly why there are more readers from Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Detroit obsessively assuring that their teams get some recognition than there are from the paper’s own daily readership.
Then again, most Coloradans would have probably ranked their team a whole lot lower.
If they paid attention, they might realize that things are a bit better in LoDo these days. Matt Holliday, leading the National League with his .352 batting average has blossomed into a star. Todd Helton is still around, and though his power numbers have dwindled, how’s that .447 on-base percentage for you? Tonight’s starter, Aaron Cook, may be just 4-2, but away from the thin air of Coors Field, he’s 2-0 with a 2.98 ERA.
In fact, pitching has been, all around, a much-improved aspect of these Rockies. No, really. Colorado’s 4.98 ERA – identical to the Yankees’ number – may not open any eyelids, but consider that its home ERA of 5.10 significantly increases that average. On the road, that number drops to 3.98, certainly aided by a revived bullpen that has been among baseball’s best recently. Rockies relievers, including closer Brian Fuentes (18 saves, 2.15 ERA), have put up a 2.17 ERA since May 22, according to Tracy Ringolsby, with opponents hitting just .179 off them over that span.
Still, nobody is exactly jumping with excitement over the Rockies’ recent surge. They’ve been trained too well.
“The Rockies have been foot wipes forever,” wrote Bernie Lincicome on May 23, when the Rockies were 19-27 and in last place in the NL West. “For as long as the Rockies have been. The brief wild-card toe-wetting, so long ago, is a joke as a measurement and a mirage as a goal.”
Since those words were written, the Rockies have gone 12-5, are one game under .500, and just 5½ games off the pace in a winner-take-all NL West.
Still, Lincicome’s point is indeed a valid one. David Glass still owns a team and there is apparently still one in Pittsburgh, so it’s difficult to call the Rockies the worst organization in professional baseball. But they are indeed among the dregs of the National League, and perhaps at the very least should be classified as the most hopeless franchise of them all.
From 1993 to ’98, no other major league team drew more fans than the Rockies, despite a lone playoff spot in that time — the 1995 wild card appearance. In 2000, attendance dipped to 2.95 million fans, still good enough for fifth-best in baseball, the same position they held a year later. Then, in 2002, they fell to eighth. They were 14th in 2003, 15th in 2004. Then in 2005, for the first time in franchise history, the team failed to draw as many as 2 million fans.
It was on Father’s Day during that inaugural season that the Rockies hit the two-million mark in attendance. Fourteen years later, Father’s Day is upon us yet again, and Colorado has not even sniffed 1 million — with 797,763 fans having passed through the turnstiles, and Coors Field’s 24,174 average among the bottom 10 MLB cities.
Has any other team suffered as much of a drop in interest from inception to present day? Granted, the Devil Rays are pretty ignored down in St. Pete, but then again, they never drew the kinds of crowds that Denver became accustomed to, so much so that the original plans for Coors Field had to be adjusted to carry the onslaught from the cavernous Mile High Stadium.
Much as in anything, there’s no one reason the Rockies have fallen to the depths of irrelevancy, but pitching still seems to sum much of it up neatly. It has been terrible since Day One, partly affected by the homer haven that is Coors, partly affected by the fact that guys like Brian Bohanon were expected to pitch with that in mind. Perhaps part of the reason Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton were such mega-expensive disasters was indeed that their psyches were so damaged by pitching in a place where the very mechanics that had carried them throughout their careers meant nothing to the thin air, which mocked them with all its deoxidization.
And so…what? How can the Rockies develop young pitchers only to have their game be completely thrown off once they get to the majors? And how can the Rockies attract any more marquee free-agent pitchers after the legendary Dan O’Dowd disasters of 2000? You thought Josh Beckett was off his game in 2006, allowing a career-high 36 home runs? Imagine that in Denver.
In 2007 the pitching has been decent, even downright stellar in recent weeks, but 20 days isn’t going to cut it for a region that has watched its franchise go from shining potential of the major leagues to an afterthought. The Florida Marlins, who entered the league the same year, have won the World Series twice. The Rockies haven’t even seen the postseason that many times.
“There are plenty of things to be down on the Colorado Rockies about, but there’s one umbrella that covers them all: The Rockies just don’t matter,” wrote Mark Knudson in Mile High Sports Magazine. ”In order to start to matter again, the Rockies have to do more than just string together a few wins. Say Colorado won six or eight in a row and climbed above .500, and into another tie with the Arizona Diamondbacks for fourth place. Will that make them matter again? The answer is no. It’s going to take more than that.”
A lot more. Maybe baseball will matter again in Denver if the Rockies actually make a playoff push, which should be a given in the so-so NL West. Baseball likely won’t ever reach the insane popularity it had upon its introduction in Colorado, but getting even a few of the state’s citizens to think they’re at least better than the Pirates would be a nice start.

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