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The Scare Of Thin Air

On the list of the most hazardous jobs in sports, right up there with cliff divers and figure skaters, is pitching coach of the Colorado Rockies. Currently that would be Larry Bearnarth, the white-haired man often found taking long pulls on a cigarette. "It wasn't easy for me last year," he says. "I knew it would be hard. It was worse than I expected."

Last year, their inaugural season, the Rockies auditioned 36 pitchers in camp. They used 25 pitchers during the season. And ever) one of them except Bruce Ruffin, the lefthander with a 49-69 career record, recorded an ERA of at least 4.00. The staff finished with the worst ERA in the National League in 63 years (5.41). It was worse yet (5.87) in the thin air of Mile High Stadium, their home park. These guys would have had trouble keeping the ball inside Biosphere 2, but the combination of high altitude and low aptitude was especially dangerous.

"I underestimated it," Bearnarth says of the Mile High effect. "I pooh-poohed it, like there was no big difference. There was a difference. What we have now are survivors, and now they should be better off because of the experience factor."

While the Rockies fortified their formidable lineup with free agents Ellis Burks, Walt Weiss and Howard Johnson—all of whom bring with them postseason experience—the only significant upgrades to the pitching staff are Mike Harkey, who has been hurt each of the past five seasons, and Marvin Freeman, who thus far has been a better violin bowmaker than pitcher. As a teenager in Chicago, Freeman was an apprentice at a shop where the master bowmaker would sign the finished products.

"I was the middle reliever of bowmaking," Freeman says. "He was the closer. I got no credit. So I put my initials on the inside of the bows just in case I ever came across one."

Fortunately for manager Don Baylor's bullpen, Darren Holmes established himself in the second half of last season as the master bowmaker of the relievers. And run support is no problem for a rotation that includes Harkey, Greg Harris, David Nied and Armando Reynoso. "I learned a lot about our pitchers last year," Baylor says. "I learned when to pull them. All I'm asking for is six innings from the starters." Last year his starters were 37-73 while throwing the fewest innings of any starting staff in baseball.

Colorado is encouraged about several of its pitching prospects, though the best of them made a scary showing in spring training even by the usual Rocky horror pitching standards. John Burke, 24, the club's first-ever draft pick, tired seven of his first nine warmup pitches to the backstop in his first outing. His next time out he opened the game with nine straight balls. He had to be pulled after only 22 pitches, 17 of which were balls, including three wild pitches and another that struck the umpire in the neck. "He needs a couple of classes in relaxation," Baylor says. "He was definitely wired to the nth degree."

Despite the pitching woes, the Rockies intend to compete for a division title as soon as this year, even if they prefer to keep that a secret. Confronted about such plans, Baylor quietly admits, "Well, there is some truth to it." No sense shouting about it, though, until Bearnarth's job is made a little easier.




Weiss, imported at short, adds security for Rocky pitchers.