Friday, October 05, 2007

Add Another Chapter to the Cinderella Story

This Colorado Rockies season has already progressed beyond believability for even the cheesiest, schmaltziest sports movie. Come on, they're the (possibly, depending on your proclivities and/or geographic orientation) lovable underdogs coming into the 2007 season, their only playoff appearance a distant 12-year-old memory in which they won exactly one game before being four-and-out to the eventual Series champion Braves. They were generally picked to finish last, and I gave them a five-game improvement to a break-even 81-81 mark. (In my preseason predictions, I also really, really underestimated Tulo. I am so sorry, Troy. Call me, and we'll get an arrangement worked out for me to bear your children. Wait, what? [whistles]).

Anyway, this year, they start off 18-27, making all the naysayers look pretty much dead accurate. Then, from May 22, they have the best record in baseball second only to those damn Yankees. They never lead the Wild Card all year and on the last day of the season they manage to scratch into a tie. They play a tiebreaker at home, go down 8-6 in the bottom of the 13th against the all-time saves leader, then win on a play at the plate that will likely go down in postseason lore as The Slide (as compared to Jeremy Giambi, which was The (Non) Slide). Then they win the wild card and meet a similarly hot team in the Phillies, who went 13-4 down the stretch to blow over the hollow-men Mets. Then they win the first two on the road in front of the notoriously (un)friendly Philly crowd, including getting a grand slam from their second baseman Matsui, who hit four homers all year and whose Major League total stands at a whopping 17. Now they go home to a Coors that will be on fire, sold out, and ready to cheer their boys onto their first-ever NLCS (knock on wood).

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, of course. 2-0 is great, but it's not 3-0. We're still nine innings away from the Pre-Pre-Promised Land (Championship) series, 36 innings away from the Pre-Promised Land (the NL pennant) and a further 36 innings away from the Promised Land (World Series victory). What the team has done in terms of bearing down and focusing on each game at a time, instead of trying to comprehend the fact that they've now won 16 of 17 to close the season and charge into the spot they're currently in, cannot be understated. This is a group of young guys playing with maturity and focus beyond their years, a group that finished .5 games behind the D-backs (if both teams can hang on to their respective 2-all edges, they'll be on target to collide in a Wild Wild West NLCS, probably the sports networks' worst nightmare) for the best record in the NL. A group led by a wily veteran (Helton) up-and-coming mashers who are finally getting the attention they deserve (Holliday, Hawpe, Atkins) and a true rookie superstar (Troy Tulowitzki) they are also a supreme example of class, grace, and dignity off the field.

Here's why: The Rockies voted, unanimously, to allocate a full playoff share to Amanda Coolbaugh, the pregnant widow of AA coach Mike, killed July 22 while coaching first base for the Drillers, their minor-league affiliate. This is made even more touching and heartbreaking by the fact that Coolbaugh only joined the organization a few weeks before he died, and only a few players personally knew him, yet they are stepping up to help out those he left behind. Amanda, aside from expecting her third child any day now, has two pre-school-aged sons; Joseph, 5, and Jacob, 3. You can imagine that an AA coach isn't making very much, and the players receive 60% of the gate take for each playoff game. If they go on to the World Series, this amount could be as much as $362,000. For comparison, Atkins makes $400,000 -- that's almost doubling his salary.

And yet this group of young players, without telling the media, without being prodded by management to repair their image, quietly chose to give it to someone who needed it more than they do. For comparison, the Rockies' payroll is $54.4 million, and 30% of that ($16.6 million) is going to Todd. A fair number of them are making the league minimum, and the second-highest-paid player after Helton is Holliday, who's making $4.4 million (the potential and deserving NL MVP, folks). It is so incredibly rare to hear about players voluntarily turning down more money and giving it to someone who doesn't have as much, in a time of great need, that it's just an amazingly classy gesture by a team of not just players, but friends, fellow community members, and men. These players directly passed on padding their own pockets like so many of their peers, and it shines a spotlight on the quality of the character in that clubhouse.

Contrast this to the main Broncos story, which features Travis Henry getting arrested again for marijuana possession and the revelation he has nine children by nine different women. (Wow, the football version of Elijah Dukes). The Rockies are not only winners, they are the epitome of humbleness, class, and selflessness. I could simply not be more proud of them (but I'm sure that if they kept moving up, it might be possible...) To judge from the comments on ESPN, the Rockies not only pulled off a miraculous late-season run, they are winning the hearts of America by reminding us that not all professional athletes are lowlife thugs. It is a refreshing and truly touching change. I salute them.

One other thing, in case you're having different ideas about where this altruism stems from: You may have heard a lot about the erroneous "Team Jesus" article that got published in USA Today, suggesting the Rockies only draft Christian players and that their clubhouse is some weird version of Bible camp, where Maxims, Playboys, and sexually explicit music are banned and they spend all their time praying and reading Scripture. I feel as if I have to refute this misperception at every turn, so here we go again: That article was a factually incorrect exaggeration based on the beliefs of the front office and a few of the players. And even those players (Cook, Helton, Holliday) aren't happy at all with that story and how they were portrayed.

Fact is, despite the great diversity of backgrounds and ethnic origins, there is no schism among the guys whatsoever; as Cook puts it, "I've never even seen a Bible out in the open in the clubhouse." And far from proselytizing every chance he gets, Holliday, who is religious, likes to keep it quiet and doesn't think it has to do with baseball. The guys in the clubhouse love each other and pull for each other hard. And we look for players with character as well as talent, just so we don't end up with Kyle Farnsworth-like @$$holes on the team (and if even that was so important, how did Jose Mesa end up here for one brief and deeply forgettable season?) Not necessarily religious. There are a few guys who are, as there are on any club, but it's by no means the "Team Jesus" that certain bloggers would have you believe. We're not sanctimonious holier-than-thou missionaries, we're a diverse blend of young guys having fun. Jason Hirsh, who is Jewish, was asked about the supposed Christianity bias in an interview with MLB Trade Rumors a while back, and said he hadn't noticed a thing, and had never played with a nicer and more welcoming group of guys. He was excited to be a Rockie, and this was well before our fairy tale run, so all the more power to him...

Anybody and everybody is welcome in the clubhouse, which is fantastically tight-knit and supportive of all comers. Not all the guys are Christians, and those that are are the best kind, of outreaching, supportive, genuinely nice and humble individuals instead of narrow-minded, vitriol-spewing bigots. Those that are religious are not unduly dragging it into the public eye. You should wikipedia the Rockies and read their response to the article, published in the Denver Post, and if you watched the Rockies Spotlight on Holliday, you'll see him roll his eyes and refer to the USA Today reporter as "that guy." This is not some sort of exclusive "good ol' boys" club.

Hopefully we got that straightened out; I'm tired of having to refute it at every turn. And no matter what started it, the gesture to a grieving widow was a fantastically classy, mature, and professional thing to do, and hopefully the boys can go out in front of a fanatically supportive home crowd and finish the job in three, moving on again with their fairytale season. Coolbaugh's two sons will be throwing out the first pitch -- how more Hollywood can you get?! -- and since Denver has gone deep purple with Rockies fever, it would be great to nail the thing down on the first crack. God, so nervous.

P.S. Colorado niceness has to go out the window. I want people above the 'pen razzing Jamie Moyer during his warmups, and I want Rollins to be as viciously treated as Holliday was in Philly. We're real baseball fans now, not just people going to a game to spend an evening, and it needs to be recognized. Besides, if we lose Game 3, Mark Redman is starting a potential Game 4, and the last thing we want is to send the series back to Philly tied and Cole Hamels on the hill for the clincher. Beating him once was great, but let's not count on having to do it again.


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