Monthly Archives: May 2012

Dan O’Dowd unplugged

Whether things are going well, badly or somewhere in between, I try to touch base with Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd at roughly the one-third and two-thirds marks of each season to take his pulse on the team. I’ve known O’Dowd for more than a decade now, and whether I was at the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post or 850 KOA, he’s always accommodated these requests for his time.

The one-third mark, the Rockies’ 54th game, falls on June 4 this year, which also happens to be the first day of the baseball draft, so I hit him up a few days early and we spoke this morning.

The state of the Rockies is no secret. They rank third in the National League in runs, second in home runs and second in OPS, which is the sum of on-base percentage and slugging percentage (the acronym stands for On-base Plus Slugging). They’re a good offensive club with a chance to be better than that, although their situational hitting has at times left something to be desired.

They rank last in the league in earned-run average (5.18), more than three-quarters of a run higher than the next-worst team. The combined ERA of their starters (5.80) is more than a run higher than the next-worst starting staff. On the bright side, their overworked bullpen has a better ERA (4.20) than those of four other NL teams, suggesting it might actually be pretty good if the starters did their jobs.

The Rocks have 15 quality starts (a starter throws at least six innings and gives up three earned runs or fewer) out of 48 games, the fewest in baseball. They are the only team in baseball not to have shut out an opponent all season. In 48 tries, they do not have a complete game by a starting pitcher. They lead baseball in blown saves with 11.

In short, their pitching has been frightful. And that’s chiefly why they go into tonight’s home game against Houston 10 games below .500 at 19-29.

They stand fourth in the NL West, 12.5 games behind the Dodgers, who have the best record in baseball. They have a chance to attack that deficit this weekend when L.A. makes its second trip of the season to Coors Field. The Rocks took two of three from the Dodgers on the first visit, April 30-May 2, but that seems like a long time ago, perhaps because it immediately preceded the Atlanta series in which everything fell apart.

The Rocks were 11-11 in April. So far, they are 8-18 in May. Two of their starting pitchers, Jhoulys Chacin and Jeremy Guthrie, have spent time on the disabled list. Chacin is still there. Another, Jorge De La Rosa, has been on the DL since last summer, when he underwent Tommy John surgery. He is currently making rehab starts at Triple-A Colorado Springs. A fourth starter, Drew Pomeranz, was demoted to the Springs to work on his mechanics and get his velocity back. At the moment, the starting staff consists of Guthrie, 49-year-old Jamie Moyer and three rookies — Christian Friedrich, Juan Nicasio and Alex White.

I began by asking O’Dowd an open-ended question about his evaluation of the first two months of the season.

“Honestly, a couple things,” he said. “Leaving spring training, I thought a lot of things would have to go right from a pitching standpoint for us to get out of the gate real well. I had hoped that we could play .500 or close to for the first two, three months of the season until our young pitching began to mature. Obviously, that happened in the month of April. Obviously, a lot of things have gone wrong in the month of May.

“I would say, looking at it objectively, I like our position-player club a ton. I think it’s probably one of the better position-player clubs we’ve ever put on a field because of its depth and versatility and the quality of the players. I think (Wilin) Rosario, (Jordan) Pacheco, (Tyler) Colvin, (Eric) Young give us a really nice blend of youth to go with our veterans. I think CarGo and Tulo are going to end up having monster years. I think (Michael) Cuddyer has been a solid addition. So I think that’s played out even better than I could have hoped for.

“But our starting pitching has been so bad at times that it’s really exposed our bullpen. I think if we got any kind of starting pitching, our bullpen would actually be one of the strengths of our club.

“I banked on some things which, obviously, I’m accountable for, with Guthrie and Chacin and hoping De La Rosa would get back around this time of year, this week or next. Guthrie’s been bad and Chacin got hurt and De La Rosa’s probably still four or five starts away from helping us. So we’re in a tough box relying on a lot of kids right now that have ability, but it looks like there’s just a significant gap between their potential and their performance right now.”

I asked him for a diagnosis on Guthrie, acquired from Baltimore in February in exchange for starter Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. Over his previous three seasons, Guthrie threw 617 1/3 innings for the Orioles with an ERA of 4.39. So far this season, he’s thrown just 40 2/3 for the Rocks, missing a handful of starts because of a freak bicycle accident, with an ERA of 5.31. On the road, he’s 2-1 with a 2.22 ERA. At Coors Field, he’s 0-2 with a 9.92 ERA.

(Full disclosure: I’ve followed the Orioles for years and admired Guthrie as a horse who took the ball every fifth day for a team that was truly awful for most of his stay. I wholeheartedly endorsed this trade.)

“I don’t know,” O’Dowd said. “I know I’m supposed to have all the answers. I went back over our process with this one. I know Jason Hammel’s pitched well, but I’ve got a long list of Coors Field bounce-backs, so that doesn’t surprise me. Guys leave here and they pitch much better than they pitched here.

“Four years of 200-plus innings, pitching in the American League East, actually getting his brains beat in at times, you’d think that would prepare him for the gauntlet that he’d go through here at times. I think the freakish injury certainly didn’t help. He’s three starts back from that now.

“He hasn’t even looked close to being the pitcher that we scouted over a long period of time. That one’s been a little perplexing to me to be frank with you, especially the lack of strike throwing. He’s always been a guy that threw strikes and pitched innings. Both he and Chacin, I thought that we’d have guys that would have 4.5 to 4.8 ERAs, but I thought we’d get 200 innings out of each of them, which would then take some pressure off the group of young starters that would end up stepping forward, and, again, hoping that De La Rosa would come back.

“So we’ve got to tread some water here and make up some ground because I think with the starting pitching, if we can just be serviceable — I mean, we’re going to go through some moments when we struggle offensively, too, but I think for the most part it’s a club that’s going to put up some runs.”

I mentioned that Guillermo Moscoso, obtained in January from Oakland along with left-hander Josh Outman in exchange for outfielder Seth Smith, had a similar disconnect, going from very reasonable numbers as a starter with the A’s (8-10, 3.38 ERA in 21 starts in 2011) to horrendous numbers before being sent down by the Rocks (0-1, 11.57).

Prior to the installation of the humidor at Coors Field in 2002, the Rockies’ ERA at home averaged more than a full run higher than their ERA on the road. Since the humidor was installed, that differential has come down to less than half a run. This year, it is back up over a run a game. The Rocks’ ERA at Coors is 5.71. On the road, it is 4.55.

So I asked O’Dowd if the park might be having an outsized effect on the numbers of pitchers coming from other places.

“For some reason, this year it’s playing much differently,” he said. “I wish I knew the answer for that. Quite honestly, when the schedule came out and I saw two nine-game home stands to open up the season, I was concerned. We’ve never had that.

“Sometimes, with particular weather patterns, you can survive that. But I was concerned about the length of those home stands. Honestly, we were doing fine up until those two Atlanta games (May 4-5) and we have not played well since then. We’ve played better this last week, but starting on that Friday night against Atlanta when we had that six-run lead and coughed it up and then we did the same thing again on Saturday, we really have never recovered from a pitching standpoint.

“If you remember the way the ballpark used to play, where pitchers would try to avoid contact and then make a quality pitch and then get hit and then the wheels would start to turn mentally, it seems to be that situation again. I don’t think you’re seeing as many fluke home runs but, boy, you’re seeing some balls really driven off pitches that, quite honestly, aren’t that bad. Whatever mistakes we’ve made have just been absolutely hammered.

“Atlanta scored 19 runs on 42 hits in three games here. They had 14 extra-base hits, seven of them home runs. And then they went to Chicago and they scored four runs on 19 hits in three games at Wrigley. They had four extra-base hits and one home run. So that’s always going to be the case. You’re always going to have moments like that.

“But it’s not playing the same as it has over the last couple of years. Now, we’ve pitched (poorly), too, so that has certainly contributed to it. But the first game of the doubleheader the other day, Nicasio threw a fastball down and in at 95 (mph) to Carlos Lee and he hit a rocket into left-center and I went, ‘Gosh darn, I don’t know how that happened right there.'”

So I asked what fans have asked me: Is the humidor turned on? Did the Rocks forget to pay the electric bill?

“Oh, it’s the same setting and everything,” O’Dowd said. “Honestly, I wish we could turn that sucker up at times.”

I mentioned that far from the bounce-back effect we’ve seen with Hammel and Lindstrom in Baltimore, Ubaldo Jimenez has a higher ERA in Cleveland than he had in Colorado. Although the Indians’ massive run support has provided him with a respectable won-loss record of 5-4, his ERA is 5.79. Last year, his ERA in Cleveland after the trade was 5.10. Pitching for the Rockies, his 2011 ERA before the trade was 4.68. In 2010, his best year, it was 2.88.

“I know I’m taking a pounding, some of it justified, but man, where would we be if we had held onto Ubaldo?” O’Dowd asked. “Seriously, what would we have done?

“Right now, we’ve got (Joseph) Gardner pitching well in Double-A, (Matt) McBride is fourth in the (Pacific Coast League) in hitting, Pomeranz is a work in progress and with all White’s struggles, his numbers are better than Jimenez, pitching half his games in Coors Field!”

(White’s ERA is slightly higher, but his walk/strikeout ratio and baserunners-per-inning (WHIP) numbers are substantially better.)

The Rocks obtained all four in exchange for Jimenez.

Between the injuries and spontaneous implosions to veterans who were supposed to bridge the gap to the young pitching, the Rocks are force-feeding major league innings to young starters who are learning on the job. The club has little choice now but to ride those kids, for better or worse.

“I knew this was going to be a transition year,” O’Dowd said. “I never expected Jamie Moyer would last till June. We just looked at him as a guy to give us probably 10 starts at most until we could transition to someone else. But when you’re in the middle now trying to develop a pitching staff, there’s going to be good times and bad times. There’s a ton of ability here and there’s depth to it. We’ve just got to figure a way to get them over the hump, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Moscoso has four quality starts for the Sky Sox in his last four outings through May 24. I asked if it was time to give him another shot with the big league club.

“Yeah, we’re going to give him another shot,” O’Dowd said. “We’re not looking for miracles, we’re really just looking for somebody to come up here and throw consistent strikes. And I think we’re going to stretch Outman out a little bit, too. We’re going to back him up on Friday with Moyer and begin to stretch him out. Though we think he’s most suited to the bullpen, he does look like a duck out of water right now.

“One of the more discouraging things to me has been what’s happened with (Rex) Brothers, because other than the (Jonny) Venters guy in Atlanta, this kid should be one of the more dominant left-handed back-end guys in the game. And his meltdown this year was almost unexplainable to me, to be frank with you. Last season, he gave up one run in his last 16 innings. Started out this year OK, and then it’s been absolutely downhill ever since.”

I asked if it might be a product of overuse. Brothers made 22 appearances in the Rocks’ first 38 games before being sent down. On the other hand, pitching situationally in some of those appearances, he threw a total of 15.1 innings and never more than one inning per game.

“I don’t think so,” O’Dowd said. “I think it’s all mental. I think the kid had such a high expectation for himself as it relates to working into our closer role, I think he just got mentally locked up. I think he was certainly tired at times, but no, I think he’s more mentally tired than physically tired.”

On the bright side, in three outings for the Sky Sox, Brothers has pitched five innings and given up one run on three hits.

With three-fifths of the starting staff learning on the job, I asked if the veteran position players acquired during the offseason, particularly 36-year-old second baseman Marco Scutaro and 35-year-old catcher Ramon Hernandez, were now a mismatch for the young staff.

“I think there’s a misconception about this,” O’Dowd said. “We don’t have a young second baseman to turn to. I wasn’t comfortable going with Chris Nelson and didn’t really have any other alternatives. Jonny Herrera’s not an everyday player. The industry is bereft of second basemen to go get. So I don’t know really what our alternative would have been there.”

(The Rockies’ projected second baseman of the future, Josh Rutledge, turned 23 last month. He is batting .279 at Double-A Tulsa and looks to be at least a year away.)

“In Hernandez’s case, he was brought in for Rosario. He had just got done tutoring (Devin) Mesoraco in Cincinnati for two years, and we thought that Hernandez would be the perfect complement to Rosario as relates to Rosario’s development at the big-league level.

“So both things weren’t designed necessarily to put a championship club on the field. Heck, at the end of this year I’d like to bring Scutaro back. In Hernandez’s case, we feel we’ve got a young guy in Rosario who’s certainly got some rough edges we’ve got to work through and we feel we’ve got a guy here who’s a perfect mentor to him. (Chris) Iannetta would have never accepted that.”

I asked if veteran Will Nieves, recently called up to replace the injured Hernandez, might be a good complement to Rosario going forward.

“He could be. Same type of guy,” O’Dowd said. “I thought (assistant GM) Bill Geivett did a great job, he and (player development director Jeff) Bridich, in bringing Nieves back here. I think we’ve got good catching. That’s the shame of it. I really do think this is one of the better position-player clubs as far as how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.”

I asked how long it might be before Pomeranz gets another shot at the big-league level.

“Last night (Tuesday, May 29), he threw six innings, gave up nine hits, five of them were hit hard — I watched the game on MiLB.TV — he didn’t walk anybody and punched out seven. I thought he looked much more athletic. But we’re not going to bring him back here until we get his delivery back to the way he looked in Cleveland, not the way he looked here, because this was a 92 to 94, 95 (mph) guy throwing 88 to 90 here. He threw 91 last night, so it’s creeping back up. I’d love to have him back in the rotation by the beginning of July.”

And Chacin?

“Chacin’s injury, we got good news last week on it, which was it was not an artery problem like (Aaron) Cook. He has a nerve issue. Every time he went to cock and throw, there’s a nerve that runs right under your clavicle that was really almost cutting everything off on him. So we think we’ve found what was wrong, but now getting it right, I don’t know how long that’s going to take. I’m hoping we get him back right after the All-Star break, if he’s one of our better guys at that point. Eventually, we hope some of these kids start stepping up.”

I noted that O’Dowd is taking a lot of heat from unhappy fans.

“I’m used to that,” he said. “It’s my 30th year doing this. If I get (fired) at the end of the year, then it happens. There’s nothing I can do about that. I believe in what we’re doing. This is painful. I get it. But I like our players, I like what’s going on in our clubhouse, I like the ownership some of our players are taking, I like the lessons some of them are learning.

“So I think a lot of good things are going on. I never expected Pacheco to turn into this. Rosario to me is way ahead of schedule. EY has completely turned his career around, which has forced Dexter to step up or Dexter knows he’s going out. And I have to tell you, I couldn’t be more pleased with the LeMahieu-Colvin deal for (Ian) Stewart.

“Colvin, that kid can hit a fastball. He’s still got to learn to hit a breaking ball and change-up, but he absolutely can hit anybody’s fastball.

“I know it looks like crap. I just think we’re positioned really well. I think the Pomeranzes and the Whites and the Friedrichs and the Nicasios, I think a year from now we could have one of the best starting rotations in our division and it could last for a long time. If I don’t survive, then whoever’s going to take my job is going to be in a really good situation.”

This is what the Rockies have been waiting for

With his words, Rockies manager Jim Tracy has always been in Dexter Fowler’s corner. With his actions, not so much.

And who could blame him? He has a team to run, and ballgames to try to win. Fowler’s ceiling is sky-high. He could be Willie Wilson with power. And yet, for most of his four seasons in Colorado he has been a tease — hot and cold, fast and slow, one step forward and two steps back.

Despite graceful, long-legged speed that roamed the vast expanses of Coors Field like a deer, his stolen base success rate was lousy. No matter how much he practiced, he didn’t seem able to learn to bunt. His switch-hitting, learned relatively late in his development, seemed a perpetual experiment.

Finally, in the second half of last season, he seemed to put it together. After batting .238 before the All-Star break with no home runs, two stolen bases (caught six times) and an OPS of .688, he was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs, quite a rebuke for a 25-year-old veteran of three big league seasons.

When he returned to the big leagues, he looked like the player he was supposed to be, batting .288 with five homers, 10 steals (caught three times) and an OPS of .879. He had finally arrived, they said. Of course, they’d said that before.

Known for their patience, the Rocks finally grew impatient with a number of their homegrown position players after last season’s disappointing 73-89 finish, among them Ian Stewart, Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta, all of whom were traded during the offseason. But not Fowler. His second half of 2011, the club was convinced, was a preview of coming attractions.

But when he showed up at spring training, it was the same old story. He had regressed to Square One. His hands, which had come down in his batting stance after the 2011 midseason tutorial at Colorado Springs, were up high again. And, once again, he couldn’t hit. He batted .149 in the Cactus League. Tracy was forced to shelve the tentative 2012 lineup in which Fowler batted leadoff and served as the offensive catalyst.

The Rocks began the season with Fowler batting second, behind veteran Marco Scutaro. When that became a dead zone, Tracy dropped him to eighth.

His overall numbers weren’t terrible — he was batting .237 going into Monday’s Memorial Day doubleheader, with an OPS of .832 thanks to six home runs and 19 walks — but he had shown a bizarre knack for getting his hits when it mattered least. When the Rocks led or trailed by more than four runs, he was batting over .400. When the game was closer than that, he was batting below .200. He had driven in just one run that put his team ahead. By contrast, Todd Helton, batting just .230, had eight. Troy Tulowitzki had nine. Jason Giambi, a professional pinch-hitter, had three.

So Fowler was slowly losing playing time. Going into Memorial Day, he had started 33 of the Rocks’ 46 games. Tyler Colvin (eight) and Eric Young Jr. (five) had started the others in center field. As if to turn his struggles from the discouraging to the absurd, he had been limited to pinch-hitting duty for three days in Cincinnati last week after turning his ankle while jumping to celebrate a Carlos Gonzalez home run.

But with the Rockies swiftly sliding into oblivion in the National League West and Fowler having launched a pinch-hit homer in his final at-bat of the recent road trip — with the Rocks down only three, no less — Tracy took a shot in Monday’s opener and penciled him into his lineup to start a game in the leadoff spot for the first time this season.

Suddenly, as in time-lapse photography, the flower bloomed. He began the day with a home run and ended it, nearly nine hours later, with a walk-off, game-winning triple — twice as many go-ahead RBI in one day as he’d had the entire season. In between, he produced five other hits, including a bunt single that turned into three bases when his speed forced an errant throw. He also threw in a bases-loaded walk and a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt late in the nightcap.

In all, he was 7-for-9 with five runs scored and three driven in, raising his batting average from .237 to .276 and his OPS from .832 to .926. The Rocks swept the doubleheader. Suddenly, there was joy in Mudville. That’s how much difference Fowler can make.

“That looked like the Dexter Fowler that was running around out there the second half of last year, but maybe even a little bit more. That’s how good he was,” Tracy said.

“I’ve had some sit-downs with Dexter and I’ve been questioned from the media about the situation — you know, him, Eric Young Jr., Tyler Colvin. I’m a big believer in Dexter Fowler, as you guys well know. I’ve stepped to the forefront and said that I firmly believe that this kid’s going to figure it out and he’s going to do it. And when he performs at the level that he performed at today, we’re that much better a club offensively. There’s so many things that he can do. The bunt that he laid down, it creates havoc, he’s so fast. He runs from home to third on a bunt that gets past the first baseman. This is the player that we think he’s capable of being on a regular basis, and not spotty. He can do this on a day-in, day-out basis. He’s very capable of it.”

Sure he can. But will he? The Rocks preach patience in all things, whether it’s Fowler, the young pitching staff or their own front office, which is under increasing fire from unhappy fans. Of course, it was under increasing fire from unhappy fans throughout the early aughts, too. That’s when the organization, under general manager Dan O’Dowd, shifted from the model of acquiring established players that worked well early on (Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker) but not so well later (Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle), to a model of growing its own talent.

It took years for the rebuilt player development system to begin producing, and the early aughts were a wasteland. O’Dowd should have been fired at least a dozen times along the way, if you listened to his critics. But when Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Jeff Francis and Ubaldo Jimenez led them to the 2007 World Series, the organization’s patience through the dead years was rewarded.

Today, once again, O’Dowd and the front office are under fire. Today, once again, they are counseling patience. We don’t know yet whether they will be proven right about the young crop of starting pitchers that is putting up cringe-worthy numbers at the moment. The Rocks’ team ERA of 5.18 is worst in the National League by nearly three-quarters of a run.

Of 23-year-old Alex White, who gave up six runs and 10 hits in five innings to raise his earned-run average to 6.28 in Monday’s nightcap, Tracy said this:

“He hung in there, just like he did in the game in Florida. He didn’t break. Until we can get to the point where we get lower numbers and much deeper into the game, that’s what we ask of these young kids: ‘Don’t break. Don’t let the game get out of hand and we’ll keep learning and we’ll keep growing together. But don’t let the game get out of hand.’ He’s done it twice. (Christian) Friedrich did it Friday night against Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati. And we’ve won those ballgames.”

If Fowler becomes the consistent, multifaceted offensive weapon he could be, he will serve as Exhibit A for the organization’s commitment to patience. What distinguished him from Stewart, Smith and Iannetta in the eyes of the organization was not just the ceiling, it was also the attitude. One of the most likable professional athletes on the planet, Fowler has never sulked or griped about his ups and downs. His desire was obvious during the celebration that followed his game-winning triple in the 19th and final inning of the long holiday doubleheader.

“Tears of joy . . . I was excited,” he said. “I had one walk-off hit before, but nothing like this, from what I’ve battled through this year, and what the team has battled through.”

At 19-29, the Rocks are still a long way from where they thought they’d be at this point. But the offense that scored 16 runs in two games Monday showed the sort of explosiveness the organization imagined when it reconstructed the roster over the winter.

“I think it’s very safe to say that offensively, we felt this way,” Tracy said. “We felt we had a good offensive club, and it’s beginning to play itself out that way.”

The key word being “beginning.” Fowler broke out Monday with the best day of his professional career. Now comes what has always been the hardest part for him — keeping it going.

A Colorado original

He is such a familiar presence on the Denver media landscape that it’s easy to forget just how unusual and varied Dave Logan’s list of career accomplishments is. But the Denver Athletic Club’s announcement this week that it will honor him with its Career Achievement Award next month was a timely reminder.

I first met Logan in the summer of 1984, just after the Broncos acquired him from the Cleveland Browns for a fourth-round draft choice. Although we were born the same year, he was an old NFL receiver and I was a young sportswriter.

Entering his ninth season as an NFL possession receiver, Logan had a reputation for great hands and the courage to catch balls over the middle and take the vicious hits that came with them. Because of his height and athletic ability, the Browns occasionally used him as a safety in Hail Mary situations, which accounts for the lone interception on his resume, off Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski.

He was coming home to a place where he had starred at Wheat Ridge High School, winning the Denver Post‘s Gold Helmet Award as the state’s top senior football player, scholar and citizen, and at the University of Colorado, where he lettered in both football and basketball. He was drafted by baseball’s Cincinnati Reds as a high school senior, and by the Browns and basketball’s Kansas City Kings as a college senior. Dave Winfield is the only other athlete to be drafted in all three sports.

The prospect of coming home was so attractive to him that he lobbied the Browns to make the deal, but his return did not work out as he had hoped. Why Broncos coach Dan Reeves traded for him was never really clear. He stuck him behind Steve Watson, the Broncos’ top receiver, where he seldom got a chance to play. In four games, Logan caught one pass for three yards after catching 37 for 627 the season before.

Strangely, Reeves then moved him to H-back, the Broncos’ second tight end, a position Logan had never played. In his first game there, against his former team, Logan was asked to block Pro Bowl linebacker Chip Banks, then blamed for not doing it successfully.

No wide receiver would ever have been given such an assignment. Logan, it seemed, was being set up. Four weeks into the season, Reeves cut him.

Logan had every right to be bitter. He had been the Browns’ leading receiver in 1983. He had come home for this?

The yellowed clipping from the Rocky Mountain News is dated Sept. 27, 1984. Here’s a passage from the perplexed piece I wrote at the time:

Logan, who never uttered a discouraging word despite finding himself a fourth (or fifth) receiver after seven years of starting in Cleveland, would not knock the Broncos even after he was waived Wednesday.

“The only thing I can understand from the whole situation is for a guy that’s played eight years, if they weren’t going to give me any playing time, it would be better for the team to bring in a young receiver they could develop,” he said. “If I were on their side, I would feel the same way.”

I tried to get him to rip Reeves, believe me. He wouldn’t do it. This was my first experience watching Logan take the high road. It would not be my last.

We pay a lot of attention these days, as we should, to the difficulties former players have when their careers are over. So many of them struggle to find an identity beyond what they used to be. Everybody’s All-American, the Frank Deford novel later made into a movie starring Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange, captures the sadness of a life lived in the rearview mirror.

Logan never looked back. Rather than chase a fading playing career in the usual way, trying to make another team in training camp the following summer, Logan settled down in his hometown and started looking around for a new career. The things he has accomplished since would each be a highly satisfying life for many of us. That they are combined on one resume is extraordinary.

He began his media career as a radio talk show host, a role he continues today, more than 20 years later, as host of the Dave Logan Show on 850 KOA. He parlayed his background as a former player to become a color analyst on Nuggets and Broncos broadcasts and telecasts.

In 1996 he broke out of the stereotype by moving from the analyst’s chair to the play-by-play chair on Broncos broadcasts. This fall will mark his 17th as the voice of the Broncos. Catch a Broncos highlight on national TV, whether it’s John Elway from the championship years or Tim Tebow from last season, and it’s Logan’s trademark call you’ll hear on the voiceover.

For lots of folks in my trade, the media business, this would be a hugely successful career all by itself, without the talk show or the history as a player. There are only 32 local NFL play-by-play voices, and many fewer than that who last long enough to become institutions in the role.

But long ago, Logan also began indulging his passion for the game and for young people in another way. He kicked off his high school coaching career at Arvada West in 1993, moved to Chatfield in 2000 and Mullen in 2003. This fall, he begins a new chapter in his coaching career at Cherry Creek.

In 19 seasons, he has taken his teams to the playoffs 17 times and won six championships in the state’s highest classification. It’s well known that he donates his coaching salary to his assistants.

Each of these careers — as a player, a coach and a media personality — has been remarkably successful in its own right. That they have all been accomplished by the same person would be hard to imagine if Logan didn’t make it look so easy. As we know from watching the best athletes perform, that’s the mark of the great ones.

“Dave is arguably the most versatile and accomplished sportsman produced in Colorado,” Broncos vice president and unofficial Colorado sports historian Jim Saccomano posted on Twitter when he heard about the DAC’s decision to bestow its Career Achievement Award.

“Logan is the only prep coach in history to win six state titles in the highest classification of play with three separate schools in one state,” Saccomano wrote. “That stat is for all 50 states. Next highest is a coach with three titles. Logan has six. That’s an astonishing statistic.”

Saccomano did not make this up. A couple of years ago, he had Broncos media relations folks call the high school athletic associations of all 50 states to see if anybody else had won titles at the highest classification with three different schools. They found one who had done it. He had a total of three titles.

Here’s another piece of research courtesy of the veteran Broncos publicist: Only three former NFL players have made the transition from color analyst to play-by-play man — Pat Summerall, the late Tom Brookshier and Dave Logan. That makes Logan the only former player doing play-by-play today.

As his current partner on the talk show, I have a front row seat to his influence in Colorado. Not a week goes by when at least one fan doesn’t call to thank him for the thrills his Broncos calls have provided. When Mullen unaccountably let him go earlier this year, he was flooded with missives from former players and parents of would-be future players. The impact he had on these people, and the emotions they expressed about it, were sometimes overwhelming.

As he did when the Broncos cut him nearly 28 years ago, Logan took the high road. He offered not a word of criticism of his former employer. He urged angry Mullen students and parents to calm down. It’s the way he was raised and the way he’s wired: In everything you do, show class.

He is a fiercely loyal son and father. He could have been on at least two NFL coaching staffs if he had different priorities. As someone fortunate enough to call him a friend, his unbending sense of right and wrong is the most impressive thing about him, even more than any of the career accomplishments for which he’ll be honored.

Living in a world with more than its share of glad-handers and self-promoters — and if you’re wondering whether I’m talking about athletes, coaches, school administrators or media types, the answer is yes — Logan’s idea of the right way to live is deeply old-school. Bring up his achievements and he will swiftly change the subject. Ask for a memory and he will almost certainly give you a funny, self-deprecating one.

I didn’t tell him I was going to write this because if I had, he would have asked me not to. But just think about the exclusive clubs of which he’s a member: One of only two men in the nation to have been drafted in three sports; one of only three former NFL players to become NFL play-by-play voices; the only high school coach to have amassed six championships in his state’s highest classification at three different schools.

Saccomano and the DAC are right. His achievements put Logan in a class by himself. But it’s the values he’s maintained along the way that make him a Colorado original.

Broncos summer school: Peyton Manning 101

Last summer, when we got our first chance to see the 2011 Broncos on a practice field following the NFL lockout, the quarterbacks were Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow and Adam Weber.

Monday, when we got our first chance to see the 2012 Broncos on a practice field, the quarterbacks were Peyton Manning, Caleb Hanie, Brock Osweiler and . . . Adam Weber.

If you conclude from this that Weber is the veteran of this year’s group, welcome back from your trip to Neptune. Hope it was fun.

Change is a constant in the NFL, but not like this. In sixteen months, John Elway has remade the Broncos in his image, and nowhere is it more obvious than at his old position. In a single offseason, the Broncos went from an early 20th century option offense to a thoroughly 21st century aerial attack.

“Now’s when you kind of form the identity of your football team,” Manning said following Monday’s workout, the only one of three days of organized team activities this week the inquiring minds were permitted to watch. “I’m looking forward to being part of that.”

The change in the offense was obvious to even the casual observer. Near the end of a one hour, 45-minute workout, Manning led the offense in the no-huddle, two-minute drill, reading the defense on the fly and hitting open receivers in the numbers or hands, most of them check-down routes.

“I’ve always believed that you develop your timing for the passing game in the offseason,” Manning said. “I don’t think you can just show up in September and expect to be on the same page. What a great opportunity for these receivers going against these corners. If you can’t get better going against some of these top cover corners, it’s just not meant to be. It’s a great challenge for everybody. Offseason workouts are a great time to make an impression on the coaches. This is where roster spots are made and the coaches are constantly evaluating. So there are a lot of benefits to this work.”

In the excitement over Elway’s overhaul of the offense, it’s easy to overlook the addition of veteran cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Drayton Florence to the roster. Along with holdover Champ Bailey, they give the Broncos a much-improved cover capacity that should test the team’s young receivers as the offense comes together this summer.

Two receivers begin with the advantage of having worked with Manning in Indianapolis — tight end Jacob Tamme, who caught one of his throws in the two-minute drill, and slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who, like Manning, will be 36 by the time training camp opens.

“Tamme and I had a talk today,” Manning said. “We were both excited about this practice, probably more excited than most other guys. It’s a new team for us, a new place. Stokley, this is his second stint here. But this is an exciting time. (Offensive Coordinator Mike) McCoy was great about, ‘Hey, we’re working hard, this is serious business, but it’s important to be excited out there, to be encouraged, enthusiastic and have fun.’

“I think we’ll do that all through OTAs and minicamp. I thought the tempo of practice was excellent. Guys were flying around, a fast-moving practice, upbeat—that’s the way I like to work. It was good to see that from everybody today.”

Manning was barking orders during the hurry-up offense just as he did for so many years with the Colts, motioning players into position.

“He’s not bashful, let’s just put it that way,” Stokley said with a smile.

“Guys that command the respect of their teammates can do that,” Tamme said. “He’s a guy you know is going to do everything he can to be his best every day. That’s what you want in a quarterback — a guy that leads, and he’s certainly one of the best.”

Manning’s former teammates seem more comfortable letting him do the talking, which is another example of the tone set by many team leaders in sports. For example, when I asked Stokley about the differences between the new Broncos offense and the old Colts offense, he politely demurred.

“No comment on that,” he said. “I mean, why would I tell you that? That’s just going to help the other teams out. Everybody will just have to wait and see.”

Manning was somewhat more expansive on this topic. The new Broncos offense, he said, is not simply a transplant of the old Colts offense.

“You’ve got different terminology and different players,” he said. “There’s no question it’s different. So the more repetition you get — I do feel on-the-field reps are the best type of reps. There’s classroom work, which is important, you have to study and take your notes, but there’s nothing quite like being out there on the field, executing the play, going against fast defensive players like Von (Miller) and Champ. That’s the best way to learn, in my opinion.”

Bailey, along with Elvis Dumervil, was one of the Broncos’ leading lobbyists while Manning was determining his destination as a free agent. Anxious to compete for a championship in the final years of his career, Bailey believes the new quarterback puts the Broncos on a different level.

“It feels good to know he’s going to be on my side,” the eleven-time Pro Bowl selection said. “What I saw today, he’s going to give us some good work. We might not see a quarterback like that all year. It’s going to be something that’s going to get us prepared for games.”

Manning continued to avoid talking specifically about his recovery from the multiple neck surgeries that kept him out of action all last year, but he acknowledged that missing a full season means he has some catching up to do.

“I certainly have different checkpoints,” he said. “I kind of like (getting) hit. There’s no question that this work will be significant for me, because going against air is one thing, but getting the snap — for me, there’s the physical challenge and the mental challenge of being able to execute these new plays, knowing where these new receivers are going to be and also seeing what you can do.

“There’s no question it’s a different mentality for me in these OTAs (than) it has been in other years because of all the changes. But I look forward to the challenge. I just can’t tell you how important these OTAs are. I think they’re important for everybody, but when you’re a new player on a new team coming off an injury, they take on added importance. I thought today was an excellent start and I look forward to the rest of the time we’re here.”

Manning continues to describe his recovery as a process. Watching him throw, it was hard to distinguish him from the player we saw for so many years with the Colts.

“This injury has been a new experience for me,” he said. “I’m following the orders of ‘Greek’ (Broncos trainer Steve Antonopulos) and (strength and conditioning Coach) Luke (Richesson), who have been excellent in my rehab and training. I’m taking their orders. I realize I still have work to do. But any time you can go out there and go through a practice, make a good throw or if you have a mistake you can learn from it, I think that’s progress. I still have work to do, like I’ve said all along, but I look forward to making that progress and putting the work in to make that progress.”

The organization is a little less cautious describing his progress.

“Dealing with the physical part, he’s getting better every day,” coach John Fox said. “It’s something we felt good about, our medical people felt good about. His progress has been outstanding. We’re excited about where he is.”

Elway was on the field for most of Monday’s workout, standing alongside Manning during one period when other quarterbacks were running the drills. Seldom has so much quarterbacking expertise occupied such a small space. In the space of his sixteen months in charge, Elway has changed the Broncos dramatically, and the direction and purpose of that change is personified by Manning.

“I think you guys got to see him today,” Tamme said. “Things are going well. I’m not going to speak for him, but it’s been fun. Offensively, I think we’ve got a chance to be good if we just keep working hard.”

“It’s different when you’ve got Peyton back there playing quarterback than most quarterbacks,” Stokley said. “Everything’s a little bit more precise, a little bit more uptempo. It’s just like I remember.”

Rockies’ dilemma: Hope or change?

Sunday’s in-game conversation on Twitter was all about the Rockies needing to do something dramatic to get out of a funk that dropped them to 15-25 on the season as the lowly Seattle Mariners completed a three-game sweep with a 6-4 victory at Coors Field.

Fire somebody. Rewrite the lineup. Something.

The post-game conversation in the clubhouse was all about the Rockies as currently constituted needing to get it together in a hurry.

“There’s no Lombardi speech you can give,” said veteran Jason Giambi. “We’ve just got to try to win one game and make it that simple. I mean, we can’t play any worse than we have. We need to pick it up and win tomorrow. And then win the next day. I think we can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

Manager Jim Tracy was more succinct:

“Obviously, we’re in a rut, and we have to dig ourselves out,” he said. “That’s what we have to do. We’ve got 122 chances to do it.”

That would be the number of games remaining on the schedule. So there’s plenty of time, but the trend is not their friend. The Rocks were 12-12 on May 2. Since then, they are 3-13.

Todd Helton, who saw his batting average fall to .219 on Sunday, stood at home plate in the bottom of the ninth with the tying runs on base and two out. He struck out for the third consecutive time to end the game. I asked him afterward what the strike three pitch was.

“A fastball right down the middle,” he said. “It was about the only pitch I saw all day that I felt like I was on. I was waiting to hear a sound and I never did.”

Tracy said it was just a slump, like the one right fielder Michael Cuddyer was in (0-for-13 on the homestand) before breaking out with a single and two doubles Sunday. But when you’re three months from your 39th birthday, as Helton is, every slump comes with additional questions: Is this it? Remember Dale Murphy? Should the Rocks be anticipating the end by moving somebody else into the No. 5 hole in the lineup?

Then again, the No. 4 hitter isn’t doing much better, and he’s only 27. Nearly two months into the season, Troy Tulowitzki has four homers and 16 RBI.

“I don’t think Troy’s in a very good place right now offensively,” Tracy said of his shortstop, who came up with two on and one out in the ninth, just before Helton, and hit a harmless ground ball to third.

The Rocks got three-hit days from Carlos Gonzalez and Cuddyer but did not benefit from any compounding effect because they were separated in the lineup by the combined 0-for-8 of Tulo and Helton. CarGo and Cuddyer never came up in the same inning.

Hence my own modest proposal, Cuddyer’s recent slump notwithstanding: Move Tulo and Helton down in the order until they get their swings back. Move Cuddyer into the No. 4 hole and Tyler Colvin into the No. 5 hole, at least against right-handers, as long as he’s hitting well.

“It’s just hard to smile right now,” said Gonzalez, who had a single, double and home run out of the No. 3 hole to increase his team-leading totals to eight jacks and 32 RBI.

“It doesn’t matter what you do out there. Not being able to win is difficult. It’s tough for me, it’s tough for everyone else in this clubhouse. We’re a talented team but we’re just not playing really good baseball. We need to start playing better defensively. We’re making little mistakes that cost runs. At the end of the game, that’s when you see the difference. All those runs that we give away, that costs you at the end of the game.”

Sunday, it was a botched defense against a stolen base attempt in the first inning. With Mariners leadoff man Dustin Ackley on third, cleanup man Kyle Seager on first and two out, Seager took off for second. Rookie catcher Wilin Rosario let loose with a wild throw to the shortstop side of the bag. Ackley broke from third. Second baseman Marco Scutaro came off the bag to spear the errant throw, then let loose a wild throw of his own back to the plate. It sailed wide of Rosario and Seattle had its first run. The Mariners plated another two-out run with a walk and a single before the Rocks finally escaped the top of the first, trailing 2-0.

When I asked Gonzalez what else he was referring to, he pointed out the team’s usual problems playing fundamental baseball.

“If there’s a guy on second base, we can’t be making big swings instead of just moving the runner,” he said. “That’s a free run for us. We always push the pedal at the end, but we’re going to fall short if we don’t do that early in the game. We had a couple opportunities with a runner on second and if you don’t get that guy to third base with no outs, you’re making it a lot more difficult for the guy right next to you. It’s always going to be that way if you don’t play smart baseball. That’s what I mean saying we need to play better baseball.”

Two cases Sunday fit his description. Cuddyer singled and stole second leading off the bottom of the second. Rosario followed with a big swing strikeout and Cuddyer never advanced beyond second. Eric Young Jr. singled and stole second leading off the fifth. Scutaro pulled a ground ball to short and Young had to stay put. He never advanced beyond second, either. Find a way to small-ball those runners home and the two runs the Rocks scored in the ninth are enough to tie it.

Which brings us to the starting pitching, the Rockies’ black hole so far. It let them down again Sunday. Away from Coors Field, veteran Jeremy Guthrie has been all general manager Dan O’Dowd hoped he would be (2-0, 1.86 ERA) when he acquired him from Baltimore last winter. At Coors Field, after Sunday’s outing, he is 0-2 with a 9.92 ERA.

Everybody knows about the challenges of pitching at high altitude, so I asked Guthrie if Coors Field presents problems for him.

“I haven’t pitched very well here so I can’t necessarily judge it by the field,” he said. “I just know I haven’t executed nearly enough pitches when I’ve pitched here, both falling behind guys and making poor pitches ahead in the count.”

Not sure if he understood the question, I asked if it’s harder to execute his pitches at Coors.

“It doesn’t seem any harder,” he said. “I mean, I haven’t done it as consistently as I have in the past, but I don’t know that it’s inherently any more difficult to do it here than it would be at another mound. It’s pretty much the same game.”

Many of the fixes that unhappy fans want wouldn’t necessarily change anything immediately. Fire Tracy, fire O’Dowd, fire pitching coach Bob Apodaca. It is the players on this year’s roster that are putting up the season’s dreary numbers, and you can’t fire them; at least, not all of them.

When O’Dowd fired Clint Hurdle in 2009, it was just six games later in the year (they were 18-28). But it was Hurdle’s eighth season at the helm and O’Dowd decided his voice had grown stale in the clubhouse. Tracy is in just his fourth season and there is no sign the front office has similar fears about him.

Firing Apodaca would suggest management believes the team’s pitching woes track back to the pitching coach. Fans tend to give coaches much more responsibility for players’ performances than team officials, who know just how often players pay attention to coaches and just how often they don’t. Still, if the club decides unhappy fans need a gesture, Apodaca might be the sacrificial lamb. The Rocks do have the worst team ERA in the National League.

Blaming O’Dowd makes the most sense because he assembled the roster that has performed so poorly so far. But front office firings seldom occur during the season and it’s only fair to point out that O’Dowd also built the Rockies teams that went to the playoffs two out of the past five seasons.

So for now, it’s on the players O’Dowd assembled. At 38, can Helton bounce back? At 27, will Tulowitzki ever learn to play within himself? Will some combination of young starting pitchers figure it out as the season goes on?

“We’re not playing well,” Helton said. “You’re obviously going to put more pressure on yourself to go out and win some games. We just need to start playing a little better. There’s no other way to put it.”

Hope is winning the argument now because there’s not that much of significance you can change during the season. But if hope doesn’t pan out, change is coming.

NBA put its thumb on the scale for the Lakers

From the beginning, it was a strange suspension.

For one thing, former players who often take players’ side in these things were surprised it wasn’t longer.

“I think he deserved more . . . maybe ten games,” said TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal.

For another, the number was an odd one, and not just in retrospect. When NBA commissioner David Stern announced on April 24 that Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, would serve a seven-game suspension for a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City’s James Harden, the Lakers had one regular-season game remaining. You didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to do the math.

“I knew it was going to be the first round of the playoffs,” TNT’s Charles Barkley said that night. “I don’t think that’s a fair or unfair suspension. If it was ten games, that would’ve been fair. I knew it was going to be between five and ten, but I’m surprised they didn’t make it just the first round of the playoffs because he could come back for a Game 7.”

My memory is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve been covering the NBA since 1988 and cannot remember a previous instance when a disciplinary edict from the league office suddenly injected a significant player into a playoff series that was even through six games.

And make no mistake: Artest’s return Saturday night tipped the balance of this first-round series the Lakers’ way. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to his coach.

“We all played well, but I’d be remiss if I did not talk about Metta,” Mike Brown said after the Lakers’ 96-87 victory dashed the Nuggets’ hopes of a first-round upset.

“He was huge tonight. We put him on (Danilo) Gallinari, we put him on Andre Miller, we put him back on Gallinari, we put him back on Andre Miller, and his presence helped out a lot. I didn’t realize that Andre Miller and Gallinari were a combined 2-for-19.

“He’s long, he’s physical. He knows how to play different positions defensively, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, post-up, pin-down game. But he made some plays tonight. He went in for a steal or something like that, he was out of position, and then he sunk back into the paint and tipped the ball away. I mean, he made plays tonight that won’t show up in the stat sheet that were absolutely freaking amazing for us defensively. Just his presence alone helped us out. And that’s what we missed the first six games.

“Having said that, you’ve got to give our guys credit because they stepped up and found a way to win those games without him. But he was monstrous for us tonight. Monstrous, on both ends of the floor.”

Monstrous. Interesting choice of words. Imagine how history might have changed if Stern had done what Barkley and many others expected, ruling Artest out for the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets had won Games 5 and 6. The momentum seemed to be flowing their way.

Even without Brown’s testimony, Artest’s influence on the outcome of Game 7 was unmistakeable. In the forty-three minutes, forty-one seconds he played, the Lakers beat the Nuggets by eighteen points, meaning that in the four minutes, nineteen seconds he didn’t play, the Nuggets won by nine. Artest’s plus 18 was the best plus/minus number for any player on either team.

So the question demands to be asked: Did Stern purposely make the suspension seven games, not the first round of the playoffs, in order to give one of the league’s marquee teams, in one of its largest television markets, an insurance policy in case it was forced to a critical Game 7 in the first round?

Barkley wasn’t the only one who noticed the subtle difference between a seven-game punishment with one regular-season game remaining and simply ruling Artest out of the first round, however long it lasted. About ninety minutes before Game 7, Nuggets coach George Karl was asked whether the suspension that allowed Artest to jump into the series at its most critical moment was appropriate.

“I don’t know what the appropriate one is, but I just don’t understand seven,” Karl said. “Why seven? Why not the end of the series? Why seven? It really feels uncomfortable in the last thirty-six hours, twenty-four hours. We’ve spent so much time on ‘what if.’ What are they going to do? I’m not sure they know what they’re going to do with him. I know we’re going to be the reactor, which is something I’m not thinking is necessarily making me happy right now.”

For those who tend toward conspiracy theories, the officiating in the series will provide more encouragement. And frankly, the complaints are difficult to refute. The Nuggets led the NBA in free throw attempts during the regular season at 26.7 per game. The Lakers ranked ninth at 24.1.

In their playoff series, it was the Lakers who led in free throw attempts. They got 158 in seven games, or 22.6 per. The Nuggets got 142, or 20.3. That put the Lakers 1.5 below their season average; the Nuggets were 6.4 below theirs. That’s a reduction in Nuggets free throw attempts of nearly 24 percent from regular season to playoffs.

Is this because the Nuggets suddenly got less aggressive against the Lakers? Not at all. In fact, there was a strange pattern to the free throw attempts. Through the first three games, the Nuggets led, as their reliance on penetration suggested they would. They had 72 free throw attempts through three games, or 24 per game.

From there, the foul shots awarded to Denver suddenly fell precipitously. They got 70 in the final four games, an average of just 17.5, or a remarkable 9.2 fewer than their regular season average. The Lakers, by contrast, got 61 through the first three, or 20.3 per, and then 97 in the final four, an average of 24.3, which was slightly greater than their regular season average.

This difference was most noticeable in the final two games of the series, when the Lakers were awarded 53 free throws to the Nuggets’ 31. That’s an amazing differential considering the two teams split these games and the Nuggets’ aggressive style produced the most foul shots in the association during the regular season.

Karl tried not to dwell on it, but following Game 7, when the Nuggets shot just 14 free throws to the Lakers’ 23, he seemed clearly exasperated.

“The game was so physical,” he said. “I mean, it was so, bang, push, shove, grab, hold, that I think their size won over our speed.”

Do you really have to be a conspiracy nut to observe that the statistics suggest the league’s representatives on the floor tilted increasingly toward the Lakers as the series went along?

Maybe so. Call me a homer if you like. I’ve never been fond of reflexive complaints about bias in officiating. I tend to believe incompetence is a more likely explanation than conspiracy for poor officiating. In fact, I used to publish an annual list of the NBA’s ten worst referees — alongside the ten best — in the Rocky Mountain News.

But among the factors that contribute to bad officiating in the NBA is the tendency to favor stars — the Lakers have three; the Nuggets, none — as well as a subconscious tendency to favor historically successful teams over historically unsuccessful ones. You don’t have to believe in an explicit conspiracy to believe that referees subconsciously favored the Lakers, and that this tendency increased as the series went along.

Call it sour grapes if you like. I know Lakers fans will. But when you combine the strange term of Artest’s suspension with the inexplicable turnaround in the pattern of foul calls, I’m telling you, there are folks in Denver who will be wondering what happened here for quite some time.

A generation later, George Karl switches sides

It was the most surprising, inspiring victory in the long and not particularly accomplished history of the Denver Nuggets. And it completed one of the great postseason upsets in the NBA to that point — the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs.

On the other hand, George Karl, who was coaching the No. 1 seed that day, calls it “the worst loss of my life,” which is saying something.

I was there that Sunday afternoon, at the old Seattle Coliseum, so I went down to the basement and dug out the original game book. It is a little more than eighteen years old now. The officials were Jess Kersey, Dick Bavetta and Jack Nies. Bavetta, unbelievably, is still officiating at the age of seventy-two.

Karl remembers it as “Mutombo beating us in Seattle,” perhaps because the iconic image is the Nuggets center lying on the hardwood when the overtime was done, holding the basketball above his head with both hands, a delighted grin on his face. With fifteen rebounds and eight blocked shots, Dikembe Mutombo did, indeed, play a major role.

But the stars for the Nuggets that afternoon were reserves. Point guard Robert Pack came off the bench to replace an ineffective Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and led them with twenty-three points on eight-for-fifteen shooting, including three of five three-pointers.

The late Brian Williams, who would change his name to Bison Dele before being murdered by his brother eight years later, put up seventeen points and nineteen rebounds in thirty-four minutes off the bench, the most inspired performance of his career. When I asked him afterward what had gotten into him, he looked at me as if astonished it wasn’t obvious: “That was desire!” he said.

Eighteen years later, the Nuggets have a chance to add another improbable first-round upset to their resume, this time with Karl coaching for them instead of against them. His syntax was somewhat twisted as he reflected on that Thursday night after the Nuggets beat the Lakers to even their series at three games apiece, but his sentiment was not:

“I’m just hoping to become Denver Nugget history, (from) the worst loss of my life to hopefully the best win in Denver Nugget history. The worst loss is Mutombo beating us in Seattle, and maybe I can put another one up on the board that rocks history a little bit.”

To do it, the Nuggets will need exactly what they brought to the Seattle Coliseum that day a generation ago: Desire. They will need to want it more. They will need to play with the audacity of conviction and make the Lakers, like the Sonics on May 7, 1994, struggle with the weight of expectations and gathering gloom.

“You’ve got two histories against you,” Karl said. “You’ve got Game 7 and you’ve got 3-1 series. You’ve got both of them working against you. I think we might be too young to understand all that, so I might keep it away from them. I’m not sure we’re going to talk a lot about anything except the energy of the game and how important it is to us.”

Historically, the road team wins Game 7 about twenty percent of the time. The last time a team came from a three-games-to-one series deficit to win was six years ago, when the Suns did it . . . to the Lakers. In ten tries, the Nuggets have never done it.

Since frittering away their series lead, the Lakers have engaged in some finger-pointing. Coach Mike Brown and star Kobe Bryant have blamed big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. For Game 7, L.A. gets back the former Ron Artest, who changed his name to Metta World Peace in an Orwellian response to his history of violence, most recently enhanced by a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden. His seven-game suspension ended with Game 6.

“We’ve got to continue to get to the paint, we’ve got to hopefully fall into the three ball a little bit more than it has been in the first five games and defend them better than we did (in Game 6),” said Karl, who turns sixty-one today. “And if we do all that stuff, I think it’ll be a fourth-quarter game and we’ll figure out how to beat that closer system that you guys have said we can’t win because we don’t have a closer.”

That’s a reference to the knock on the Nuggets at the end of close games since trading Carmelo Anthony in the middle of last season. Playing with a deep ensemble cast, they have demonstrated the unpredictable virtues of true team basketball. At the same time, it’s never quite clear who they want to take the big shot at the end of games. If Ty Lawson is hot, as he was in Game 6, it would surely be him. If Danilo Gallinari is on, it might be him. Just as likely, it’s whoever’s open.

The last time the Nuggets played a Game 7 was also eighteen years ago, in the series that followed their upset of Karl’s Sonics. The Utah Jazz won the first three games of their best-of-seven, second-round series, then the Nuggets roared back to win three straight, just as they had come back from a two-games-to-none deficit to tie the Sonics series.

Game 7 was in Salt Lake City on May 21, 1994. The Nuggets shot poorly and fell behind early, trailing by seven after one quarter, by eight at halftime and by fifteen after three quarters. They did their best to narrow the gap in the fourth, but Utah prevailed, 91-81. Karl Malone had thirty-one points, fourteen rebounds and six assists, playing all but two minutes of the game.

Eighteen years later, Karl hopes to improve his record to 1-1 in memorable Nuggets playoff upsets.

“I just want to help them,” he said. “My whole goal in Game 7 is coach ’em up and help ’em have a chance to kick somebody and make history. It’d be fun. It’d be fun for me. It’ll be a great opportunity. It’s been a great challenge.”

Lakers play the blame game

It’s in the nature of athletes to cover for one another. From the earliest age, they are taught it’s one of the obligations that comes with being a member of a team.

But after consecutive losses to the Nuggets turned a comfortable series lead in the first round of the NBA playoffs into a loser-go-home Game 7 on Saturday, the Lakers decided playing nice isn’t working. Their two leading spokesmen, coach Mike Brown and star Kobe Bryant, laid the blame squarely at the feet of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Exhausted after a day spent fighting both gastroenteritis and the Nuggets, Bryant said the Lakers’ big men would need a new “mind state” for the club to advance.

“Kobe, being dehydrated and all that, and sick as a dog, coming out and trying to will us to a win, it’s disappointing to watch him give that type of effort, trying on both ends of the floor, getting on the floor after loose balls, and we don’t get it from everybody,” Brown said late Thursday night, after the Nuggets blew out the Lakers in Game 6, 113-96.

“Our second- and third-best players are Drew and Pau, and the reality of it is both those guys have got to play better in order for us to win. We’re going to have a tough time winning if we get the same type of production, not just offensively, but on the defensive end of the floor, too. For the first time, we were really, really bad with our pick-and-roll coverage. (The Nuggets) got what they wanted.

“Especially in the third quarter, we maybe did the pick-and-roll coverage correctly eight percent of the time, if that. We’ve got to do a better job. It has to matter for us. We’re going to have to work harder. And we’re going to have to want to get the job done to protect your teammates. If we get the same type of effort, it’s going to be a long night for us on Saturday.”

Asked if he agreed with Brown’s assessment of the Lakers’ big men, Bryant didn’t mince words.

“Of course I agree with that,” he said. “I talked with Pau a little bit after the game. I’ll speak with Andrew as well. It’s one of those things where psychologically you have to put yourself in a predicament, in a position, where you have no other option but to perform. You have to emotionally put yourself with your back against the wall and kind of trick yourself, so to speak, to feel that there’s no other option but to perform and to battle.

“When you put yourself in that mindset, your performance shines through and your talent shines through. It doesn’t matter what the defense does, it doesn’t matter if you get fouled; it doesn’t matter because you’re emotionally at a level that is above that. That’s the mind state that they have to put themselves in.”

This may be the best articulation I’ve heard of Bryant’s competitive mindset, and why he is generally so dismissive of questions about the defensive effort against him, as he was when I asked him about Danilo Gallinari’s length after Game 3.

Bynum’s statistics in Game 6 weren’t awful — eleven points, sixteen rebounds, four blocked shots, three assists, no turnovers. Gasol’s were — three points on one-for-ten shooting, three rebounds, one block, one assist and one steal in twenty-nine minutes. But Brown emphasized he was talking mostly about aspects of the game that are not measured by the stats.

“Their bigs in transition are just beating our bigs down the floor, and our bigs aren’t running hard enough to stay with them,” the Lakers coach said. “In the beginning of the series, they were. They were running with them and you could see there was a sense of urgency to get back.

“They’ve been getting beat down the floor and so our guards are helping out with their bigs at the rim. And then, while our guards are helping out with their bigs at the rim, their guards are trailing and getting open threes and our bigs aren’t helping our guards. So it’s like a snowball effect.

“We showed two clips at halftime where Pau stayed in the paint not guarding anybody and somebody was guarding his man because he was one of the last guys down the floor, and Andre Miller hits a wide-open three. Same with Drew, he’s supposed to be guarding Gallinari because Steve Blake picked up his guy at the rim, and Gallinari hits a wide-open three. That’s just one of the things that we’re not getting from our bigs. So our bigs are going to have to step up. They’re going to have to produce, and not just points-wise; on both ends of the floor.”

Bryant, who said his hotel room “resembled a scene from The Exorcist” after a day of doing battle with his digestive system, agreed Bynum and Gasol let down their teammates, but also pointed out such playoff stumbles aren’t unprecedented.

“We let each other down, for sure,” he said. “We didn’t step up and meet their energy. (Bynum and Gasol) know that and I expect them to come out in Game 7 and play with a sense of urgency and a sense of desperation that wasn’t there the last two games.

“I can speak from experience that I’ve been in series in our first championship run, 2000, where we wind up going to five games, at the time the first round was five games, against a Sacramento team. We got pushed to the brink against Houston in our championship runs. So these sorts of things do happen. In 2008, we met a Boston team in the Finals that got pushed to a Game 7 against an up-and-coming, young Atlanta team. So these sorts of things do happen. And you just have to respond.”

Bryant also said he’s looking forward to getting back teammate Ron Artest — a.k.a. Metta World Peace — in Game 7. Artest’s suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden ended with Game 6.

“I expect him to come out and play with the tenacity that he’s known for,” Bryant said. “He’s the one guy that I can rely on, night in and night out, to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and play with no fear. So I look forward to having that by my side again.”

Nuggets coach George Karl expects all these fighting words to have a predictable effect in L.A.

“The Lakers, I have no doubt they’re going to come out with the best game they’ve played all series,” he said. “We’ve just got to be better.”

Karl Mecklenburg: “I have good days and bad days.”

From NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference on Feb. 1, 2008, the Friday before Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Arizona:

Me: As you may know, in a forthcoming book, a forensic pathologist who did brain autopsies on Mike Webster, Terry Long and Andre Waters suggests that there is a syndrome that some football players suffer from that is similar to the syndrome that some boxers suffer from in terms of brain damage from repeated head trauma. He urges that the league and the union pay for continued medical follow-up for all retired NFL players to determine just how serious of a problem this is. My question is: Do you acknowledge that this is an issue, and would you support that sort of comprehensive follow-up for all retired players?

Goodell: Two points: I think we’ve been very clear about concussions and the importance of dealing with concussions as a medical issue, making sure that we take a very conservative approach that would make sure that we are doing everything to benefit the players’ health and safety. I don’t think any of those claims are backed up by scientific or medical facts. That’s what we’re trying to deal with. We have a committee that has been dealing with concussions for twelve or thirteen years now, which has done ground-breaking research. Certainly, I think we will continue to do this and focus on this. In fact, they are doing a study on former players to make sure they understand, from a scientific and medical standpoint, what is the long-term effect of concussions. I don’t think any of us has an answer to that, and we would like to get that answer, but we’d like to get it on a factual basis, rather than making a lot of charges that can’t be supported medically.”

If he had it to do over again with the benefit of more than four years of hindsight, my guess is Goodell would change that answer quite substantially. The NFL committee on brain injuries to which he referred was subsequently so discredited as an apologist for the league that its co-chairmen, Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano, resigned in November 2009.

The book to which I referred in my 2008 question, Play Hard, Die Young: Football, Dementia, Depression and Death, by forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, has only gained credibility as more former NFL players have acknowledged suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and/or taken their lives since its publication in 2008, among them Shane Dronett (2009), Dave Duerson (2011) and Junior Seau just last week.

Former Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg is one of sixty plaintiffs in one of the numerous lawsuits against the NFL for its treatment of head injuries over the years. More than 1,200 former players are now named in over fifty separate cases. Former Broncos safety Dennis Smith is a plaintiff alongside Mecklenburg in the action filed in Pennsylvania. Former quarterback Jeff Hostetler is the lead plaintiff in that case.

“I have good days and bad days,” Mecklenburg said this week on the Dave Logan Show. “I have days I have a tough time remembering people’s names. I travel all the time as a motivational speaker and I’ve got to park on the same side of the airport, same level, same row, so I know exactly where my car is when I get back, because I have no idea otherwise. Stuff like that.

“When I go into the hotel room on the road I take out my cell phone and take a picture of the room number and then I know where it is. It’s one of those things you adjust to. And I can’t tell you how much of that is who I am and how much of that is football-related. But I think it’s a little unusual for someone fifty-one years old to be having those kind of issues.”

Like a lot of his fellow plaintiffs, Mecklenburg wonders whether the NFL knew of the potentially devastating effects of head injuries even as its in-house committee was insisting for more than a dozen years that the research was inconclusive.

“If you look historically at what has happened in the NFL and what change has happened, it’s when there’s legal pressure brought on the league,” Mecklenburg said.

“Individually, a guy like (Broncos owner) Pat Bowlen is a wonderful human being, a guy that I’d do anything for. But collectively, the league is in business to make money. They’re not going to do anything that kills the golden goose if they can possibly help it. It’s a contact game, it’s a dangerous game, but you can limit the amount of injuries, especially head injuries, if you legislate for that.

“Since things have come to light, or since they’ve decided that it’s OK for things to come to light, there’s all kinds of rules against going after the head and causing those kind of injuries. And when it happens, it’s taken seriously, where ten years ago I don’t know that the league didn’t already understand that there were long-term effects to head injuries, and the players were told over and over again that that’s not true.

“So, to me, to force the league to say, ‘You know what, the best interest of the players is also in our best interest,’ is really what I’m looking for, and what I’m hoping the other guys are looking for, too.”

As the death toll among former players by their own hands has mounted, there’s been more conversation within the medical community as to whether CTE is the result of major head trauma, what we think of as concussions, or might also be the cumulative effect of hundreds or thousands of minor traumatic incidents that go largely unnoticed, the sort of head-banging that goes on in football practices at every level every day.

“I don’t know,” Mecklenburg said. “That hasn’t been proven one way or another yet. What we do know is that there is a disease called CTE that mimics Alzheimer’s Disease. They’ve identified kind of a rogue protein, the tau protein, that they’ve found in autopsies of guys with this disease, and it’s connected to head blows. And they don’t know whether it’s the one big head blow or a whole bunch of little head blows. They don’t know.

“They realize some people are more susceptible to it than others. But a lot more information has to come in. And hopefully they’re going to be able to find ways to mitigate this thing before it’s an autopsy situation, before forty-three-year-old guys are killing themselves.”

When I mentioned some of the game’s well-known suicide victims, including former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, former Steelers offensive lineman Terry Long and Duerson, the former Bears defensive back, Mecklenburg mentioned Dronett, the Broncos’ second-round draft pick in 1992 and Mecklenburg’s teammate for three years. Dronett, a defensive lineman from the University of Texas, went on to play six seasons for the Falcons after four with the Broncos. He shot himself to death in 2009, nine days after his thirty-eighth birthday.

“Great guy, a fun-loving guy,” Mecklenburg said. “That’s the thing. When you think about these guys and you have first-hand knowledge of them, you realize what wonderful human beings they were, and the last thing you would think that would happen, because every single one of them is outgoing, fun-loving, seemingly very well-balanced emotionally, guys. And then they get this disease and part of the disease is depression. That’s what, I think, separates it from Alzheimer’s. Depression is part of it and when that hits, in my mind, the guys have got to keep track of each other. I don’t think the NFL can do that for us. I don’t think the union can do that for us.

“I really think we’ve got to get some sort of a system going where people are in contact with each other daily and making sure everybody’s OK. I know players who played golf with Junior Seau a week before he killed himself and said he was in great spirits, having a blast messing around with the guys, and . . . and . . . boom. So it’s a scary thing. It’s this time bomb and we don’t know who’s got it, who doesn’t have it. There’s really no way to test for it at this point, and hopefully that’s going to change.”

Note: I’ll be one of the guests tonight (Wednesday, May 9) on Studio 12 (KBDI-Channel 12) from 8-9 p.m. The show, hosted by Steffan Tubbs of 850 KOA, will examine the issue of brain injuries in football.

The Nuggets’ playoff paradox

Danilo Gallinari was lying on the floor when the Lakers took the lead for good in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the Nuggets.

Depending on whom you believe, he had either just been stunned by a blow to his throat delivered by Pau Gasol’s shoulder — “I felt, like, a click, and, I don’t know, I just touched it a little bit and I felt it click back,” Gallo said afterward, waving two fingers over his Adam’s apple — or he was trying to buy a foul call by overreacting to a hard but legal screen.

The referees apparently thought it was the latter because no foul was called, which left the Nuggets in a tough spot — four players defending five in the final minute of a tie game. Normally, when one of your own goes down on a basketball court and there’s no call, you’re supposed to foul to stop the action. The Nuggets didn’t. Moments later, Lakers guard Ramon Sessions hit an open three-pointer to give them an 89-86 lead with forty-eight seconds remaining.

The Nuggets never got closer. The play may end up the turning point in the series. With the game tied at 86, the Nuggets had a chance to even the series at two games apiece. When they lost, it gave the Lakers a prohibitive lead of three games to one. The Nuggets have trailed a playoff series by that margin ten previous times and never come back to win it.

“He’s a big guy, man,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said of the six foot, ten-inch Gallinari. “He can’t flop like that on the screen-and-roll. Pau is not necessarily the strongest guy in the world.”

On the game telecast, analyst Steve Kerr suggested Gallinari did not get the benefit of the call from the referees because European players have a reputation for acting.

“It was just a tough pick,” Gallinari said. “You’ve got to expect that in the playoffs. So myself, I’ve got to be more ready in those situations to get those hits and still be able to play defense. Unfortunately, they had a big shot out of that play. So it was a tough one. We’ve got to rest now and think about Game 5.”

The temptation to blame Gallinari for the outcome should be resisted, however, for two reasons.

First, without him the Nuggets wouldn’t even have been in the game. He was Denver’s best player in Game 4, leading them with twenty points despite being the only player on either side to get into foul trouble.

Second, in the last sixteen playoff games in which they’ve scored fewer than ninety-nine points, the Nuggets’ record is 0-16. Sunday night they finished with eighty-eight, sixteen below their league-leading season average.

This is the Nuggets’ postseason paradox. The team that led the NBA in scoring doesn’t have enough offensive weapons.

For much of the regular season, their speed and athleticism were enough. When you’re outrunning your opponents, anybody who can dunk or make a layup is an offensive weapon, and that’s the whole roster. The Nuggets led the NBA in fast break points, assists and points in the paint.

But in the postseason, when the games slow down and transition buckets are hard to come by, you need players with the offensive skills to score into the teeth of a half-court defensive set with intimidating big men guarding the basket. This is where the Nuggets struggle.

The Lakers have three players — Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum — the Nuggets must assign two defenders, at least some of the time. This creates open shots for role players like the daggers from Sessions and Steve Blake on Sunday night.

Post-Carmelo, the Nuggets have no one like that. The Lakers switch defensive assignments on the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll to try to contain guard Ty Lawson’s quickness, but there’s no one player they feel they have to double-team.

That’s why the Nuggets finished with only eighty-eight points. They got some open looks down the stretch. They just couldn’t knock them down. They don’t have great shooters. And they couldn’t get out and run often enough to get the easy baskets to which they grew accustomed during the regular season.

“Probably there were a couple of stretches during the game where we didn’t run as much as we did in Game 3, and our intensity went down for a couple of stretches,” Gallinari said. “We know that against them we cannot allow ourselves to do that.”

Following their Game 3 victory, coach George Karl said energy, which is reflected in pace and aggressiveness, is the key to the Nuggets’ success. Lawson had twenty-five points and seven assists in Game 3. He had eleven and six in Game 4. I asked Karl if Lawson was as aggressive Sunday as he’d been two nights before.

“I probably never feel Ty is aggressive enough,” Karl said. “I think he should be more aggressive almost every night. I don’t know how crowded it was in there on his decisions on not attacking a little bit more to the rim. The film will show that. My thing is I like to see Ty drive the ball in the paint thirty to forty times a game. I think he’s that good and I think he’s that important to us.”

The Lakers made more of an effort to get back on defense and foil Lawson’s penetration in Game 4. They also made more of an effort to rebound the ball. After losing the battle of the glass by ten Friday night, they won it by ten Sunday. Nuggets center JaVale McGee went from sixteen points and fifteen rebounds to eight and four. Power forward Kenneth Faried went from twelve and fifteen to six and seven.

“Us guards had to get in there and rebound,” said the Lakers’ Bryant, who had more boards (eight) than any Nuggets player. “A lot of times our bigs are out of position because of the rotations in the pick-and-roll coverages. McGee and Faried have been doing a great job coming in on top of them and crashing the glass. So we had to get in there with the big guys and mix it up, put some bodies on them and try to control the glass ourselves.”

“Basically, JaVale and Kenneth outworked their big guys in Game 3 and they outworked us in Game 4,” Karl said. “Sometimes the luck of the flow of the game comes your way and I think it came their way in Game 3. (Sunday) we didn’t have the extra effort, energy, luck that sometimes comes by playing hard. I think we gave some things back a little bit and I think we were maybe surprised by their pushing and shoving and powering the game.”

Karl was clearly frustrated by the referees, who called nineteen fouls on the Nuggets and thirteen on the Lakers, even though the Nuggets had more points in the paint and more fast break points, generally the measuring sticks of aggressiveness. Still, both teams struggled to make free throws, so the scoring difference at the line ended up being just two points.

“We shoot twelve free throws, six of them by McGee and none by our guards,” Karl said. Actually, he meant starting guards. Reserve guard Andre Miller shot two. Bryant was not called for a single personal foul all night while Gallinari was called for five, forcing him to the bench for a time in the fourth quarter.

“There were some tough calls, but the referees are there to do their best job and I’m on the court doing the best job I can, so I’m not thinking about the calls,” said Gallo. He did kick a door on his way to the locker room after the game, but that might have been general frustration. “We have to think as a team about the mistakes and the things that we didn’t do as well as we did in Game 3 and try to do those things even better in Game 5 because I think especially in L.A. it’s going to be even more intense.”

Bryant, who reacted sarcastically to my question about Gallo’s defense on him following the Lakers’ Game 3 loss, was more gracious in victory.

“Gallo plays hard, man,” he said. “I gave him some (grief) the other night, but he plays really hard, man. He competes and he steps up to the plate and doesn’t back down, so I appreciate that.”

With one day to travel and prepare for Game 5 on Tuesday, the Nuggets have two choices: They can rediscover their energy and extend the series or they can end their season in L.A.

“Losing’s no fun,” Karl said. “I’m not unhappy with my team. I’m not unhappy with where we’re at. I wish it was 2-2, but I still think we’ve got a series to play and it’s going to be fun on Tuesday night. I think it’s a powerful challenge to us. And I don’t think it’s an impossible challenge. I think it’s a great challenge for this young team.”