Out of the Park

For the first time in too long, Colorado Rockies fans can stand proud. And once more, Todd Helton is the reason.

For fans of a team that just endured a franchise-record 103 losses, Helton’s election brought sunshine in winter. Suddenly, memories of better times could come back to life. Granted, we’ve never had the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees (or even the 1987 Twins) but there’s still been plenty to light up a mental scoreboard. The early days watching Andres “The Big Cat” Galarraga. Larry Walker’s pursuit of a .400 batting average. And of course, the miracle of Rocktober before it wilted in the glare of a Fenway Park evening.

And in the midst of so much of it stood The Toddfather. The face of the Rockies for 17 years. Feared at the bat, cheered in the lineup, jeered for being the beneficiary of Coors Field.

Oh, wait. That last bit came from the commentators. For way too long. The same ones who’ve gotten very quiet all of a sudden.

If Helton’s election does nothing else, it’ll hopefully shatter the myth that Rockies hitters are Fake News. And not just because Mister Rockie had road warrior stats that were right up there with George Brett, Ricky Henderson and Tony Gwynn.

Rather, he did what every star does in any field. He took what he was given and he ran with it.

Yes, Coors Field is a batter’s paradise. I said it. I’d be foolish to deny it. Even in the Humidor Era with baseballs specially treated to handle the thin air, hitters come to the plate eagerly and often leave satisfied. The overall effect has sometimes been exaggerated (the way some sportscasters describe it, you’d think the Rockies played on the Moon) but it’s real.

But still – so what?

I’ll say it again for those in the back row. So what?

Baseball is not played under sterile laboratory conditions.  Far from it. Every player faces a unique environment, whether it’s the quirks of the local ballpark or the latest brainstorm rules-change from the commissioner’s office.  And yet, somehow, we still cheer excellence.

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale didn’t have to apologize for the pitcher-friendly confines of Dodger Stadium. Ted Williams and Wade Boggs didn’t have to give back their Hall of Fame status for playing half their games in the bandbox of Fenway. And any hitter that benefits from a “live” ball, a lower pitcher’s mound or even something as simple as batting gloves has an edge on those who came before.

So what’s the big deal about a Rocky Mountain High?

It’s a truth that goes beyond the ballpark. Everyone’s starting from different points, working with different gifts, facing different journeys and challenges. But if we let our preconceptions discount a real accomplishment, then we’ve sold someone short. Maybe even ourselves.

I’m not saying that differences never make a difference. When someone outright rigs the game, on the field or off, attention needs to be paid. When someone’s “excellence” comes at another’s expense, the harm shouldn’t be ignored.

 But there’s a difference between that and using what you have, where you are. And when that effort produces something worthy, by all means, celebrate it.

There have been many Colorado Rockies ballplayers. There has been one Todd Helton. And the Hall has shown that it can finally look past Coors and give him the honor he deserves.  

Never mind the losses for now. Today, we’re all feeling a mile high.

Rock Doubt

Well, at least we’re not Oakland. 

Small consolation at the best of times, I know. But it’s all I’ve got left to offer. 

If you’re a fellow Colorado Rockies fan, you get it. And if you’re a fellow Colorado Rockies fan, I am so, so sorry. 

One. Hundred. Losses. 

And beyond, naturally. The count stood at 102 when I wrote this and may have added one or two more by the time our final out of the year was recorded on Sunday. But as usual, it’s the big round number that stands out, the mark of infamy that no Rockies team had ever before reached. 

One hundred losses.

We’re not the first team to ever get here, of course. We’re not even the first one this season. The aforementioned Oakland A’s (111 losses at this writing) had a year that almost gave the tragic 1962 Mets a run for their money. Lest anyone forget, that was the year manager Casey Stengel uttered the immortal words “Can’t anybody here play this game?” 

So yeah. We’re not the worst of the worst of the worst.  

Um … yay?

It’s not just the bad season, of course. Everyone gets them eventually. It’s that there have been so many for so long, years where even “mediocre” has seemed like an aspirational goal.  It’s been 16 years since “Rocktober” now. Only four of those have seen winning seasons. The last one – admittedly, one of our best teams since those brief World Series days – was five years ago. 

But even there, it’s not just that it’s happened. It’s how. Get any group of Rockies fans together for longer than ten minutes and you’ll hear the same grumbles. “The owners don’t care. They don’t have to. People keep coming … they could lose every game and still make money.” 

I don’t live in the Monforts’ heads, so I can’t swear to whether that’s true, though I have my theories. (That’s half the fun of being a fan, after all.) But the fact that it’s even credible is toxic. 

After all, it’s a problem that goes beyond baseball. A problem that can be summed up in four words. 

“It’s all about me.” 

It fills the headlines every day. We see it in political showdowns that play poker with people’s lives and well-being. We see it in collisions at every level, where the fears or ambitions of a few can run roughshod over everyone else. During the height of the pandemic, it was an opponent almost as dangerous as the virus itself, when all of us had to remember that our actions affected more than just ourselves.

To be honest, we’re better at that than we give ourselves credit for. Most of us know that we should be looking beyond our own skin, that our neighbors matter. But like a person standing in a doorway, it only takes a few to get in the way of everyone else – not just by what they do or prevent, but by building a feeling of despair that accelerates the cycle. When you start to feel like nothing can be done, you’re less likely to do anything.

Heavy thoughts for something as light as a bad baseball season, I know. But the answer’s the same. Awareness. Hope. Determination. Not to give up, not to wait for things to magically get better, but to act. To remind the self-focused – in the owner’s box or in the nation – that we’re here and we won’t be taken for granted.

Interesting stat – out of all the baseball teams that have lost 100 games, about one in eight had a winning season the next year. Even the “average” mega-loser made their way back to the playoffs in about seven years. Change can happen … once there’s the willingness to do it.

It’s time to play ball. Push hard. And remember, we’re not Oakland.

It’s not much of a battle cry, but it’s a start.   

For Just a Moment

“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the HOPE!”  

– John Cleese, “Clockwise”

Oh, my Colorado Rockies. You do know how to break our hearts, don’t you?

We go through an entire offseason remembering how bad things have been. We grumble at an ownership that sees .500 as a lofty aspiration – even while we know in our heart of hearts that that’s absolutely right.

And then you do it. You go out and win your first two games against a team that played for the National League pennant last year. Not just lucky squeakers, but actual, solid wins.

What’s a fan supposed to do?

I admit it. On Friday night, I was singing a certain score to the tune of “Cleveland Rocks”: “4-1 ROX! 4-1 ROX! 4-1 ROX! 4-1 ROX!”

“Don’t fall for the ‘opening days’ of hope,” a friend advised on Facebook. Cynical, but basically sound. Smart, even. After all, the Rockies are past masters of April Love: a beautiful opening month followed by a loud ker-SPLAT.

I pondered it. Considered it. And then rejected it.

“I refuse to let the present be poisoned by the future,” I wrote back. “Especially when it’s this much fun.”

We’re often advised to follow the classic Mel Brooks proverb: “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” It’s good advice. Aspirations should always be high, plans should always account for challenges and disruptions. But somewhere along the line, a lot of us lost the first half of that saying.

It’s so easy to forget how to hope.

Mind you, I’m not talking about tolerating abuse or a dangerous situation. I’m not even talking about waiting for things to magically get better instead of backing up your dreams with action (something the Rockies ownership has been accused of on multiple occasions). As I’ve said before, hope is optimism plus sweat.

This is something simpler. When you have a good thing, even for a moment, why not allow yourself to enjoy it? Even if it’s likely not to last?

Maybe especially then. That’s when it becomes all the more valuable.

It’s easy to get grim. Heaven knows the world gives us enough reason. Sometimes it inspires a drive to sally forth and make things better. Often it just inspires exhaustion from trying to survive one more day.

But when it inspires nothing but despair … that’s when it gets deadly. Because despair is inertia. it allows no joy, no effort, no hope. It expects nothing and then immediately fulfills its own prophecy.

I’m not making light of it. I get it. There are days that crush me under their weight. In a perverse way, I suppose that’s why I reach for joy when I can. It’s a way to take even one step forward, even if it’s at a limp.

And when a moment gives light – even something as trivial as a baseball game – I hold it close. Because we need all the light we can get.

By the time this appears in the paper, the Rockies may have fallen back down to Earth … or still be soaring. Either way, we had the moment, however long it lasted. And that’s something.

So have at it, my Men in Purple. Break my heart one more time.

At least for today, you’ve made it beat a little faster.

Game On

It’s an exciting time to be a sports fan in Colorado.

This year, the Denver Nuggets have BLASTED their way through the first round of the NBA playoffs!

This year, the Colorado Avalanche are setting themselves up as the NHL’s TEAM TO BEAT!

And this year, the Colorado Rockies are … are …

Hmm.

Well, they’re showing up. I think.

If you’re a longtime Rockies fan, this is probably a familiar refrain. Most seasons, the Rockies get some April love, a fast start, and then quietly sink into the mire of “Maybe next year.” But this year – ah, this year, the Rockies set out to accomplish something different. And did.

Yes, this year Colorado’s Men In Purple managed to burn their record to the ground before even getting out of April. Woohoo! Go, team!

We could argue about the reasons forever (after all, that’s what the internet is for). It could be the fault of the ownership. Or the space aliens beneath DIA. Or maybe even space aliens in the ownership – it’s been that kind of season.

Whatever the reasons, this is when we see That Fan start to emerge. You know the one.

“Who needs that bandwagon crowd, anyway? This is when you find out who the REAL Rockies fans are! If you can’t stick with the team in the bad years, we don’t want to see you in the good ones!”  

I understand the attitude. Heck, I’ve suffered through some bad Rockies baseball myself. At the same time, this isn’t Valley Forge in the American Revolution, where we’re called on to say who the sunshine soldiers are and who’s ready to fight for life and liberty.

It’s a game. It’s meant to be fun.

For some of us, the fun is in the art of baseball itself, the tactics and psychology that lie behind every pitch and swing. For some, it’s the familiar faces and personalities, the players that have become almost as familiar as next-door neighbors.

And yeah, for some, it’s the excitement of being part of a crowd that’s watching a team of skilled athletes (and even the worst players are a lot more skilled than me and thee) taking the game to another level. Winning. Winning regularly. Feeling the electricity that comes when you KNOW you’re truly seeing the best around.

That’s just as legitimate. And if they fade into the background in the in-between years, it’s not that they’re fake fans … just less intense ones. Ones that demand more than just nine purple suits and a start time.

The priorities are different.

And if we’ve learned about anything over this past year, it’s about priorities.

When your life gets upended by a worldwide crisis, you quickly learn what’s important to you. The things you must do. The things you can’t do that you miss – or that you realize to your shock that you can do just fine without. The things you never had time for before that suddenly become a means of survival.

In particular, we found we needed people. We needed their stories (and streamed an awful lot of them). We needed their faces, their voices, their reminders that they existed at all, even if at a distance. Some of us found we were ok with the distance, while others were straining at the leash for something more.

As this country slowly comes out the other side, I hope we remember those discoveries. I hope we remember what worked in our life and the ways we found joy in a stressful time. Most of all, I hope we remember how important the people around us are, and don’t dismiss them until the next time they’re taken away.

I also hope, someday, that we remember what good baseball looks like in Colorado.

Maybe it’s time to talk with the space aliens.

Bottom of the Order

It’s almost time for the Colorado Rockies to break our hearts again.

We all know what I’m talking about. This is the team that routinely leads the league in home runs, batting average, and shattered expectations from about mid-April onward. Possessors of the loveliest field in baseball and the lowliest pitching staff. Blessed with forbearingly loyal fans and cursed with a mascot that’s … well … Dinger.

This is no Curse of the Bambino, where the Red Sox were doomed for decades to be almost the best, almost good enough. This is having to play the game for the love of the game, because even the playoffs are a quixotic dream, never mind the World Series. (Save for one strange, wonderful, painful year, of course.)

Yes, even the worst big leaguer has tools beyond what most people could dream of. Even so, I think a number of us Rockies fans can empathize. We know what it’s like to have the dream but not the reach, especially on a field of grass and dirt.

After all, an awful lot of us played right field.

“Playing right field, it’s easy, you know,

You can be awkward and you can be slow …”

— Willy Welch

I came by my love of baseball early. By the time I was in sixth grade, I could quote all the classic World Series moments and tell you who was up or down in the National League. I had my bat and glove, a batter’s tee, even a “pitchback” – netting stretched tightly to return a thrown ball – to practice my brilliant mound moves.

The one thing I didn’t have was any hint of talent whatsoever.

OK, I could move around a little on the bases. That helped on the rare occasions I drew a walk or (once) got hit by a pitch. But otherwise, my one actual summer on a team wasn’t marred by anything as crass as achievement. My bat lived in a different universe from the ball that was being pitched, my cannon arm was more of a leaky water pistol, and my attempts to catch (dodge? Not be crushed by?) a fly ball probably belonged in a Chevy Chase movie.

Naturally, I wound up in right field. Not the right field of Hank Aaron and Carlos Gonzales. This was the grade school Siberia, where fly balls and grounders rarely intruded upon the peace of one’s meditation.

The funny thing was, I didn’t really mind. (In a way, I may have even guessed what was coming, since I deliberately chose No. 13 for a uniform.) Every game, I was out there, keeping up enough “chatter” for three other players combined, letting my enthusiasm make up for the lack of a stat sheet.

Sure, my glory moment consisted of tapping one bunt that dropped right in front of the plate for the Easiest Out In The Known Universe. But who cared? I was on the team, playing baseball! Sort of!

I didn’t come back for a second season. But I never regretted playing the first one. I still don’t.

After all, it’s important to do things you’re not good at, too.

Sounds un-American, I know. We’re about looking for ways to excel – even if we sometimes put it a little more nicely, like “discovering your gifts and how you can make your own contribution.” But it can be an interesting thing to step away from your talents and struggle.

You break new ground, adding experiences and insights you might not have had. You learn humility and empathy, and how to appreciate the gifts of others. Maybe you even walk away with a little more skill than you had before – my own struggles with math in school, for example, made me an invaluable tutor to my little sister because it hadn’t come naturally to me and I could explain it in a way that made sense.

All in all, a lot of neat things can come at you from right field.

And if an unlikely championship ever does come to our Rocks, we’ll be screaming the loudest of all.

April Love

As I write this, the Colorado Rockies are sitting on top of the National League West. King of the hill. Top of the heap. Masters of all they survey.

Or, more realistically, the lords of April.

I can see some of the longtime Rockheads nodding in agreement. For the newer fans, excited by the fast start of the boys in purple, let me give you some real-world comparisons for perspective:

“What a beautiful wedding! Oh, that marriage will surely last forever.”

“4-0 in the preseason! I’m telling you, the Broncos are going to crush the Super Bowl this year.”

“He won Iowa hands down. You know it’s just a matter of time before we all start calling him Mr. President.”

“Man, this Colorado spring is gorgeous. Aren’t you glad to finally say goodbye to ice and snow?”

You get the picture?

Yes, our hometown baseball crew is doing well in April. I’m pleased but not terribly shocked. The Rockies always do well in April. They last just long enough to get everyone excited and then a) the first three injuries happen, b) the wheels fall off our pitching rotation and/or c) Dinger the Dinosaur attracts the wrath of the baseball gods merely for existing.

How bad an indicator is it? In 2007, the year the Rockies actually made the World Series, they managed a 10-16 record in April. Mediocre with a side order of painful.

Until, suddenly, they weren’t.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I love the grand old game.

If ever there was a sport where the cream rises to the top, it’s baseball. Sure, there are bizarre flukes and bad calls, just like any other sport. But a 162-game regular season acts as one heck of a filter. When you hit a five-game winning streak in football, you’re playoff-bound for sure. When you hit a five-game winning streak in baseball, it’s … Wednesday.

Well, unless you’re the Marlins. Then it’s more of a miracle. But I digress.

I’ve had friends complain that baseball is too slow a game, that nothing seems to happen. They’re missing the point. Baseball, at its heart, is a game of patience.

There’s no clock. Any moment could be the one that wins or loses it all, however lopsided the score. (Especially with our bullpen.)

There’s a long season. You build the foundation of your season slowly and carefully, to where an unusual two weeks may mean nothing – or it may be the capstone of everything you’ve been working toward.

And there are players behind the players, always building to the promise of tomorrow. Baseball has perhaps the best-developed minor league system of any sport, a farm ground that allows you to watch not just today’s stars but the potential for years down the road. (Assuming they don’t get swiped by a richer club, of course, but that’s an argument for another day.)

It’s a life lesson turned into a sport, that you don’t have to win every at-bat, or even every game. But if you do the small things right enough, often enough, over time the small things become the big things.

It isn’t all staked on one April.

Sure, I’ll sit back and enjoy the Rockies’ wins. For today, they’re good. For tomorrow, there are no promises. Such is baseball. Such is life. A good beginning has to have follow-through if it’s to be more than a memory.

Maybe it’ll be there. Maybe not. We’ll see. Patience now, patience always.

Yes, the Rockies are truly towering. But only time can tell if they’ve peaked too soon.