American history 101

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As you may know, I lost my job in June. For the first time in 39 years, pajamas were an all-day option. I was about to turn 60 and knew my demographic profile was a recruiter’s dream — old white male with a work history in a dying industry. What more could an HR department want?

Despite this enticing profile, I put off the LinkedIn recruiters eager to enlist new insurance sales people. Earning a paycheck — which, technically, they weren’t offering — was no longer my only consideration. Requiring only Wheat Thins, DirecTV and the aforementioned pajamas really reduced my expenses. Sixty being the new thirty, I figured I couldn’t afford to screw up the coming decade. It’s too promising as it is. I can schedule a dental appointment anytime I want, for just one example.

A friend and former neighbor in North Denver told me that she trusts her instincts about such things, and I should too. Then she sold her house and flew to India. I wondered if she meant I should trust her instincts and fly to India too. I’m a former sportswriter, so I don’t really know what to do if there’s no Marriott. Most of the interesting places in India don’t seem to have one.

So, while I was waiting for inspiration, I went out and blew my last paycheck on a boatload of American history books. This is what my instincts told me to do. Don’t ask me why. I suddenly wanted to know how we got here.

Not like how my immigrant ancestors got here. How we got here. Another election cycle has come around and I can’t even watch the baseball playoffs without hearing Cory Gardner insulted and then Mark Udall insulted and then Bob Beauprez insulted and then John Hickenlooper insulted and then some stuff insulted I don’t even know what it is.

How did we get here?

Is this the worst it’s ever been? I try to ignore politics at this point in the cycle and even I know everything I hear on these TV ads is a lie. If you know anything about the issues these insults refer to, you know both sides are twisting them with pretzel logic to make the other guy look like a creep. This is familiar to me because it’s kinda like sports: Do anything to win. I’m expecting steroids to come into play at some point.

As I began to study how we got here, I figured out a temporary solution. Digital TV has certain advantages. I learned if I hit rewind and watch an early half-inning over again, I can fast-forward through the rest of the commercial breaks. If I catch up to real time in the seventh, I rewind a little more. That’s just between us.

Anyway, I thought I’d start at the beginning, with fresh looks at three of the most celebrated founders: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (2003), Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010) and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham (2012).

The first thing you realize when you read these books is our partisan political divide is nothing new. Any undergraduate student of American history could tell you that, but it’s been so long since I was an undergraduate that I remember almost nothing about it. Besides, I was too busy working on the school newspaper to go to class. I did know that newspapers went all the way back to Ben Franklin. They certainly weren’t going anywhere.

Back in the day, these guys were brutal. Here’s a dispassionate analysis of Franklin by John Adams, our second president, not an opponent but a colleague in Paris negotiating the peace treaty with Britain that ended the Revolutionary War:

“If this gentleman and the marble Mercury in the garden of Versailles were in nomination for an embassy, I would not hesitate to give my vote for the statue, upon the principle that it would do no harm.”

The rift between Federalists and Republicans that emerged out of the constitutional convention of 1787 and persisted through the terms of at least the first three presidents makes today’s partisan sniping look like a game of touch football. The crux of the debate was basically the same big government/small government divide that exists today. So, yeah, people have been arguing about the same stuff for at least 227 years. The difference is America had no experience with either at the time, so it was not only possible to conjure apocalyptic consequences from the other guy’s ideas, it was possible you were right.

The paranoia and nasty partisan media that accompany each side in our current federal gridlock are pale derivatives of their counterparts back in the day. Consider that Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was arrested under the Alien and Sedition Acts for what he said about the Adams administration in a newspaper. Adams, famously, could dish it out a lot better than he could take it. Bache might have gone to prison for something he wrote if he hadn’t died of yellow fever first.

Federalists, including Adams, were so paranoid Jefferson would dismantle the new government in the name of individual liberty that they demanded assurances he wouldn’t before allowing him to assume the presidency (they had the opportunity to do this because Jefferson’s first election was thrown into the House of Representatives when his running mate, Aaron Burr, got as many votes as he did, an outcome the original electoral college, oddly, did not imagine).

Republicans like Jefferson, on the other hand, saw the threat of monarchy in every federal power, which is why the original Articles of Confederation gave the Congress — the sole federal branch of government at the time — virtually no power at all. It’s also why some high-profile American rebels, including Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, declined to attend the constitutional convention, wanting to leave the federal government powerless.

In long-lensed hindsight, each side’s paranoia has a certain logic. After all, the whole self-government thing was a grand experiment. Nobody really knew which design would work and which wouldn’t.

From the Republicans’ point of view, monarchy was the default governmental system in the civilized world and America had just fought a long war to get out from under one. They feared a strong central government would inevitably lead to an American monarch. For many of them, Washington’s main appeal as the first president was the fact that he didn’t have an heir.

From the Federalists’ point of view, the risk of monarchy came mainly from the possibility of anarchy, which they saw as the likely outcome of 13 sovereign states in constant conflict with one another and a federal government powerless to referee. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts was fresh in their minds as an anarchist warning shot.

So who bridged this familiar ideological gap back in the day? Mainly, Washington and Franklin, the two most venerated leaders of the time. Their ability to cross the partisan divide came from very different experiences but a common determination to put the good of their new country ahead of whatever ideological biases they might have held personally.

At the age of 81, Franklin closed the constitutional convention in his hometown with a passionate defense of all the compromises in the document that would be instructive to many of today’s partisans:

I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Most men, indeed as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, tells the Pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrine is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But, though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a little dispute with her sister said: “I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”

In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults — if they are such — because I think a general government necessary for us. . . . I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.

We have a tendency after all this time to lump the grand roster of founders together — all wonderful, all visionary, you know the honorifics. But given what appear to be intractable ideological divisions today, it seems worth noticing that Franklin and Washington were pretty much the only major players who were able to rise above partisanship. Republicans would cast Washington as a partisan Federalist during his second term, but in fact he was always a pragmatist, his belief in a strong executive fueled by the inability of Congress to help him or his army during the Revolutionary War. Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two other revered and important founders, were as partisan as they could be. They were both in Washington’s first cabinet and grew to despise each other.

It is not so well remembered that Washington, who solicited advice from his generals and later his cabinet on every big issue, grew so angry with Jefferson’s duplicity by the end of his second term that he pulled a Godfather. By the time he left office, Jefferson was dead to him.

And while Jefferson was America’s foremost political philosopher and a grand writer, he could also be . . . how to put this . . . an egotistical, duplicitous hypocrite, if that reminds you of anyone seeking office this season.

In April of 1796, the last year of Washington’s presidency, long after Jefferson had quit the cabinet and returned to Monticello, allegedly to retire from politics, he wrote a letter to an Italian friend named Philip Mazzei. In it, Jefferson ripped Washington, alleging he was leading a monarchical party “whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance, as they have already done the forms, of the British government,” according to Chernow’s account.

Jefferson had engineered similar attacks on Washington before, but he had never put his name to one. Instead, he had arranged for these attacks to be delivered by partisan newspapers. At the same time, he had written a letter to Washington after leaving his administration denying any responsibility for these scurrilous charges.

But this time, Mazzei chose to publish Jefferson’s letter in Italy, and it soon found its way into British and American newspapers as well. His duplicity exposed, Jefferson didn’t know what to do. “Think for me on this occasion,” he pleaded with his friend James Madison, “and advise me what to do.”

To suggest that Washington, who had stepped down voluntarily as commander in chief following the Revolutionary War and was about to step down voluntarily as president, wanted himself or anybody else to be king, was insulting and absurd, and there is no record that Washington ever spoke to his fellow Virginian again. “I never saw him afterwards,” Jefferson would say later.

At this stage of his life, federal power was still anathema to Jefferson, representing a slippery slope away from liberty and toward monarchy. Sovereignty, he and other Republicans believed, should reside with the individual colonies. But when he was in charge of the largest colony as governor of Virginia 15 years earlier, Jefferson dithered for two days after being warned that the traitor Benedict Arnold, by then a British general, was coming to attack Richmond. By the time Jefferson finally called up the state militia, it was too late. The Redcoats swept in, unabated to the quarterback, you might say, forcing state officials to flee the capital. A few months later, they came to arrest Jefferson at Monticello and he was forced to flee his home in the most embarrassing episode of his public life. His response was to pen a plea to General Washington to bring the Continental Army to Virginia’s defense.

This practical experience had no apparent effect on Jefferson’s thinking about the shape of the new government. He seems to have been worried chiefly about the effect on his reputation. He stepped down as governor shortly thereafter.

Years later, when Jefferson became president, he agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, his most famous accomplishment, without consulting Congress, almost certainly the greatest unilateral use of executive power in American history to that point. It proved to be a wise move, but it expanded the executive power that Jefferson had always claimed was too great to begin with. If Washington had done such a thing, there is little doubt Jefferson would have skewered him for adopting the powers of a monarch. (An exasperated Washington would say during his second term that while Jefferson and his allies saw a monarchist behind every tree, he didn’t believe there were a dozen men in the country who actually favored an American monarchy.)

Meacham, an unabashed Jefferson fan, says the Louisiana Purchase shows his “flexibility.” That’s one way to look at it. Another would be that Jefferson’s idealistic ideology proved impractical and he refused to admit it, even when forced to abandon it in order to run the country.

Jefferson, of course, was far from the only partisan ideologue around. The Federalists lost control of the government two years after Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. At that point, Republican fears of a tyrannical central government seemed plenty real. When Adams sought a second term, Jefferson (and Burr) defeated him handily.

About the only thing that kept the hostility between Federalists and Republicans from tearing the young country apart was Washington, a military hero greeted as a celebrity everywhere he went after the war. Washington assiduously cultivated alliances on both sides, well aware that keeping the country from fracturing was his most important responsibility.

Washington’s ability to understand both sides of the partisan divide came largely from the war, the transformative experience of his life. He had been an aspiring aristocrat as a younger man, lobbying incessantly for a commission in the Royal British Army and for land grants to expand his wealth and holdings. It was the British refusal to give him the former and condescending method of adjudicating the latter that initially alienated him from the empire.

But during his eight years as commander in chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, he grew so attached and so loyal to his men, who came from every walk of life, that he developed egalitarian values uncommon among plantation owners at the time.

Franklin came by his political moderation a different way. As a 17-year-old runaway landing in Philadelphia long before anyone thought of revolution, he was an aspiring leather-aproned tradesman, a printer. Through his prolific writing, much of it satiric, he became America’s first champion of the middle class. He believed in hard work as the path to success and was suspicious of welfare programs for the poor, believing them an invitation to indolence.

On the other hand, he had a natural rebellious streak that made him skeptical of authority, particularly authority based on birthrights rather than virtues or talents. He viewed hereditary titles and wealth with disdain, believing the rich had no more right than the poor to unearned bounty. He was equally suspicious of the aristocracy and the great unwashed. He most admired the tradesmen and shopkeepers he saw as the backbone of the new world.

Some of Franklin’s ability to play the conciliator at the constitutional convention was a function of his reputation and age, but a lot of it was a function of his personality. He was a great storyteller who managed to make the most ardent partisans laugh at various moments of tension. (My favorite example of his off-the-wall sense of humor is an essay he wrote while in Paris urging the Royal Society of Brussels, which had solicited ideas for scientific experiments, to study whether consuming certain foods might improve the aroma of farts. Perhaps sensing this was a bridge too far even for him, Franklin printed the satire but did not distribute it.)

Washington and Franklin were diametrically different personalities, but they shared two key traits — pragmatism and a belief in behaving virtuously for its own sake. It was pragmatism that convinced Washington the federal government needed more power than Jefferson and the Republicans believed. As commander in chief, he was continually thwarted by a Congress powerless to raise money or do much of anything else. He watched his soldiers die by the hundreds for want of adequate clothing and supplies, then visited Philadelphia and found the privileged enjoying grand balls and feasts. Liberty from tyrannical authority was the point of the exercise, but if the colonies were to become a country, they would need a government that could raise and outfit an army for its defense, and that would require a federal authority to tax, among other things.

Coming at the debate from a different angle, Franklin was all about practical applications in his scientific experiments. He was far less interested in the why than the how. From bifocals to the lightning rod to the Franklin stove, his investigations were always geared to solving practical problems. He had more of a natural Republican bent than Washington, writing a constitution for Pennsylvania that called for proportional representation in a single legislative body, and he proposed the same solution for the national constitution (it was rejected in a compromise with smaller states, which demanded equal representation in at least one house of Congress, just one of many defeats at the convention he accepted with equanimity). But Franklin, too, saw the practical need for federal power to run a country, particularly with respect to finances.

Due mainly to its intractable partisanship, Congress today is less popular than root canals, colonoscopies and the rock band Nickelback. (It does beat out telemarketers and gonorrhea.) So the obvious question is this:

Where is the Franklin of today? Where is the Washington? These were great men who spent most of their lives serving their country, compromising and cajoling to get things done. Surely great men and women will always be rare, but these two were produced by a population less than 1 percent the size of today’s. There must be 21st century men and women with similar inclinations toward moderation, with similar abilities to see both sides of the partisan divide and work toward compromise for the good of the country.

Right?

The modern day examples that come immediately to mind are few and far between. Among them would be Alan Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the Democrat and former Clinton chief of staff from North Carolina. The Simpson-Bowles Commission drafted a long-term plan to address the federal budget deficit. Both men ended up endorsing provisions they disliked in order to forge a compromise that might be acceptable to all sides. In our current environment, of course, it was acceptable to no one and was dead on arrival in Washington, the capital named for the original moderate.

When I was younger, there were lots of politicians who tried to occupy the center of the spectrum. I spent part of my childhood in Illinois, where Charles Percy was the rare politician who succeeded without the help of the corrupt Democratic Party machine. He was what they called a “liberal Republican” at the time, and nationally he was not alone. Similarly, there were politicians called “conservative Democrats,” which included southern segregationists, but also northerners such as Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, who was as hawkish on foreign affairs as any Republican. Today, there is little or no overlap.

So here’s one conclusion I’ve drawn from my new hobby: Political partisanship is nothing new. Politically partisan media are nothing new. The only thing we seem to lack today is the great leaders willing and able to bridge the gap.


New Baseball Hall of Fame voting rules

Baseball HOF letter 9.9.14

In my snail mail this week was a letter from the Baseball Hall of Fame dated Sept. 9, reproduced above, in which it outlined changes in voting procedures beginning with this fall’s balloting for the class of 2015.

The two biggest changes are the length of time a player may remain on the ballot (down to 10 years from 15) and administration of the voting, which is being moved from the Baseball Writers Association of America to the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

Three players already beyond their tenth year on the ballot have been grandfathered in and will remain on the ballot for 15 years, assuming they aren’t elected prior to that — Lee Smith, Alan Trammell and Don Mattingly. The one quibble I have with this transition is the effect it has on players nearing the new 10-year limit, namely Mark McGwire and Tim Raines. McGwire, in his ninth year on the ballot, will actually be kicked off before Smith, in his 13th. That doesn’t seem right.

The timing of the changes is especially unfortunate for Raines, who was making steady progress, from 24 percent of the vote in 2008 to 52 percent in 2013. In a four-year period, from 2013 through 2016, an unusually star-studded wave of newly-eligible players came along — Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa in 2013; Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas in 2014; Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and John Smoltz in 2015. The wave culminates with Ken Griffey Jr. in 2016.

Under the old rules, Raines might have ridden out this wave and then resumed his assault on a Bert Blyleven-like renaissance near or at the end of his eligibility. Cutting his remaining eligibility in one fell swoop from eight years to three dramatically reduces the possibility of his being elected. As a Raines voter, I can only hope some version of the veterans committee rights this wrong in the future.

The rest of the procedural changes are mainly to bring more seriousness to the voting process after last year’s instance of an eligible voter offloading his vote to ineligible voters. Whatever you think of the voting bloc, it is to be expected that the Hall would want to control who gets to vote. Commitment to a code of conduct will now accompany voter registration.

The process is brought into the electronic age with online registration and research materials but remains in the Pony Express days with actual submission of ballots by snail mail. The Heisman Trophy has had electronic voting for some time now, so I assume Ernst & Young will ultimately employ this innovation as well. But not yet.

From the standpoint of voters, the new procedure offers the innovation of confirming receipt, never before available because the BBWAA didn’t open ballots until it was time to count them, by which time it would be too late to replace a ballot lost in the mail anyway.

There is no change to the much-discussed limit of 10 votes per voter. Many voters expressed regret that they could not vote for more than 10 last year. I was one of them. I left Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina off my 2014 ballot because I was not willing to abandon candidates I had supported longer — including Raines, Trammell and Jack Morris.

The 10-year eligibility limit will turn over the names more quickly, reducing this ballot congestion problem to some extent, but off the top of my head I can name more than 10 players I’d like to vote for this year.

Here’s a look, courtesy of Baseball Reference, at 2015 eligibles.


Standing Pat

Pat Bowlen card 8.7.01_0005

The card reproduced above was postmarked Aug. 8, 2001, one day after my column on Pat Bowlen’s pursuit of a new stadium for the Broncos was published in the Rocky Mountain News:

“Dear Dave, Thanks for the nice article. I felt good reading something as nice as that this morning with my coffee. Let’s have another run. You will kick my ass! Pat”

The reference was to a run we shared in Greeley 17 years before, in Bowlen’s first summer as Broncos owner and my first as a Broncos beat writer for the Rocky, which I’d referenced in the column. The joke about feeling good when he read it referred back to a part of the interview in which he described his feelings reading the papers during the stadium campaign.

Here’s the column, published in the Rocky on Aug. 7, 2001:

Always Standing Pat

For Broncos owner Bowlen, running from critics or his beliefs hasn’t been his style

Eighteen summers ago, when Pat Bowlen was the 40-year-old rookie owner of the Denver Broncos, I was a rookie beat writer assigned to cover the team.

Competition between Denver’s daily newspapers on all matters Broncos-related was even fiercer than it is now, in part because there were only two big-league teams in town. Without baseball, our football season began about Memorial Day.

I knew two things about Bowlen: He was Canadian, and he’d just finished 135th out of more than 1,400 competitors in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon, a remarkable achievement for a man his age. I fancied myself in his league, having run a high-altitude marathon a couple of months earlier. I thought I might use this to my advantage in the ongoing beat war.

I invited the new owner to go for a run between practices in Greeley’s stifling midday heat, thinking we would form a bond and I would get an impeccable source of information.

Math was not my strong suit. I hadn’t bothered to figure his likely training pace. He ran me into the ground, to be blunt about it, and the conversation was kept to a minimum, owing chiefly to my struggle for oxygen.

Having watched any number of his players lose their breakfasts doing Dan Reeves’ suicide sprints, I remember thinking the Broncos might be the only team in sports with an owner in better shape than his players. I wondered if Bowlen’s athletic drive would make him a better owner than most of his brethren, whose idea of exercise remains martini curls in the owner’s box.

And I wondered if he meant it when he said he’d be Broncos owner until they carried him out in a pine box.

All these years later, I have my answers. Now 57, running the Broncos is Bowlen’s life. And as popular a target as he has been in the intervening period, it seems to me undeniable that he has grown into a model owner, maybe the best in sports.

***

In less than three weeks, the Broncos will play their first game in the new $400 million, taxpayer-financed stadium Bowlen worked for years to have built.

Everything about it has been controversial, from the enormous cost to the public financing to the corporate name that defrayed not merely taxpayer expense, but also Bowlen’s.

When you consider it from a Broncos fan’s point of view, there is nothing controversial about it, other than maybe the name. The new stadium provides the local franchise with a state-of-the-art venue and, perhaps more important, state-of-the-art revenue.

Whether such extravagance in the service of sport represents a reasonable public priority is a fair question. But Bowlen’s job is not to determine public priorities. Bowlen’s job is to represent the interests of his team. This he did most successfully.

“The process was remarkable when you look back at what happened and where we’re at now,” he told me. “We really started this thing back in the mid-’90s, and here we are a few weeks from playing a game there, and a month from opening up Monday night, in a facility that I believe is the best ever. I really do.

“Of course, everybody laughs, ‘Hey, there’s Bowlen boasting and bragging, self-serving statements,’ but I’ve been in all the stadiums and I think I can have a slightly objective view, and I think history will show it as being one of the better stadiums built, especially for football.”

His role as the point man in a campaign to win public financing made him a lightning rod for criticism.

“When we were going through this, when we were soliciting the taxpayers to continue that tenth of a percent (sales) tax that built Coors Field, I could get up every morning and pick up the paper and somewhere in there there’d be an article about me. None of them would be very good. Some of them would be a little better than others, but most of them would be pretty negative. You know: ‘Bowlen reaching into the taxpayer’s pocket, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’

“I’d read that, drink my coffee and go out to the Broncos facility and forget about it. I think at some stage in my life it would have made me very upset. It’s not that you ignore it, it’s just you say, ‘Well, that’s their point of view. And here’s my point of view.’

“I know I never want to go through it again. I’ve never wanted to be a politician, and I sure as hell was a politician. I might as well have been running for governor during that period of time. So that’s the way you’ve got to approach it: Your opponent is going to say bad things about you. And you just go on and hope that your position prevails.

“It did, and as time goes by, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of critics of what we did. There will be people that say, ‘I still don’t support a tax-supported stadium.’ But now we’ve got it and it has been supported by the taxpayers. I think they’ll say, ‘This is a great new facility. I still don’t agree that we should have paid for it, but we got our money’s worth.'”

***

Bowlen admits his transition from private businessman to public figure was a rocky one. From the fur coat he brought from Edmonton to a tolerance for players of dubious character, he took plenty of shots.

But he never ran and hid from his critics, as many owners do. And his team has been consistently successful during a period in which he has been the lone constant. The Broncos have been to the Super Bowl five times in the 17 seasons Bowlen has owned them, winning the NFL championship twice.

John Elway and Mike Shanahan get most of the credit, as they should. But Bowlen’s relationship with both men is an underappreciated factor. He let Reeves go when it was either Reeves or Elway. In Bowlen’s office hangs a LeRoy Neiman rendering of Elway — a gift from the quarterback. It is a possession Bowlen prizes.

He hired Shanahan and got out of his way while remaining in daily contact as club president. While we were speaking, Bowlen took a call from Shanahan for a report on that morning’s training camp workout.

“I was very shy of public exposure, and shy, period,” Bowlen said. “So the exposure to Denver and the publicity was initially really a big shock. You can’t explain that to anybody when they’re coming in. But you learn fairly quickly that you’ve got a very short honeymoon period and that ownership is always a pretty easy target. And I think you’ve got to accept that as an owner. If you can’t take that kind of heat, then you shouldn’t be in that position. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Why not hide?

“The more you try to do that, the worse you make the situation,” he said.

Bowlen declines comment from time to time but has remained consistently accessible to the media, no matter how many shots he takes.

“I think that’s important, because we’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “Quite a few owners aren’t actually running their clubs, so they have a president or somebody else that’s doing most of the talking for the club. I choose to have that position, so I’ve got to be prepared to follow through on it. That’s just part of our business.”

***

The lows were more common than the highs in his first decade, despite generally stellar regular season records.

“The toughest times, I know for sure, were losing three Super Bowls. Those are the toughest days that I can remember,” Bowlen said.

The best days are just as obvious. Both of them.

“Especially Super Bowl XXXII,” he said. “Not that XXXIII wasn’t a big thrill, too, but winning your first Super Bowl in that fashion, and being able to hand that trophy to John Elway, that’s the highlight of my career.”

Outside his office is an enormous photo of him in the locker room after that game, orange tie still tight, Vince Lombardi trophy clenched in one hand, mouth open in joy.

Next to it is a similarly sized blowup of Elway under center, calling signals, Terrell Davis in soft focus behind him. At the end of the hall is another, Shanahan in his headset on the sideline.

This is the tradition Bowlen has built.

***

A recent poll commissioned by the Rocky Mountain News and KCNC-Channel 4 confirmed the Broncos’ place atop Denver’s crowded sports scene. More than half of Colorado sports fans identify the Broncos as their favorite local team.

You can attribute that to tradition, but having been around since 1967 didn’t help the Denver Nuggets, who finished behind “None.” Success drives fan loyalty, as the transplanted Colorado Avalanche proves.

Fans and media are reluctant to give Bowlen much credit. He’s not warm and cuddly. It’s easier to like players and coaches.

“To say I didn’t care about it would be a lie,” Bowlen said. “But I know enough about this industry, and Denver’s a pretty fierce place when it comes to its sports teams. So I’m extremely blessed with that, that I have a very solid city here that’s very supportive of the Denver Broncos. We’re No. 1, and that’s where I always want us to be.

“So I can’t get really upset about my image — my good image or my bad image. Because I realize if I do this for the rest of my life and they carry me out in a pine box, that’s when my image will be the best. That’s when they’ll say the best things.”

He laughed, then mentioned the late Art Rooney, who became beloved in Pittsburgh only near the end of his life. Of course, the Steelers were dreadful for a long time under Rooney.

Elway is gone and the Broncos are still Super Bowl contenders. Shanahan runs a tight ship, but someone hired him. Someone sets the tone.

If meddlesome, egotistical, venal owners are responsible for much of sport’s foolishness, then smart, dedicated, competitive owners must be responsible for some of its achievement.

In the past two decades, the Broncos have become a model franchise. That happens to be the Pat Bowlen era. And it ought to be recognized before he has any need of that pine box.

-30-

Much has been and will be written about Bowlen’s contribution to the Broncos’ emergence as NFL royalty during his three-decade run in the corner office. These days, with high-profile owners like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban running around, it’s no longer remarkable for an owner to act as chief executive of a franchise, but it still was in 1984. This is why the onset of what was today acknowledged as Bowlen’s Alzheimer’s disease presented something of a journalistic dilemma.

As our conversation 13 years ago reflected, Bowlen was his team’s chief spokesman on big-picture issues regarding the franchise for most of his time in charge. Several years ago, he stopped speaking publicly. Broncos fans, naturally, became curious about why. As a local columnist, I got questions about it regularly. Among people in and around the organization, his cognitive issues were an open secret. With Shanahan having consolidated power over all football-related matters, Bowlen’s silence didn’t seem like a big deal from a news standpoint. Shanahan could and would address pretty much anything that came up.

Shanahan’s firing at the end of the 2008 season changed all that. There were legitimate questions about the process that led to the selection of young Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as his replacement, as well as McDaniels’ rapid accumulation of total control of the football operation, something the organization had said would not happen again after Shanahan. These decisions were attributed at times to Bowlen and at times to Joe Ellis, who had become the owner’s right-hand man. Ellis was and is a business guy, not a football guy, a fact he readily acknowledges. After Jeff Legwold and I broke the initial story of Spygate II in the Denver Post on Nov. 27, 2010, I came to the conclusion that disarray in the Broncos organization required a look at the leadership of the franchise.

I told Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ former head of media relations and by then vice president of corporate communications, that I intended to research a column about Bowlen’s health and the state of the Broncos’ leadership as the club began a new coaching search. Jim referred me to Ellis, who agreed to speak with me on Dec. 1, 2010. Shortly before we were scheduled to talk, I received a call from the media relations staff letting me know the interview was off.

The next day, shortly after noon, I received an email from the sports editor at the Post, Scott Monserud, addressed to all three Post sports columnists — Woody Paige, Mark Kiszla and me. It instructed us not to write about or publicly discuss Bowlen’s health unless Bowlen chose to discuss it. Woody had already written his piece referring to Bowlen’s admission of “short-term memory loss.” We were to go no further. The instructions came from “the top, the very top,” according to Monserud. This was as clear as he could make it that they came from Dean Singleton, then owner and publisher of the Post, who had a close relationship with the Broncos. But just in case, Monserud added that the instructions came “from (editor) Greg (Moore), via Dean, to make sure we’re all on the same page.” I surmised that Ellis had called Dean, who told Moore to squash my inquiry.

I’d known Bowlen a long time and liked him very much. Our shared interest in endurance sports as younger men had created a bond of sorts, even if I couldn’t keep up with his six-minute miles. From a journalistic perspective, there was no question in my mind that he qualified as a public figure. And the many questions surrounding the Broncos following McDaniels’ firing made it seem to me an obvious and necessary avenue of inquiry.

I had no desire to cause Bowlen or his family any more pain than a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does on its own, but I believed then and still do that the ability of a major business in town to call the local publisher and suppress an uncomfortable story was unhealthy.

Fortunately, Bowlen and/or Ellis salvaged the situation brilliantly by hiring Elway to run the football operation. A year later, Elway signed Peyton Manning to play quarterback and the glory days were back. The questions surrounding Bowlen’s health receded again until today’s announcement.

Until the last few years, Bowlen was as down-to-earth and accessible as any owner in sports. He devoted himself completely to his team’s success, and he achieved it. Thirty summers later, Colorado is poorer for his exit from the stage.


Hiatus

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As you may have gathered, the blog is on hiatus until further notice. Of my small cadre of loyal readers, a few will reply, “What do you call what it’s been on since the last post?”

Well, wise guys, that was more like suspended animation, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the words of the Big Lebowski, there were a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. In the end, KOA decided to go in a different direction with its afternoon drive programming and let me go.

My media credentials to all local teams, venues and universities are invalid because they all say I’m representing KOA. For now, at least, I no longer have access to players and coaches, which is pretty important to the reporting I’ve done on the blog.

I don’t have any idea what happens next. For the last decade or so, I’ve been employed by three organizations that had one thing in common — they were shrinking. Layoffs and rumors of layoffs; buyouts and rumors of buyouts; an incessant, relentless emphasis on cutting, cutting, cutting.

I’d like to find a way to get on the other side of this curve if I can, to find an organization that’s growing and ambitious and trying to do more, not less. Maybe that’s in the media and maybe it’s not. It may be a pipe dream but there’s only one way to find out.

My plan is to let things shake out a bit, let it be known that a (ahem) veteran free agent is available and, you know, see what happens. My preference is to stay in Colorado, but my first priority is finding something inspiring to do with myself. If that turns out to require relocation, then that’s what’ll happen.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the always spectacular Colorado summer and take my time. I don’t want to rush into the wrong thing. For example, I already have an offer to become an insurance salesman. All respect to Needlenose Ned Ryerson, probably not going to do that.


End of the line

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Minnesota winger Nino Niederreiter’s winning goal in overtime of Game 7 bounced out of the net and hit Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov in the back of the leg before he could turn around.

The final score of the series was 22-20 over seven games. Three were empty-net goals, two by Minnesota and one by Colorado. Eliminate those and the final score was 20-19 in favor of Minnesota. Close, in other words.

But a pattern that developed over the first-round playoff series repeated itself in the decisive seventh game so insistently that it was hard not to get the point. In spurts of awe-inspiring talent, the Avalanche would take the lead. In long stretches of determined, opportunistic aggression, the Wild would catch the young Avs in mistakes and come back.

Colorado went up two games to none in the friendly confines of its own building, then scored one goal in two games in Minnesota as the Wild evened the series. The Avs took a 3-2 lead. The Wild tied it.

So it came down to one game, the fabled Game 7, which turned into a microcosm of the series. The Avs went up 1-0. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 2-1. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 3-2. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 4-3. With two minutes, 27 seconds remaining in regulation, the Wild tied it, taking a page out of the Avs’ book.

And then, like a pool hustler, the Wild took its first lead of the game and first lead of the series with a game- and series-winning overtime goal, its fifth of the game. Suddenly, Minnesota is moving on, to play Chicago. Colorado, which had led or been tied the whole way, is done.

On the bright side, it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to the San Jose Sharks, who went up three games to none on the Los Angeles Kings, then lost four in a row. That’s embarrassing. What happened to the Avs was not embarrassing. It was a rite of passage for a team whose best players range in age from 18 to 23.

“When you learn how to win, not how to win, but you have more experience in the playoffs, then obviously you start to know how to win those big games,” said Patrick Roy, whose first season as Avalanche coach ended on a bittersweet note.

“Those two goals, our neutral zone forecheck was good all night long and then all of a sudden we start making a couple mistakes here and there and they took advantage of it. This is a team that went through that last year with Chicago, got beat by, I think, four straight by Chicago, or five, I can’t remember the exact number [it was five], but it’s a learning process, and I think next year our guys in the playoffs might be a little more calm in those situations and react differently.”

Interesting concept, knowing how to win. The Avs proved they can win with desperation. They did it twice in the series, tying a game in the final two minutes, then winning it in overtime. But in a certain sense, desperation is easy. Your job is to go full bore to score because if you don’t, you lose. If your opponent scores into your empty net, well, you were going to lose anyway.

Protecting a one-goal lead is a different, more complicated art. You must be more concerned with defense, of course, but you can’t be so concerned with defense that you give away all aggressiveness and momentum, because at that point it’s just a matter of time before your opponent’s onslaught produces a goal. Whenever the Avalanche had the lead, in Game 7 or in the series, it seemed to be unsure how to handle it.

“It was a back-and-forth game,” said Matt Duchene, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season who returned from a knee injury to play in the last two games of the series, both losses as it turned out.

“What we can take away from this is at the end of a game like that when we need to clamp it down, we need to execute even better with the puck. And without it, we have to be sharp. You don’t let your heart race too much. You’ve got to stay in control and just get it done. It’s too bad we couldn’t get it done but we were right there. We were right there all night. We got the lead, I think, all game. Their only lead was the one that wins the game. So, disappointing.”

The enduring appeal of Game 7 has to do with finality. It’s like a Supreme Court decision. There is no appeal. This can produce an excruciatingly boring, careful sort of hockey, but it certainly didn’t Wednesday night at Pepsi Center.

This Game 7, the first for most of the Avs and a fair number of the Wild, started with a goal credited to Avalanche defenseman Nick Holden on a rebound just 2:52 into the game. As the puck was crossing the goal line, Avs winger Jamie McGinn was sliding into the cage and its tender, Darcy Kuemper. The goal was first waved off as goalie interference, then the light went on, then it was approved on appeal by Big Brother.

“That’s one of those plays where, obviously, when it goes in your net, you’re going to be frustrated about it,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “I would think that if we were on the other side, we would probably be expecting kind of a similar call. What I give our guys an awful lot of credit for is we didn’t get caught up in any of that stuff. We didn’t alter. There’s a lot of games through this series where I thought that we were playing very well through a game, something bad happened, and then we kind of got away. I thought just the composure, the character, to stay with our game, to stay with the process that we’ve set out and to trust it all the way through, that’s real impressive for our group.”

The Wild responded 8:04 into the first period when team captain Mikko Koivu fired a shot from the left circle. With Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov hugging the right post of the goal, Koivu hit the inside of the left post, the first of a series of shots that appeared to be steered by a satellite-controlled global positioning system.

The Avs took the lead for the second time when Joey Hishon centered the puck from the right boards for McGinn, who didn’t shoot it so much as redirect Hishon’s pass on net. The puck slithered between Kuemper’s skates. After one period, the Avs led 2-1.

Minnesota tied it for the second time 7:27 into the second period. It was not recorded as a power play goal, but it grew out of a power play formation. A penalty to Hishon for high sticking had been over for two seconds when Mikael Granlund tried to replicate Koivu’s shot, aiming for the right-hand edge of the goal from the left offensive circle. Varlamov slid to his left to block it with his leg pad.

Unfortunately, the puck never got there. It hit Holden in the backside, ricocheted off McGinn’s shin pad and bounced to the ice, right in front of veteran Wild winger Dany Heatley. As the puck ran away from him, Heatley took a swipe and sent a knuckleball into the space Varlamov had vacated to block Granlund’s shot. When the second period ended, the score was 2-2.

The Avs took their third lead 2:55 into the third period. Winger P.A. Parenteau made a beautiful pass from behind the Minnesota net out to Paul Stastny, between the circles. Stastny one-timed it right back on net, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it bounce in.

The Wild tied it for the third time less than four minutes later, 6:33 into the third, when winger Nino Niederreiter took a pass at the top of the right circle and rifled a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder. You could hear the sound of the puck hitting metal. I’m not sure if it was the crossbar or the left post. I’m also not sure I’ve ever seen a game in which so many goals struck metal on the way in.

The Avs took the lead for the fourth time at 11:16 of the third, on a play that began with Parenteau splitting two Minnesota defensemen — Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin — and getting a point blank shot on Kuemper. The Wild goaltender made the save. Duchene, crashing the net, flicked the rebound over to the right circle, where Parenteau, circling back, passed it to defenseman Erik Johnson up high, by the Stanley Cup logo. Johnson drilled it past Kuemper.

Kuemper left the game shortly afterward and was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov, who started Games 1 and 2 before being relieved. Kuemper conferred with the Minnesota trainer before departing. Bryzgalov would spend 13 minutes, 15 seconds in net. He would be credited with one save. It was a good one.

The Wild tied it for the fourth time with 2:27 left in regulation. By Avalanche standards, this was not exactly crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Yeo hadn’t even pulled his goaltender yet. The Avs tied Game 1 with 13.4 seconds remaining. They tied Game 5 with 1:14 left. This time, they were 2:27 away from winning the game and the series 4-3 and advancing to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the next round.

Then Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, the one faked off his feet by Avs rookie Nathan MacKinnon in Game 2, took a pass in the right offensive circle. MacKinnon, hanging out between the circles, suddenly realized Spurgeon was uncovered and raced over. Spurgeon waited patiently, using the recovering MacKinnon’s momentum against him, just as MacKinnon had used Spurgeon’s against him five games earlier. Once MacKinnon slid helplessly past, Spurgeon lifted a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it ricochet into the net.

Afterward, the 18-year-old MacKinnon blamed himself for the tying goal.

“I think Mac learned a lot tonight,” Roy said. “It’s a different game. He knows what he can do offensively. Now he’s learning sometimes defensively he’s going to have to do some things a little different. But that makes him already a better hockey player, and that’s what you want. But I don’t want any of my players blaming themselves for the loss. We win and we lose as a team and tonight we lost as a team.”

It was 4-4 at the end of regulation. The Avalanche had its best chance to win the game in overtime a little more than two minutes in. MacKinnon had the puck on the left side as part of a three-on-two with Johnson in the middle and Gabriel Landeskog on the right side. MacKinnon stopped by the left boards, gathered the puck and centered it to a trailing Stastny, who lifted it toward the top right corner of the goal. Bryzgalov got just enough of his left shoulder on the shot to deflect it wide of the post.

Moments later, Minnesota had a chance to win when Granlund beat Duchene to the puck and took a point-blank shot at Varlamov, trying to squeeze it inside the left post. Varlamov kicked it away.

Almost five minutes into the overtime, the Avs had another chance when Johnson centered the puck for Parenteau in the crease. The pass was deflected out to Heatley, who passed it up the ice to center Kyle Brodziak, who found himself alongside Niederreiter with only Avs defenseman Andre Benoit between them and the goal. Brodziak passed the puck to Niederreiter. Benoit retreated, trying to cover them both.

As Niederreiter approached the net from the right side, Benoit slid to the ice and tried to get in front of him to block his shot. Niederreiter lifted the puck just wide of Benoit over Varlamov’s right shoulder. It hit the crossbar and ricocheted into the back of the net with such velocity that it bounced back out and hit Varlamov on the back of the leg before he could turn around to see where it had gone. The officials had to review it to make sure it had gone in. The overhead camera confirmed it did.

The Wild exulted by the boards, feeling all the jubilation of its first lead in the game, first lead in the series, and a series victory all at once. The Avs stood around for a few moments in disbelief that their first moment trailing in the game, first moment trailing in the series, could also be the end of the whole thing.

“We felt confident,” said Landeskog, the team captain. “We felt like we had it. Every time we scored I felt like we had all the momentum. And then they came back, whether it was off the rush or whatever it might have been, and yeah, I mean, they did a good job. We’ve got to tip our hats to them. They deserved this one. They made nice plays. Every single goal was nice. So it’s tough. We worked so hard. Game 7, we had the crowd with us and we worked so hard and then it goes the wrong way. It’s a weird feeling.”

Center-turned-winger Ryan O’Reilly was angry.

“We didn’t become a team in the toughest times,” he said. “Our performance was embarrassing on the road, and it’s something we have to learn. Definitely if you can’t win on the road, you’re never going to win a Cup. We were lucky to have a chance to win tonight with how inconsistent we were all series. Definitely not happy with this. This is embarrassing for us. We could have done a lot better. It sucks. It’s frustrating.”

In time, this will be a relatively easy one to swallow. The Avs are ridiculously young. As an organization, it was the first trip to the postseason in four years. It was also the first season under Roy as coach and Joe Sakic running the front office hockey operation. In time, it will look like a preview of coming attractions.

Still, they had persuaded themselves they could do more right away.

“As much as we were dreaming it would be possible to win the Stanley Cup, we knew it would be tough for us to win the Stanley Cup because we’re not there yet,” Roy said. “It’s hard to say that, but it’s a fact.”


Cardiac kids

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P.A. Parenteau scores the tying goal with 1:14 remaining in regulation in Game 5 of the Avs-Wild playoff series.

This is beginning to get on the State of Hockey’s nerves. It’s not just the aggrieved Minnesota coach, Mike Yeo, who seems to believe his team should be up four games to one, which would mean it wouldn’t have to play Game 6 on Monday night.

Here on Earth, his team is down three games to two after the Avalanche tied a game very late for the second time in the series, then won in overtime, 4-3.

The reporters covering the Wild seemed as offended as the coach. One asked Yeo if the Avalanche was just lucky. Another mentioned how the penalty calls were, like, totally unfair.

That was certainly how Avalanche power forward Gabriel Landeskog felt when referee Brad Meier gave Minnesota a power play with 4:33 left in regulation and Colorado trailing 3-2. The Avs captain had come to a sudden stop in front of the crease, spraying Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper with snow. This is a violation of hockey etiquette, such as it is, requiring the usual pushing and shoving. It is often accompanied by a stern warning from the referee. It can also be a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, depending on everybody’s mood.

Meier chose this moment to make it a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. It was a terrible penalty for the Avs, who needed all the time available to try to tie the game. Now they would have to waste half of it killing a penalty. Landeskog had an extended conversation with Meier on his way to the penalty box and it did not look like they were making dinner plans.

“To be honest with you, it just came down to me not agreeing with him,” Landeskog explained. “Whether I snowed (Kuemper) or not, I think it’s still four minutes to go in a Game 5, a one-goal game. I think it’s a tough call for him to make. They’ve been hacking and whacking on Varly all night and (Kuemper) gets a little snow in his face. Whether it’s unsportsmanlike or not, I think it’s playoff hockey and I think it’s a tough call for him to make.”

Make it he did, which meant Avs coach Patrick Roy had to wait to pull goaltender Semyon Varlamov until Landeskog escaped the box two minutes later.

“It was hard to remain calm after the call,” Roy said. “But when I look at the clock, it said we’ll have two minutes and some seconds; then we had to kill that (penalty). That was a huge kill. The penalty kill was without a doubt outstanding for us tonight. The guys did a really good job. They sacrificed their bodies, they blocked shots. I was very happy with them. They gave us a chance to win this game.”

By the time Varlamov got off the ice, about 2:20 remained, or 41 seconds fewer than in Game 1.

Didn’t matter. The Avs are getting better at this 6-on-5 hockey, which Roy has them practicing at every morning skate. They didn’t score until 13.4 seconds remained in Game 1. Saturday night, they tied it up with 1:14 to spare. Eighteen-year-old Nathan MacKinnon took over, as he did in Game 2.

In the feverish 6-on-5, MacKinnon brought the puck up the left side and slid a pass to center Paul Stastny near the left post of the Minnesota goal. Stastny tried to drill it through Kuemper from the side, but it bounced off the goaltender to the side of the net. Stastny regained control and slid it toward center ice in front of the net. Landeskog was coming down the slot, ready to take the shot, when P.A. Parenteau swooped in from the right, stretched as close to the net as he could, his knee almost touching the ice, and flicked the puck past Kuemper’s glove to tie the game.

“I was just coming out of the penalty box, so I was a little pissed off,” Landeskog said. “I certainly wanted to put one home and I wanted to tie it up. When I saw P.A.’s puck go in, it was certainly a good feeling. The fans, I’m surprised nobody gets a heart attack when this keeps happening. It’s exciting, but we don’t want to make a habit of it.”

But why not? Everybody loves cardiac kids. As Roy pointed out afterward, that’s entertainment.

“Our fans had a heck of a show here tonight,” he said. “And hopefully we’re going to give another good one over there as well.” Game 6 is Monday night in St. Paul.

MacKinnon has been the best player in the series, dominating the three games in Colorado with 10 points. He assisted on three of the five goals in Game 1, scored one and set up three more in Game 2, set up two and scored the overtime winner in Game 5.

“The best part is cheering with the guys in the huddle with you,” MacKinnon said of the winner. “My helmet got ripped off in the celebration, so it’s pretty exciting and it definitely ranks at the top of my list.”

The play began along the boards, where Ryan Wilson and Landeskog sabotaged the Wild’s attempt to clear the zone. From the left boards, Landeskog passed the puck to MacKinnon, who was skating through the left circle with Minnesota defenseman Marco Scandella between him and the net.

The rookie took the pass on his forehand, slid the puck around Scandella with his backhand, then returned to the forehand to rip a shot to the upper right corner of the goal. Hugging the opposite post against MacKinnon’s onslaught, Kuemper had no chance.

“I was kind of screaming for the puck from Landy,” MacKinnon said. “With Landy making a great heads-up play to me, Paulie good on the forecheck, I just kind of fired it on net and thankfully, I don’t know if it tipped off the defenseman or not, but I’m definitely very fortunate that it went in.

“There was a bit of a screen there, I thought. I don’t know if he really saw it or whatever happened. I don’t really remember the goal that well, to be honest with you. I blacked out. But it definitely was a very memorable goal and it definitely ranks at the top of my list.”

The Minnesota coach seemed to feel that justice demanded a right of appeal or something.

“It is what it is,” he said. “To sit here and dwell on it I don’t think is going to do us any good. Obviously frustrating, obviously disappointing, but the bottom line is it’s not going to do us any good.”

So far, the home team has won every game in the series, so I asked Yeo if the buildings really make that much difference. I forgot that he thinks his team outplayed the Avalanche in two of the three Colorado wins, except for those unfortunate last few minutes.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, did it seem to in the third period? I would say that we were off our game for parts of the first two periods, but I thought for the most part . . . obviously, if things happen a little differently in the last minute and a half, then we’re not saying that. There’s no question that there’s probably more momentum swings, but for the most part I think that we’ve played two out of three pretty darn good games in here.”

In short, the State of Hockey seems to feel like it’s getting jobbed.

“I would say that we’re due for, I don’t want to say luck, but we’re due for some stuff here to go our way a little bit,” Yeo said.

By contrast, the Avs do not claim they played well enough to win in Minnesota, where they scored one goal in two games. They’ve scored 13 in three games at home.

“I think we learned a lot from the first two games [in St. Paul],” MacKinnon said. “We’re not going to be rushing the puck as much. We’re going to be very much more poised — making good plays, better on the forecheck and things like that. We’ve made some adjustments since the last game in Minnesota.”

“The first two games were bad games and we’ve got to bring in a good performance Monday night,” said Stastny, his linemate.

The biggest change for Game 6 might be giving the MacKinnon-Stastny-Landeskog line a little help. Matt Duchene, the Avs’ leading scorer during the regular season, may be ready to return from his knee injury.

“We’re going to take a serious look at it,” Roy said.


Treading water

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

It was one of those Colorado days Sunday at the ballyard. Bright blue sky, big crowd, lots of hits, lots of runs, no discernible sign of professional pitching.

This was in marked contrast to the Rockies’ three previous games — the finale of the last road trip in San Diego and the first two home games against the Phillies — in which they got shockingly good pitching, putting together their first three-game winning streak of the season by scores of 3-1, 12-1 and 3-1.

This is really the only question that matters about the 2014 edition of the Rocks. If they pitch like that even half the time, they will be pretty good. If they don’t, they won’t.

“Yeah, the game tends to fall into place when you get starting pitching,” manager Walt Weiss said before Sunday’s game when I asked him about that three-game stretch.

“That’s the key to this game. I don’t care what level you’re playing at. You get good starting pitching, you’re usually in good shape. We’ve had some guys step up. We’re talking about missing three of the top guys in our rotation to start the season. I think if you did that to any rotation in baseball, it’d be a challenge. So the fact that we’ve had guys step up and respond to the call has been really encouraging to me. And one of those guys is the guy that threw (Saturday) night, Jordan Lyles. He’s really been giving us a shot in the arm.”

Through 20 games, or 13 percent of the season, the Rocks are 10-10, and their team stats are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. At home, in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball, they’re a sensational offensive team, batting .354. Their OPS of .978 is 160 points higher than the next best home team.

On the road, they’re a mediocre to poor offense, their team OPS of .662 ranking 20th among the 30 big league clubs.

Troy Tulowitzki is batting .667 at home with two homers and 10 runs batted in. He’s batting .229 on the road with no homers and two RBI.

Carlos Gonzalez is batting .375 at home, .205 on the road. Charlie Blackmon’s splits are .486 and .313; Michael Cuddyer’s .417 and .250.

As anyone who has followed the Rockies for any appreciable amount of time knows, numbers such as these are an occupational hazard of playing here. The home numbers are inflated by the Coors Field factor and the road numbers are depressed by the increased movement of pitches at or near sea level and the constant adjustment Rockies hitters must make as they switch elevations throughout the season.

You might expect the reverse effect on their pitching numbers, and over large sample sizes and multiple years, you get it. But so far this year, they’re actually pitching better at Coors Field than on the road with a home earned-run average of 3.78 and road ERA of 4.55. For individual pitchers, of course, the sample size so far is ridiculously small.

The most encouraging single development, by far, has been the work of Lyles, as Weiss noted. He would not even be in the rotation if it weren’t for a sore hamstring that kept Tyler Chatwood from making his first couple of starts. Unaffected by Coors Field and its reputation for driving pitchers insane, Lyles has thrown his power sinker and big breaking curve ball at elevation with considerable early success, giving up one earned run in 13 2/3 innings for a home ERA of 0.66. He and Chatwood have been the Rockies’ only reliable starters so far.

As Weiss noted, the pitching staff remains a work in progress due to injury. Jhoulys Chacin, a 14-game winner last year, has yet to make his first start as he works his way back from shoulder stiffness in the spring. Brett Anderson, acquired from Oakland during the offseason along with a history of being prone to injury, broke a finger hitting a ground ball and is out at least a month after making just three starts. De La Rosa, a 16-game winner a year ago, has yet to find his groove, although his most recent start, his fourth of the season, was his best. Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have been predictably unpredictable.

The bullpen has been very good for stretches and very bad for stretches. Sunday, with a chance to sweep a series for the first time this season, it gave up five runs to the Phillies in four innings of work. Matt Belisle took the loss, but Boone Logan had the worst day, surrendering three runs, two earned, and retiring just one batter, as the Rocks fell 10-9.

Despite what looks like a sensational defensive team on paper, they are in the middle of the pack with 12 errors in 20 games, three of them at the catcher position, and that doesn’t include two run-scoring passed balls by backup Jordan Pacheco in just five games wearing the gear. It’s nice to have guys who can hit behind the plate, but so far the poor defense has more than made up for the offensive contributions of Pacheco and Wilin Rosario.

The much-maligned Dexter Fowler trade is working out pretty well so far. It produced their best starter to date in Lyles, and it freed up the money to sign free agent Justin Morneau, who looks like a classic Coors Field reclamation project in the tradition of Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette. Morneau is batting .364 and leads the club in RBI with 15 in the early going. He’s also avoided the dramatic splits, batting .367 at Coors and .324 elsewhere.

The fragility of their star players was a big factor in last season’s long, slow-motion collapse, and it’s already been an issue this year. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Cuddyer have already missed time with leg issues, a troublesome sign. It might be time to bring in a yoga instructor.

It’s early, of course. April numbers are overly examined because they’re the only numbers we have when everybody is still excited about the possibilities. Last year the Rocks went 16-11 in April and finished 74-88.

When I asked Weiss if he liked where his team is through 20 games, this is what he said:

“I like our club. I like the mentality of our club. I think our guys will fight through the tough stuff and I think that’s the X factor in this league. And I think we have that. So, yeah, I like where we’re at.”

So far, the Rocks are who we thought they were — a big-time offense at home, a small-time offense on the road and mediocre on the mound pretty much everywhere, except for that promising stretch of three games at the end of last week. If Chacin returns soon, De La Rosa finds his form and Lyles and Chatwood continue what they’ve started, the pitching could be better than mediocre. If the hitting stars can stay on the field and learn to play more situational ball on the road, the offense could be more consistently productive.

That’s a lot of ifs. The promise is there, but that’s still all it is.


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