Monthly Archives: February 2012

Yo, Tom Helmer: Sorry to see you go

Rockies telecasts will have a different feel this season, and not just because of a roster overhaul that has the AARP interested in press box credentials.

No, the new feel on the telecasts will have more to do with the departures of Root Sports staples Alanna Rizzo and Tom Helmer.

Rizzo’s exit is not a big surprise: The camera likes Alanna a lot and and she reciprocated by building relationships with players that gave her interviews a relaxed, conversational feel. It was only a matter of time before she moved on to the national stage, in this case a studio job back east at MLB Network.

Helmer’s exit is more puzzling. He broke the news himself Tuesday on Twitter (@Tom_Helmer):

“I have loved every minute of covering the Rockies, DU, CU and CHSAA. Sorry it won’t continue as ROOT Sports is moving on without me,” he posted.

“I will miss the fans at Coors Field the most. You made it so much fun and I hope I gave you some small piece of enjoyment as well.”

About an hour later, Root (@ROOTSPORTS_RM) confirmed:

“Thanks to @Tom_Helmer for all his hard work and dedication over the last 6 years. We wish him the best.”

Helmer hosted the bulk of Root’s pre- and post-game Rockies shows and did it with flair. Crowds would hang around the center field Rockpile waiting for him to jump on the desk and lead the cheers after the Rocks won. It was schtick, for sure, but it was fun schtick and better TV than most post-mortems. Some of his fans took to Twitter to complain about his departure with the hashtag “savehelmer.”

“It will be BORING without you,” tweeted one.

“You guys are high on crack letting Tom go,” said another.

“Baseball is all about familiar,” said a third. “It’s an old pair of slippers. A thread-bare blanket. No place for sudden changes. We love @Tom_Helmer.”

Even Rocks center fielder Dexter Fowler weighed in:

“@Tom_Helmer Sorry to hear that, I enjoyed the time working with you, it’s been a pleasure. Good luck on your future endeavors!”

“Thank you for the hundreds upon hundreds of comments,” Helmer tweeted this morning. “I have read every one. You’ll never know how much it really means to me.”

In addition to his pre- and post-game duties, Helmer filled in for Drew Goodman on play-by-play occasionally and did an excellent job.

He has two traits in particular that I’ll miss — a quick wit and a genuine affection for the English language not that common on TV.

He and I had a running gag in the Coors Field press box about the chronic overuse and misuse in our trade of the word “ironic.” If Jeff Baker gets traded to the Cubs and then the Rocks play the Cubs, that’s ironic.

No, it’s not. If it’s anything, it’s coincidental, and given the eventual inevitability, barely even that.

You know what’s ironic? Root Sports dumping an energetic on-air talent who knows what “ironic” means.


Jeremy Guthrie part of Rockies’ bridge to the future

Just two weeks before pitchers and catchers report to the Rockies’ spring training complex in Scottsdale, the club finally got its innings-eater.

Jeremy Guthrie has thrown 200 or more innings in each of the past three seasons as the largely unappreciated pitching mainstay of a perpetually rebuilding Baltimore Orioles team. Throughout that stay, the former first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians was a mix of fiery competitor and goodwill ambassador for a franchise spinning its wheels.

And yes, that’s three former first-round picks by the Tribe as candidates for the Rockies’ starting rotation: Guthrie (2002), Drew Pomeranz (2010) and Alex White (2009).

Guthrie’s record in Baltimore wasn’t great (47-65), but his winning percentage (.420) was better than the team’s (.415) and his earned-run average (4.19) was fine considering he pitched in the murderous American League East at hitter-friendly Camden Yards.

“We spent a lot of time breaking him down, really since the trading deadline of last year,” Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said.

“When we went through the Wandy Rodriguez thing,” — the Rockies put in a waiver claim on the Astros starter last season but couldn’t work out a deal before Houston pulled him back — “he was somebody on our list that fit kind of what we were looking for — the guy that might be a little overlooked because of where he pitches, the position he pitches in, the role that he was used in, that’s been extremely durable, well above-average athlete, extremely competitive, very tough guy. That’s exactly what we saw as a fit for us.”

Within a couple of hours of Monday morning’s trade announcement, Guthrie tweeted a picture of himself Tebowing on a pitching rubber in a Rockies cap and Tim Tebow jersey.

“X-Factor in this trade: my new strikeout celebration is suddenly more appropriate! @TimTebow,” he wrote.

Having followed Guthrie’s Twitter feed when he was with the O’s, I can tell you this much: Rockies fans are going to enjoy this guy.

“He rides his bike to the ballpark,” O’Dowd said. “I think he’s one of those physical fitness freaks. Knock on wood, he hasn’t spent a ton of time on the DL. We liked the competitive nature of how he goes about preparing to do his job. I think he’s a real good get for us.”

To acquire him, O’Dowd gave up starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. Although both have live arms and remain intriguing, Guthrie is an upgrade over Hammel for the rotation and the Rocks have numerous candidates to replace Lindstrom in the bullpen.

Orioles fans, on the other hand, are a bit confused. They felt sure that new general manager Dan Duquette would use Guthrie to acquire talented prospects who would help with the rebuilding rather than exchange him for other mid-career veterans. In a poll on the Baltimore Sun web site that offered seven possible takes on the deal, the most popular in early voting was “Don’t understand it.”

Guthrie and the Orioles had been preparing for a contentious arbitration hearing, with Guthrie seeking a salary of $10.25 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility and the Birds offering $7.25 million. After hearing of the pending trade back to his native West — Guthrie was born in Oregon and went to Stanford — he swiftly agreed to a one-year deal for $8.2 million.

That’s pretty close to the combined salaries of Hammel and Lindstrom and leaves the Rocks’ prospective payroll a shade below $90 million, or about where it was last season.

Guthrie is not a No. 1 starter by talent, but by necessity that’s the role he filled in Baltimore without complaint. He’s a fly ball pitcher, so he’ll give up some dingers at Coors Field, but he throws in the mid-90s and is known for competitive zeal and good humor, not to mention a love of sneakers.

He’s also another important piece of the bridge the organization is building to the future. No longer content to wait on the development of homegrown talent, the Rocks overhauled their roster after a disappointing 2011 campaign to bring in veterans with a competitive edge who would take the pressure off not-quite-ready-for-prime-time prospects.

“We went into the offseason with a specific game plan, but I can’t tell you that anything ever would connect the dots the way this winter did, one to another,” O’Dowd said. “It usually does not happen that way. This winter, for whatever reason, it did. That doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out great. It just means we had identified a group of guys within each category we wanted to get and we were able to get a lot of them.”

Consider: With Guthrie (208 innings in 2011) and Jhoulys Chacin (a franchise-leading 194) heading the rotation going into spring training, there’s less pressure on the 23-year-old Pomeranz to replace Ubaldo Jimenez as the staff ace immediately and less pressure on veteran Jorge De La Rosa to come back from Tommy John surgery before he’s ready.

If all four are starting in June, with White, Juan Nicasio, Guillermo Moscoso, Tyler Chatwood and Josh Outman competing for innings in the bullpen or minor leagues, the Rocks could be deeper in starting pitching than they’ve ever been, with the flexibility to make further moves if needed.

Veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez is the bridge to Wilin Rosario or Jordan Pacheco. Veteran infielders Casey Blake and Marco Scutaro are the bridge to Nolan Arenado and Josh Rutledge. Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer could be a bridge to a prospect or a big bat on the trade market.

The Rocks are no longer content to throw their prospects into the big league pool and let them sink or swim. Frankly, too many of them sank with that approach. Except for young stars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, much of the last wave — Chris Iannetta, Ian Stewart and Seth Smith, to name three — did not live up to the organization’s expectations.

Whether Guthrie is more than a one-year rental remains to be seen. If he eats innings as expected and long-term contracts for middle-of-the-rotation free agent starters remain scarce next winter, the Rocks might well be interested in bringing him back.

“Our thing is not so much the dollar in the given year, it’s just we don’t want to commit a lot of length to anybody and create  lack of flexibility for ourselves,” O’Dowd said.

There are no guarantees the various veteran acquisitions will perform, as Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez demonstrated a year ago. But they all fit the profile the Rocks constructed after last season’s disappointment — pro’s pros more focused on winning than accumulating service time.

If they don’t work out, the organization will be one year closer to handing over the keys to the generation of Pomeranz, Rosario, Arenado and Rutledge. If they do, the Rocks might just surprise again, but this time in a good way.


Craig Morton turns 69: ‘Life is not that bad’

Not to make you feel old if you remember the Broncos’ first trip to the Super Bowl as if it were yesterday, but Craig Morton’s 69th birthday is Sunday, the same day as Super Bowl XLVI.

“I live in northern California, right outside of San Francisco in Mill Valley,” the former Cowboys, Giants and Broncos quarterback told us on the Dave Logan Show recently.

“I was working with the University of California at Berkeley for the last seven years as a fundraiser and helped raise about $320 million. They had some cutbacks and so they kind of said, ‘Well, I guess you’re getting real old, Craig, so we’ve got to get rid of you.’

“So I’m just sitting here looking at the tulips and I’m looking at San Francisco across my little balcony here, so life is not that bad.”

Morton played in the AFC championship game that catapulted the Broncos to their first Super Bowl after spending the preceding week in the hospital, but he wasn’t above playing it up a little to inspire his teammates.

“I was in the hospital from after the Steeler game until Sunday morning of the championship game,” Morton recalled, referring to the Broncos’ 34-21 victory over Pittsburgh in the divisional round.

“I couldn’t move the leg. They would try everything. Jack Dolbin really helped me a lot. He found this machine called the galvanic stimulator and it helped pump some blood through it. They’d come in five times a night and try to drain the blood from my leg.

“A friend of mine came in to pick me up to take me to the stadium on Sunday morning and he said, ‘You’ve worked all your life for this opportunity again; do not consider not playing.’ When he said that, I said, ‘Get me to the stadium.’ I sat in the whirlpool for a few hours and I really played it up. I sat on the training table and made sure everybody could see my black leg as I was turning colors.”

Various accounts at the time described Morton’s hip as black, blue and, in some places, a certain shade of green.

“I could back up and throw,” he said. “If I had to run, I couldn’t do it. But it worked out. I just said, ‘If they don’t touch me, we’ll win this game.’ I think they touched me twice. The defense played great and Haven (Moses) came through and the offensive line came through and we did it.”

As a result of that victory over the Raiders, Morton became the first player in NFL history to start Super Bowls for two different teams — the Cowboys in Super Bowl V and the Broncos in Super Bowl XII. Kurt Warner later became the second.

Part of Morton’s enduring affection for his days in Denver arises from Denver’s enduring affection for him. In Dallas, he’d been part of a running quarterback controversy with Roger Staubach. In New York, by his own account, he was not exactly a fan favorite.

“What (Cowboys) coach (Tom) Landry did to me two or three times, this is kind of his relationship with me,” Morton recalled. “He’d call me at about 10:30 at night when he was trying to make his decision who to go with, Roger or myself. And he’d say, ‘Craig, you’re home.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m home.’ Whatever my reputation is, I would never break curfew. I mean, who wants to feel bad? I’m a single guy, (but) I’m not going to go out the night before a game or any of that stuff.

“And he says, ‘Can you come over?’ So I said, ‘Sure.’ So I go over and his wife, Alicia, would answer the door. Tom would be there and he said, ‘Come into my study.’ And I go into his study and I sit down and he says, ‘Craig, you know, I’ve just got this feeling, I think I’m going to go with Roger. Thanks for coming over.’ And that was it.

“And I said, ‘What do you mean you’ve got this feeling? And what do you mean coming over here for five seconds? Let’s get into this a little bit more.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that in person, so thanks for coming over.'”

When he finally asked the Cowboys for a trade, they moved him to New York. He played two and a half seasons there before the Giants moved him to Denver before the 1977 season.

“Going to Denver was a whole new deal because I wanted to leave New York so badly because we were so bad and they didn’t like me at all,” Morton said. “The last game I played with the Giants was against Denver and I said, ‘Boy, this team could be great if they just had a quarterback that wouldn’t make any mistakes.’

“Then coming in and seeing what their offense was, that’s exactly what they did, is play to (defensive coordinator) Joe Collier and his defense. That’s what my role was. I knew it. They didn’t have to tell me. You knew, just give the defense a chance to give you better field position.”

Morton got to see a limited number of telecasts featuring this year’s Broncos, but I asked him for his take on the option offense offensive coordinator Mike McCoy installed to take advantage of quarterback Tim Tebow’s skill set.

“I don’t know if he could play any other offense,” Morton said. “I’ve heard that John (Elway) was considering working with him. He’s got a lot of work to do in his footwork and his hips. But he’s got great talent and he’s a winner and he’s one of the great role models I’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years and man, I hope he’s successful.

“He’s got a pretty good arm. He’s got some hitches in it, but with his athletic ability and how strong he is, he can get that ball up a little higher and he can throw that ‘out’ at 15 (yards). He just needs a little work on it. But he wins. And I know Elway will make the right decision because he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen play. If he can rub a little bit off on Tim Tebow, then he’ll have great success.”

It’s been 34 years since he helped the Broncos win their first AFC championship, but Morton still has fond memories of that team.

“We were a great, close team that had a tremendous amount of fun,” he said. “We spent hours after games together. We had dinners together. We had great guys that loved Red Miller, that loved Fred Gehrke and just loved the whole situation that we were thrust into. Denver adapted to us and cheered us on and painted everything orange. It was just a magical thing that certainly will never happen again.

“Our team was just fortunate to be as close as we were. And we let the whole town in on our fun, too, so that was a great time.”


Do the Nuggets need a closer?

Last weekend, on the heels of a six-game winning streak, the Nuggets were riding high. Their record of 14-5 was second-best in the NBA’s Western Conference. So it seemed like a good time to ask coach George Karl if his team was really as good as it looked.

“I reminded the players of the six-game winning streak, which was great, because five of them were on the road, it’s fantastic, but there was only one winning team in there,” Karl pointed out. “And 16 of our next 18 are against winning teams. So we will know a lot more come March 1st than we know right now.”

Since then, Karl’s team is 0-2, having lost close games to pretty good teams — the L.A. Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies (the Clippers were 10-6 when they met the Nuggets; the Grizzlies 10-10). In both cases, the Nuggets had a chance to win at the end. In both cases, they couldn’t find anyone to make a big shot when they needed it.

This, of course, is the flip side to the Nuggets’ depth. As many of their opponents have pointed out, their second team is nearly as good as their first. Sometimes, it’s better. But spreading the scoring around the way they do, it’s not at all clear who they want to take the last shot in a close game.

Already, Karl has been asked the question often enough that he finds it annoying. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less legitimate: Do the Nuggets need a closer?

“I think it’s a process that you just have to develop,” Karl said when I asked him about it after the loss to the Clippers, in which the leading scorer was Chauncey Billups, also known as Mr. Big Shot, whom the Nuggets traded away a year ago.

“I think we’re going to rely a great deal upon how we play, and how we play is we make stops, try to run, play before (the defense) sets up. Then, as the game goes on, figure out the matchup that you like. In Philadelphia, it was Andre (Miller). In Washington, the pick and roll game gave Al (Harrington) a lot of good looks. Hopefully, Nene and Ty (Lawson) will jump into some of that responsibility along the way.

“I’m not as fearful of that as people are making out to be because I think you win games with other things as much as you do going to a closer or a go-to guy. But if they want to put that on our heads right now, most close games this year, we’ve won. Tonight we didn’t.”

Tuesday night, after the overtime loss in Memphis, Karl was even less tolerant of the question, pointing out all the things the Nuggets could have done earlier in the game to prevent it from coming down to those final shots.

But this begs the question. Lots of NBA games, particularly between good teams, do come down to the end. As the Nuggets learned when they had Carmelo Anthony, a star scorer can slow down your offense by constantly playing one-on-one. He can render it predictable and easy to defend. But as Melo demonstrated at the end of regulation against the Nuggets in New York two weeks ago, that go-to guy can also step up and make a big shot when you have to have it.

“You just don’t pinpoint somebody,” said Billups, who might be the Nuggets’ closer now if he hadn’t been traded to New York with Melo. “Somebody’s got to do it time and time again and earn that right. It’s tough not to have that. Playing late and playing good teams, it’s always going to come down to end-of-game situations. So somebody may emerge as that, but you’ve just got to kind of let it play out.”

The Nuggets have numerous candidates:

Danilo Gallinari is their leading scorer at 17.4 points per game, but he’s only 23 and prone to inconsistency. He’s shooting just under 30 percent from long distance this year and just under 45 percent overall.

Ty Lawson is their second-leading scorer at 15.5 per, but he’s only 24 and also the starting point guard, where he sometimes finds himself caught between being a scorer and being a playmaker.

Al Harrington is a veteran scorer off the bench who has had an excellent start to the season, but he’s more accustomed to being a complementary player than a leading man.

Ditto for Rudy Fernandez, the Spanish sharpshooter and playmaker the Nuggets obtained from Dallas before the season began.

Arron Afflalo got a big new contract to be the Nuggets’ starting shooting guard, but he’s shooting less than 43 percent from the floor.

Nene, their highest-paid player, is a versatile inside scorer, but getting the ball inside in crunch time can be a challenge, as the Nuggets demonstrated against the Clippers.

Andre Miller is a reliable veteran and capable scorer, but he’s generally a pass-first playmaker.

Statistically, their best three-point shooter so far has been Corey Brewer, an athletic swingman known more for his defense, but it’s a small sample size: 12 for 26.

At the end against the Clippers, Nene was tricked into committing an alleged offensive foul and Fernandez and Harrington missed shots. Against the Grizzlies, Miller missed at the end of regulation with a chance to win and Fernandez missed at the end of overtime with a chance to tie.

As much as Karl dislikes the question, chances are he’s going to keep hearing it until the Nuggets win a few games against good teams by making big shots down the stretch. Coming off two close losses, they’re looking at consecutive games against the Clippers, Lakers and Blazers to close out the week.

Having a deep bench is a valuable luxury in the NBA, particularly this season, with games packed closer together because of the lockout. But however you get there, lots of games come down to the final minutes.

Early in games, the Nuggets share the ball beautifully in a fast-paced offense that produces open looks for many different players. Late in games, when defenses and offenses alike tend to tighten up, the Nuggets have struggled lately to replicate that free-flowing style.

Sooner or later, they will have to find somebody willing to take and able to make the big shot if they intend to be serious contenders.