Baseball Season Preview: Colorado Rockies

You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.

Well, we're about a month away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Colorado Rockies. Your author is Mark T.R. Donohue.

Mark T.R. Donohue is a freelance writer, serial blogger, and member in good standing of the Baseball Toaster cartel. He lives in Boulder, Col. His words are after the jump.

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The 90's were a tough decade for movie villain accents. During that strange ten-year interregnum between the time when we spent every day fearing Communist eschaton and these heady modern times where our nightmares mostly concern being blown to smithereens by the villainous jabbering fundamentalist puppets from the film Team America, a lot of new cultures offered themselves up for stock heavy roles and were found wanting. The Chinese? Too alien. The French? Too obvious. Michael Moore and the "South Park" guys tried really hard to get something going with Canada, but it didn't take. Maybe we should have narrowed our focus in on the Quebecois. That might have been enough to save at least one of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies but still: Hollywood would have missed the Iron Curtain something fierce. Hans Gruber, where you have gone? Not to mention the East German Women's Olympic Team from Top Secret!

In the absence of any really good stock villains in which to sink our teeth, coming of age in the 90's was all about finding out that things we all thought were great and beneficial were, in truth, terrible for us. In the absence of real paranoia, our television news industry is singularly skilled at creating artificial panic. Cell phones? They cause cancer. The Internet? It has transformed us into a nation of near-illiterates who can't write or sit still long enough to read anything more taxing than a take-out menu. Rampant expansion of our pro sports leagues? Well, has your life been made any better by the existence of the Florida Panthers or the Minnesota Timberwolves?

The lesson of the 90's was that in the absence of a clearly defined bogeyman our culture tends to immediately begin eating itself from the inside. We're not grown up enough for world peace, apparently. I'm old enough now to have absorbed this lesson, but the psychological damage from having grown up in the Bush I/Clinton "now that nothing stands against us, watch us either remain motionless or possibly even slide slightly backwards" age persists. After an adolescence spent watching umpteen "Next Generation" holodeck episodes, viewing movies where at the end it turns out the villain ... is the hero! (like Fight Club and Usual Suspects), and goggling in disbelief at sports theater of the absurd like Pete Rose's fall from grace, the Olympic sprinter steroid scandals, and Michael Jordan's career as a Birmingham Baron, I have come to the unshakable conclusion that nothing is what it appears it to be. Since none of the information I'm being presented is the whole truth, and I can only form opinions based on the facts I've been given, this extends to myself. I'm an unreliable source. I don't know if I believe the things I believe or whether I'm just pretending. I don't genuinely know if I really like the music I like or whether I just want to be perceived as the kind of cerebral uptown intellectual type who has biographies of John Cage and Ornette Coleman displayed prominently on his bookshelf as a matter of course. I've been losing sleep lately over the notion that my fondness for Barack Obama is founded on his race and not his politics. Given the choice, I'd much rather be a little younger, and live in fear of terrorists, or a little older and fear the H-bomb. But I was born when I was and I have to live with the fact that my worst enemy is my own brain.

Which brings us to the Colorado Rockies, another thing launched with great fanfare in the 1990's that ultimately might not have been such a good idea. Since its inception in 1993, Denver's baseball team has finished with a winning record four times (and three of those times were either 82-80 or 83-79) and made the playoffs once, winning a single NLDS game in 1995 against the eventual champion Braves. During that run they've committed a number of crimes against fashion (including sleeveless black jerseys with silver trim and, I swear, purple undershirts), tried to invalidate a guy's contract for soliciting an undercover cop for sex, lost a promising young catcher to Parkinson's syndrome, signed Mike Hampton to the worst free agent deal in the game's history, unleashed the twin horrors of Neifi Perez and Juan Pierre on an unsuspecting league and lost a shortstop on pace to win NL Rookie of the Year when he fell down a flight of stairs, overburdened by deer meat. My first Opening Day in Colorado, the Rockies won the game on a walk-off homer — and lost Dustan Mohr for several weeks when he injured his ankle celebrating the homer a little too enthusiastically.

I can't construct any reasonable argument for anyone to become a Rockies fan. (Neither, apparently, can the team; their business model focuses on selling as many as season tickets as possible to local corporations that mostly won't use them and jacking up the ticket price scale for holidays and series against the Cubs,
Mets and, in 2007, the Yankees.) Most of the things I find endearing about Colorado baseball simply wouldn't make any sense to a non-fan. While even presently down-on-their-luck franchises like Pittsburgh and Kansas City have collective memories of past glories, Rockies fans, such as they are, tend to commiserate over entirely bizarre things, like that time the ball somehow managed to come to a complete stop in one of the little number wells on the manually operated out-of-town scoreboard in right at Coors Field. Or the time when Brad Hawpe inadvertently scuttled the Cubs' season by banking a screamer off Mark Prior's elbow.

So misunderstood are the Rockies that, for the first 10 years or so they were in existence, the principal debate which raged around them regarded a problem they didn't in fact have. "How can Colorado win at altitude?" all of the columnists asked. Well, they can and they do win at altitude, at a rather better clip than you would expect, given how terrible overall they've been. The trouble is that they always get murdered on the road, for which there is no shortcut or secret weapon.

This season is going to be much like the last few. Since general manager Dan O'Dowd disastrously signed Hampton and the overly neighborly Denny Neagle in the 2000-01 offseason, ownership has decided to concentrate on building from within. The difference on the field is negligible, but ideologically it does feel better to root for a bunch of overachieving no-names than a bunch of overpaid veteran mediocrities. Spending $40 million to win 75 games is better than spending $80 million to...also win 75 games.

The Rockies have finally assembled a respectable core of players developed in the organization after disregarding their farm system for their first decade as a franchise. Now they're moving on schedule into an era of free agency tirelessly eroding that core. This winter they've traded Jason Jennings, the best pitcher in franchise history, and they've sold hard on Todd Helton, the best position player. Matt Holliday will be the next to leave. Colorado's owners, the somewhat reviled, mostly ignored brothers Monfort, assure what survives of the fanbase that in some point in time payroll will rise, but they face a poser of a chicken-and-egg scenario. The fans won't come back until the team wins, but the team won't win until the owners spend money to keep guys like Jennings and Holliday and Brian Fuentes and Garrett Atkins. And the owners won't spend money until the fans come back. You can see how quickly this becomes exhausting.

While they won't be contending in 2007, the Rockies have a lot of guys worth watching. Jeff Francis is a classic crafty lefty, looks like he's about 14, and is Canadian to boot. Atkins has a chance in only his third full season to make Rockies fans forget about Vinny Castilla, who, pathetically, is the greatest player in franchise history after Helton. The farm system has continued paying dividends, and Jeff Baker, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta will all be at least upgrades from last season at their positions and possibly much more.

Even in the watered-down National League, I don't expect that minor improvements on offense and in the bullpen will be enough to offset the loss of Jennings. While last year, the Rockies had one of the better rotations in the league (they led the NL in starters' ERA for a long stretch at midseason, no joke), this season they'll be back to their more familiar mishmash of question marks, injury risks, last-chancers and no-hopers. (Next year, if I'm lucky enough to get this gig again, I'll probably be writing about how the emergence of Jason Hirsh or another young pitcher won't be enough to offset the loss of Holliday.)

So why do I carry on with this team with no history and no chance of imminent relevance? What keeps me going to Rockies-Diamondbacks games at Coors with announced attendance of 15,000 and actual seat coverage of half that? Well, it ought to be obvious. My love for the Rockies is the one thing in my life about which I'm sure. It's pure. I have absolutely nothing to gain from it. It's not making me friends or influencing people. It's not making me happy in any lasting way, since whenever Colorado does manage to edge its way into a tie for third or creep within three or four games of the .500 mark, a 2-9 road trip through San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego must be right around the corner.

Even if the unthinkable happens and the Rockies somehow turn it around and become perennial contenders, I will be too busy sniping and grumbling about all the "Rockies fans" who weren't at the games (or worse, were in attendance in Yankees and Dodgers and Red Sox regalia) I will go to this year to really enjoy it. The way I was raised, being a fan shouldn't bring with it any kind of extrinsic benefit. Like any good cult, your baseball team ought to take everything you have and give nothing in return except for the knowledge that you have it in you to commit yourself fully to something for no good reason.

Which is a lot, really, and why I love the Rockies more and more with every fourth-place finish.

See, I mentioned that I came of age in the 90's, but I didn't say where. I'm from the north side of Chicago.