THE ROCKIESreached their first World Series only after a sequence of events more bizarrethan the sight of a stuffed elk head in a shopping cart on a baseball field(more on that later). Four games under .500 as late as July 1, Colorado needednot just one but two of the most infamous pennant-race collapses of all time(by the Mets and the Padres), and every one of their 14 wins in their final 15regular-season games, just to get into the playoffs, whereupon they promptlywon another seven in a row.
The club'scharmed 21--1 run ended with a World Series sweep at the hands of the Red Sox,but this season should put the serendipity of last fall into proper context.Either the franchise has turned a corner toward sustained excellence, or theRockies might well join the likes of Vanilla Ice, Harper Lee, Johann Pachelbel,Bobo Holloman—and every surprise pennant winner of the wild-card era, for thatmatter—in the company of overnight successes without a follow-up act.
"I don'tthink we played nearly as well as we should have from start to finish,"general manager Dan O'Dowd says. "Plus, this is still a very young club,unlike those other teams. This club is going to get better. The biggestdifference is starting pitching."
Last season theRockies gave a total of 49 starts to journeymen Josh Fogg, Rodrigo Lopez, ElmerDessens and Byung-Hyung Kim, all of whom are gone. Now, beyond ace JeffFrancis, they will draw a full season from Ubaldo Jimenez, who contributed to a51--30 second-half surge after being called up from the minors. The Rockies mayregard veteran Aaron Cook as their nominal No. 2 starter, but the 29-year-oldrighty strikes out too few batters (3.3 per nine innings) and has yet to win 10games in a season. Jimenez, 24, with an upper-90s fastball, was nasty in thepostseason (2.25 ERA). "He has a chance to absolutely dominate every fifthday," O'Dowd says of Jimenez, who added 17 pounds in the off-season."The issue is being able to command his pitches consistently, but therewill be times when he dominates on pure stuff."
Jimenez callspitching in the World Series "a dream come true." But he quickly adds,"Now I know I'm going to have to make adjustments as hitters get to knowme." To adjust to the big leagues last year, Jimenez happily imported hisfather from the Dominican Republic to be his roommate. This year? He plans tohave his mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew join them.
Colorado'sclubhouse tends to evoke the same familial atmosphere. Forty-eight of the 61players in camp were homegrown, and only three players on the 40-man rosterwere older than 32. The closer (Manny Corpas, 25), two MVP-quality players(Matt Holliday, 28, and Troy Tulowitzki, 24), two top starters, and seven ofthe eight everyday players and the entire projected bench are still in their20s. "It really is like a fraternity around here," O'Dowd says, whichexplains the cautionary advice posted in the clubhouse during a flu alert thisspring: WASH YOUR HANDS. AVOID HANDS TO MOUTH. KNOW WHAT YOU'RE KISSING.
Such fraternalismwas also on display when pitcher Casey Weathers wheeled the elk head with thefour-foot antlers to the Rockies' spring training complex in Tucson onemorning, part of the club's annual hazing of top prospects. Earlier in camprightfielder Brad Hawpe had asked Weathers about the claim to fame of hishometown, Elk Grove, Calif., to which Weathers replied, "I don't know. Elk,I guess."
"Great,"Hawpe said. "You've got 48 hours to get an elk here to camp."
Weathers, acloser from Vanderbilt with a 96-mph fastball that could help the bullpen inthe season's second half, found his stuffed friend on loan from a Tucsontaxidermist. Apparently the youthful Rockies have only just begun to have theirfun. Says O'Dowd, "Last year changed this franchise. There's a differencebetween coming to camp hoping you can win and knowing you can win. This teamknows it can win."
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER CLINTHURDLE SEVENTH SEASON WITH COLORADO
Luis Vizcaino (New acquisition)
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws *Triple A stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
a modest proposal...
The Rockiesreturn most of the roster that won 21 of 22 games in September and October,including catcher Yorvit Torrealba, the career backup who became a starter lastsummer and had several big postseason hits. Chris Iannetta's struggles at theplate opened the door for Torrealba, and while the 10-year veteran got the jobdone, the 25-year-old Iannetta (left) projects to be the better hitter: HisPECOTA numbers—.271 batting average, .357 OBP, .454 slugging percentage—surpassTorrealba's .263/.323/.381. And the difference in defensive play between thetwo is negligible, with Iannetta throwing out a higher percentage of basestealers (23%) last year than Torrealba (20%) did. Iannetta, one of the bestcatching prospects in baseball, should get the bulk of the playing time.
Blown saves byRockies relievers last year, a major league high. Much of the damage, however,was done in the first half of the season, when closer Brian Fuentes squanderedsix leads (yet made the NL All-Star team). On July 7 Manny Corpas—whose sinkingmid-90s fastball makes him a prototypical closer—replaced Fuentes and saved 19of 20 chances, the second best rate in the majors in the second half.
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JUNE 11, 2001
EVERYTHING HEdoes seems casual, at times to the point of comedy. Like the stories that herarely takes batting practice, preferring to hang out in the clubhouse and sorthis teammates' mail. That anecdote is embedded in every feature on Larry Walkerand, while colorful enough, is misleading. His teammates know he's more gritthan quirk, or else he wouldn't be hitting .360 for years at a stretch, evenplaying half his games at Coors Field.
Free access to all Rockies stories and photographs from the SI archive, plusvideo clips.
BIG BOPPER With a young nucleus that includes Holliday and his nuclear bat, the rockin' Rockies have plenty of staying power.
BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (IANNETTA)
WALTER IOOSS JR. (COVER)