Why are fans so aglow in Colorado? Because Tulo, CarGo and Ubaldo—and a park that no longer plays like the game's highest plateau—are making the Rockies' title hopes grow
It seemed like a good idea to Troy Tulowitzki when he allowed fans to choose his walk-up music—the song played over the Coors Field public-address system as he approaches the batter's box—in an online poll before the season. But after the Rockies' prolific shortstop followed his standout 2010 (.315 average, 27 home runs and a fifth-place finish in the National League MVP voting) by going hitless in his first eight at bats of this year, he quickly dumped the people's choice, Katy Perry's Firework, for something more in his comfort zone—Baby, by Justin Bieber.
It might be a stretch to say that Tulo, as he's widely known, has Bieber fever, but he is partial to the teen pop star's music and doesn't care who knows it. He and teammate Jason Giambi took in a Bieber concert during spring training, and Tulo is willing to put up with the inevitable ribbing from the rest of the Rockies, who keep his locker at Coors stocked with Bieber-obilia. Last week his space was adorned with a glittery backpack and a T-shirt bearing the singer's likeness that most middle school girls would surely be proud to own. "Lots of comedians in this clubhouse," Tulowitzki says. "I just go with the flow."
Even though they might not want to trade iPods with Tulowitzki, 26, none of the Rockies would dream of suggesting he change his tune. He went on one of his familiar Tulo tears shortly after the sound track switch, almost single-handedly demolishing the Mets with home runs in four straight games, and through Sunday he was hitting .333 with seven homers, tying him with the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun of the Brewers for the National League home run lead. Besides, although his new signature song isn't exactly a lyrical masterpiece, it does have one line—in fact, it's repeated so much it seems like the only line—that's especially appropriate for the Rockies: Baby, baby, baby, oh.
Put the emphasis on the oh. That's a joyful sound in Colorado these days, thanks not just to Tulo, but to CarGo and Ubaldo. CarGo is otherwise known as leftfielder Carlos Gonzalez, 25, last year's NL batting champ. The linchpin of the Rockies' staff is Ubaldo Jimenez, 27, who finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2010. Due mostly to a thumb injury that forced him to miss two starts, Jimenez has started slowly, but the Rockies haven't. Tulowitzki's performance, both with bat and glove, and solid pitching from starters Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa, as well as the entire bullpen, helped put Colorado atop the NL West with a 14--7 record through Sunday. The Rockies appear set to contend not just this year but for the foreseeable future, and it's largely, as the Biebs might say, because of their O's, baby.
It's also because of a long-term philosophy that ensures the O trio won't be leaving anytime soon. Back in the '90s, when the Rockies were playing something closer to pinball than baseball because of the way the ball carried in the mile-high altitude of their home park, finding one of baseball's most sensible organizational blueprints in Colorado would have seemed as likely as discovering a gourmet meal in an Easy-Bake Oven. But just as the introduction of a humidor at Coors in 2002—baseballs stored in it don't carry like golf balls—has normalized the game in Denver, the Rockies have devised a smart, down-to-earth approach.
Having been burned in the past by throwing big bucks at older free agents who failed miserably on the field and sometimes embarrassed the franchise away from it, Colorado's front office has become more selective about making major financial commitments. They focus on retaining players who appear to be entering their prime rather than signing older, more established stars, and before the Rockies offer a long-term deal, they have to be satisfied not just with a player's skills but also with the content of his character. "We found that talent that isn't also accompanied by other qualities, such as humility, accountability and integrity, really didn't work for us," says general manager Dan O'Dowd. "We've tried to build this team not just with a certain kind of player but a certain quality of person."
Gonzalez, Jimenez and Tulowitzki are perfect templates for the Rockies' vision—young, gifted, industrious and squeaky-clean. That's why Colorado locked up CarGo with a seven-year, $80 million contract extension in January, two months after it extended Tulowitzki's contract to make it a 10-year deal worth $157.75 million. They got in on the ground floor with Jimenez as well, signing him to a four-year deal in 2009 (with team options for '13 and '14) that could earn him $22.75 million and keep him in Denver two years after he would have been eligible for free agency.
CarGo and Tulo in particular have formed a thriving partnership, not just in the middle of the order, where they bat third and fourth, but in the clubhouse. "We talk all the time about how to set the right tone," Gonzalez says. "We do our running in the outfield, and we're talking about how we can help our teammates. Is somebody in a slump? What can we do for him? What can we do today to make this team better?"
The pair complement each other so well that when Gonzalez bought a new Ferrari after his contract extension, he chose red instead of his preferred black because Tulowitzki already owns a black one. "Got to keep things balanced out," CarGo says. They work together as team leaders just as well. "Obviously the Latin guys on this team and in the minors look up to Carlos," Tulowitzki says. "Some of the other young guys come up to me and ask me questions, so that part of it works out real well."
The Rockies have had several incarnations and strategies in their 19-year history. In their infancy they stocked the team with veteran sluggers like Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla and Larry Walker, and ran up huge run totals in the thin Denver air. In the late 1990s and 2000s they began spending heavily on free-agent pitchers who had been successful elsewhere, such as Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, all of whom found that pitching at high altitude is hazardous to the ERA. It was the disastrous results of spending $172 million on Hampton and Neagle in 2000 that prompted the current shift in philosophy. Hampton was ineffective until the Rockies traded him two years later. Neagle was not only a bust but also was cited for patronizing a prostitute in 2004, causing the Rockies to void the last year of his contract. (The Rockies reached a $16 million settlement with him in '05, and eight months later he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service.)
The greater emphasis on personal character post-Neagle was at first seen as a religious-based movement—a 2006 USA Today article described the organization as following a "Christian-based code of conduct"—but O'Dowd says that decisions about players have never been based on the nature of their faith. "Do we like players with character? Yes. With strong moral values? Yes," he says. "It is not required that a player be deeply religious to have those qualities."
The approach is less about religion than about an intelligent design. The effort to pay a little more to lock up promising players before they can break the bank in free agency makes good financial sense, and the ability to retain budding stars is especially appreciated by Colorado fans, who have seen some of the market's most prominent athletes, like Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets, the Broncos' Jay Cutler and the Rockies' Matt Holliday, leave town in the last three years.
Tulowitzki is already filling some of the void left by those departures, and Gonzalez isn't far behind. With his smooth lefthanded swing and the way he glides effortlessly in the outfield, the gifted CarGo—his slow start (a .228 average and one home run through Sunday) notwithstanding—is one of those players who make even their peers marvel. "One of the best things about my job is I get to watch him for free," says Tulowitzki.
Gonzalez developed his graceful style on the diamonds of Maracaibo, Venezuela, where his older brother Euro Jr. introduced him to the sport by taking him to a Venezuelan Winter League game when Carlos was eight. "I saw Bobby Abreu play, and I went home and started trying to make my stance like his," Gonzalez says, referring to the veteran outfielder now with the Angels. "After that all I wanted to do was play baseball." He and Euro would take tree branches, carve them into makeshift bats and use rolled-up socks for balls until Carlos's talent earned him a spot on youth traveling teams.
Signed at 16 by the Diamondbacks, he spent four years in the minors as a highly valued prospect until he was dealt in 2007 to Oakland with a package of players for pitcher Dan Haren. Despite showing flashes of his prodigious talent in Oakland, Gonzalez lasted only 11 months there before the A's traded him to Colorado with pitchers Huston Street and Greg Smith for Holliday.
"It feels like it took a long time," Gonzalez says, "and then it came all at once." The Rockies sent him to Triple A Colorado Springs when they first acquired him, and after they brought him up, he scuffled along, batting around .200 for a long stretch. But once he got settled in Colorado, stardom did come in a rush. He hit .284 in 89 games in 2009 before tearing through the league last year with a .336 average, 34 homers, 117 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. The key to his breakout? "Being comfortable," he says. "Getting traded twice was hard; it kind of shakes you up. Once I knew I was going to be here for good, that they really wanted me here, everything fell into place."
The one quality that Gonzalez hasn't yet developed is patience at the plate, where he shows off that sweet swing a little too often. "When he got here, his strike zone was from the bill of his cap to the top of his spikes," says manager Jim Tracy. "He still needs to be more selective, but he's getting better." According to Fangraphs.com, 37% of Gonzalez's swings last season were at pitches outside the strike zone. Only 14 hitters chased bad balls more often. So far this season he has reduced that number to 30.9%.
"I am trying to be patient and make the pitchers throw strikes, but at the same time I don't want to lose my aggressiveness," Gonzalez says. "It takes time. You have to learn from your mistakes, and in time you figure it out." That's as true for a franchise as it is for a ballplayer. In fact, the Rockies' trio of O's are the perfect symbols of their franchise—young, learning, on the cusp of something special. You get the feeling it won't be long now. They're just about to figure it out.
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"WE TALK ALL THE TIME ABOUT HOW TO SET THE RIGHT TONE," CARGO SAYS OF TULO. "WHAT CAN WE DO TODAY TO MAKE THIS TEAM BETTER?"
ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOW
In their first nine seasons, the Rockies' home ERA was a lofty 6.07. But since '02, when they began using a humidor at Coors Field to make balls behave more like they do at sea level, Ubaldo Jimenez and the team's other pitchers have had that mark in free fall.
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Photograph by ROBERT BECK
PEAK PERFORMERS Gonzalez, Tulowitzki and Jimenez (from left) are all entering their primes and locked up through at least 2014, giving the Rockies the game's best young core.
Photographs by ROBERT BECK
BUILDING BLOCKS Tulowitzki (left) and Gonzalez have a thriving partnership in the lineup, in the clubhouse and in the NL MVP balloting, where both finished in the top five last year.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK