Ruminations on putting the band back together

Recapturing the good old days is a wistful preoccupation, caught somewhere between tradition and nostalgia. But it’s not always as desperate and hopeless as cynics suggest, particularly in the world of sports, where tradition still matters.

The Broncos brought back John Elway, to promising results so far, and Joe Sakic is in training for a similar second act with the Avalanche. So the Rockies’ reach back into their own brief history for a new manager and hitting coach seems less like desperation than finally staking a claim to an organizational identity.

They may not have Hall of Fame legends like Elway and Sakic to call on, but the Rocks do have a cheerful band of brothers that remembers when big league baseball was new in Colorado and everybody was too thrilled to complain about its . . . uh . . . idiosyncrasies.

When I asked Dante Bichette, the old Blake Street Bomber and new hitting coach, if it felt like they were getting the band back together, he laughed.

“Absolutely, man!” he said. “Bring ’em on back. Every organization has their guys. The Rockies don’t have a long history. We don’t have Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, but this is what we’ve got and we understand what it was like in the beginning, how special these fans are. So absolutely, I want to perform for fans there because they were so good to me. That’s a little motivation there.”

Bringing back Bichette and Walt Weiss, the Rocks’ new manager, is about more than connecting with a happier time. After all, the art of pitching, the most inscrutable and important of baseball’s secrets, was at least as mysterious then as it is now, particularly here, a mile above sea level, where breaking balls betray their name and fly balls, like field goals, fly a little bit farther.

No, it’s also about putting today’s club in the hands of people familiar with the issues unique to Colorado, people unafraid to confront them.

“I believe you’ve got to be tougher and you’ve got to be smarter to play here than just about anyplace else,” Weiss said last week as he became the Rocks’ sixth manager and their first former player to take the job.

“That could be a badge of honor, but we’ve got to be smart, too, about the grind of the game here — recovery here and all those things that there’s been a lot of research on, particularly lately. Those are all factors about how you run a club. But you’ve got to be tougher, and more than anything, mentally tougher, and smarter than most. That’s something we should take pride in and we should embrace.”

Weiss thus becomes the Rockies’ first manager to acknowledge and confront on Day One the unique challenges of playing 81 games a season at Coors Field. For most of their history, Rocks managers have believed that ignoring these issues, or at least not talking about them, was the best approach.

The theory went something like this: If you acknowledge publicly the challenges that no one inside the sport denies, you’ve given your players a ready excuse when they fail. This theory was propounded in the organization’s early days, before data piled up to confirm the message that intuition and observation had already delivered. So, in a reflexive nod to the macho culture of athletics, the Rocks’ message to their players was simple: Ignore it, be mentally tough, overcome it. Heck, maybe it will go away.

The last two seasons, and particularly this last one, the worst in franchise history, changed all that. For one thing, a management team that has been around for more than half the club’s history was as surprised as anyone by their charming ballpark’s sudden nostalgia for horror movies of the past. Mike Hampton was back, but his name was Jeremy Guthrie. Thankfully, the lesson he repeated — some pitchers just can’t handle it here — came at a much cheaper cost.

In the face of a debilitating drought across the western United States, with forest fires raging, the ball flew as it hadn’t since the humidor was installed at Coors Field in 2002. The Rocks had their own little version of climate change, quite a challenge for sports executives whose analytical skills had previously been focused principally on bullpens and batting cages.

The players, of course, have been dealing with all this stuff for years. They just didn’t talk much about it because that was against club policy. It made you weak.

Even aside from the screamingly obvious — the great Greg Maddux became thoroughly ordinary at Coors Field, as if the green seats were made of kryptonite — the symptoms were largely ignored. An ESPN blogger wrote recently that Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is clearly not a superstar because he hits only at Coors Field, citing his .234 batting average on the road last season.

Of course, if you’ve followed the Rocks for more than about five minutes, you know this has been a pattern for 20 years. Home/road splits of more than 100 points, unheard of elsewhere, are routine here. Bichette was working on this before anybody. Back in the 1990s, he took a pitching machine on the road with him — general manager Bob Gebhard called it a curveball machine — trying to acclimate to sea-level breaking balls so his performance wouldn’t fall off a cliff each time the Rocks hit the road.

“I don’t want to give all my secrets away, but the breaking ball . . . you see ’em on the road,” he said this week. “You go on the road and they throw breaking balls. And then at home, it doesn’t quite break. There’s where the problem lies. I don’t think it’s from the light air as far as the ball traveling, it’s more in the breaking balls that are hanging up and they get hit harder. The home/road, I don’t care who you bring in there, they struggle a little bit on the road. So there’s something there and I’ve just tried to figure that out. The curveball machine’s a good idea. I’ve got some other ideas that hopefully we can get them to understand that.”

Weiss’ plan is pretty much the opposite of the organization’s approach in the past. Rather than ignore or downplay the difficulties of playing at Coors, he wants to recognize them and emphasize them in the minds of visitors — sort of the way the Nuggets remind visitors of the thin air with elevation signs before running them into exhaustion.

“I think we’ve got to understand the vulnerability of the opposing pitcher,” Weiss said. “They’re more vulnerable here than they are anywhere else. I don’t care what they say; that’s a fact. I played here as an opposing player with some of the best that have ever stepped on the mound and I know what their mindset is. So that’s got to be our mentality, that we need to exploit that.”

He was referring to the great Braves staffs that included Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who welcomed most challenges but dreaded pitching at Coors Field. Of course, the Rocks can take advantage of opposing pitchers only if their own are far better equipped to deal than they were last season.

“That’s going to be part of this process,” Weiss said. “With some arms getting healthy, that’s going to help us. We’ve got some young arms. No doubt they’re going to have to grow up at the major league level quickly, but we’ve got some young power arms . . . .

“Learning how to pitch here, that’s something that we’ll spend a lot of time on so that we have a plan, a better plan than the opposing team is going to have, when they take the mound. Again, we’ve got to look at it as an advantage for us. That’s how we’ve got to approach all the aspects of playing here. The challenges are unique here, but so are the advantages, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

Frankly, I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s clearly the attitude the club needs to take. Only a much larger swath of history will tell us if the challenges Weiss referred to can be overcome with any consistency. It was only three years ago that the Rocks had the best starting rotation in the National League when measured by advanced metrics that take into account ballpark factors. Five pitchers — Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook — started all but seven of the team’s 162 games in 2009, and the Rocks went to the playoffs. Within two years, all five had either broken down physically or regressed dramatically.

Why? Twenty years of data suggested two things to Rockies management. First, pitchers generally put more strain on their shoulders and elbows here trying to make pitches bite and cut the way they do at sea level. That doesn’t have any long-term effect on visitors who pitch here only occasionally, but over time, for pitchers making half their starts here, it leads to more injuries. Second, the frustration so obvious in Hampton and Guthrie manifests itself more subtly in other psyches, producing more nibbling, more fear of throwing strikes.

So last year the front office came up with the much-maligned four-man, paired pitching rotation in which the starter was limited to roughly 75 pitches and a second pitcher was designated to replace him and carry the game to the point where the bullpen would normally take over. The pitch limit was designed to encourage strike throwing and discourage fatigue-related injuries. This was an approach that had been discussed as far back as a decade ago, when the concerns were still mostly intuitive. Bob McClure, then the pitching coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs and later pitching coach for the Royals and Red Sox, was one of the first members of the Rockies organization to think about new approaches to pitching here.

Unfortunately, the Rocks implemented the plan during a season in which they had lost virtually their entire starting rotation to injury. The kids they put in their place weren’t ready, and no system was going to compensate for starting pitching that finished with a league-worst earned-run average of 5.81.

The organization also got pushback from its own clubhouse, including manager Jim Tracy, prompting it to give assistant general manager Bill Geivett a new title — director of major league operations — along with a desk in the clubhouse. There were going to be more experiments to deal with the challenges at Coors, and GM Dan O’Dowd thought the club needed better communication and coordination between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel.

Tracy resigned at season’s end rather than honor the final year of his contract under these circumstances. The new arrangement was considered something of an overhang on the search for his replacement. As a novice, Weiss isn’t worried about it.

“To be honest, it’s not a great concern of mine,” he said. “Geivo I look at as a great resource for me. He knows the game well, he’s got a sharp mind, he knows our club really well, he’s a guy I can lean on. There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for me. Regardless of how much time I’ve spent around the game and 21 years at the big league level, still I’ve never sat in the manager’s seat. I’m not afraid to say that. He’s a guy that I’ll lean on as well as other guys on our staff until I find a rhythm of certain aspects of the job. It’s not an issue for me; it’s not a concern.”

On the offensive side, the Rocks have bounced from one extreme to the other over the past few years. Don Baylor, their original manager, was replaced as hitting coach two years ago because he was considered too laid back. Carney Lansford was replaced this fall because he was considered too Type A, too pushy.

Bichette, the Rocks hope, will be just right. For veterans who know what they’re doing, he said, he may do little more than organize batting practice. With younger players who need instruction, he plans to be more active. One of Bichette’s greatest strengths as a player was hitting with two strikes, a skill he believes might improve the Rocks’ clutch hitting generally.

“You’ve got to let the ball get a little deeper with two strikes,” he said. “To me, two-strike hitting and hitting in the clutch go hand in hand because when you’re sitting with two strikes, that pitcher’s trying to punch you out. He’s throwing his nastiest pitch on the corner, trying to get you to chase. And it’s very similar when you get guys in scoring position. Pitchers aren’t coming to you. They’re trying to get you to chase. So those things I kind of felt like I figured out a little bit, and hopefully I can relay that to some of the younger players.”

There’s no substitute for experience. That’s a cliche because it’s true. Weiss and Bichette have no experience in their new jobs at the major league level. On the other hand, they are the first generation of leaders in uniform that also wore Rockies pinstripes as players. They have experience doing what they will now ask others to do.

Whether it actually helps remains to be seen. It is just one of the experiments the Rocks are likely to try in the coming year. But it is more than a feel-good exercise. It is more than looking back wistfully at a happier time. It is an attempt to recognize the unique challenges this club faces and to put it in the hands of men who know from personal experience exactly what they are.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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